TORONTO — Moving parts, variables and contingency plans.
That’s where the Toronto Blue Jays’ stadium search sits with nine days to go until the scheduled “home” opener on July 29 against the Washington Nationals.
Despite all of that uncertainty, Jays GM Ross Atkins is confident they’ll find a suitable solution, one that the club hopes includes cozying up to another major-league team in a road ballpark — or ballparks — for the summer and not setting up shop in Triple-A Buffalo’s Sahlen Field.
The latter is still on the table as one of the plans, but the players stating their preference to call an MLB ballpark home and all of the convenience factors that come along with that is driving the club’s decision-making.
“All things being equal, we would much rather be in a major-league facility. We just have to weigh that with what that means in the world of a pandemic,” Atkins said on a Zoom call Monday afternoon. “With social distancing, sharing a facility, making sure that we’re being safe as an organization and in no way compromising another organization, those are the things that need to be worked through.”
There are options.
There have been conversations with the Pittsburgh Pirates about using PNC Park, where only three scheduling conflicts — July 29, Sept. 8-9, and Sept. 21-24 — would leave them homeless.
The Pirates and GM Ben Cherington, who was just hired away from the Blue Jays over the winter, are on board if they can make it work safely.
“In an effort to help in the return of the game we all love, we continue to have active discussions with Major League Baseball and the Toronto Blue Jays organization regarding the possibility of hosting home games for the Blue Jays at PNC Park this season,” Pirates president Travis Williams said in a Monday statement. “This will be a monumental challenge for our staff, but leaning in to help others is what Pittsburghers do best.
“If we are able to safely accommodate, not only will it bring additional international attention to our city, it will also bring with it jobs and revenue for local hotels, restaurants and other businesses that will support the Blue Jays organization as well as additional visiting teams.”
A hybrid Baltimore-Washington scenario at Camden Yards and Nationals Park is also intriguing.
In Baltimore, only series on July 29-Aug. 2 and Aug. 14-16 conflict, but nearby Washington could be used for those, as the Nationals’ scheduling conflicts don’t pop up until Aug. 25-27, Sept. 7-13 and Sept. 21-27.
There are also scenarios with other MLB ballparks that can be creatively envisioned.
Atkins wouldn’t outline which teams the Jays are talking to or what situation they prefer, but it’s clear Buffalo is now the fallback plan based on both the work needed to be done at Sahlen Field — improved lighting, clubhouse changes and baseball infrastructure like cages and weight rooms — as well as the players’ desire to use a big-league facility.
“There are several scenarios,” Atkins said. “One is that we could be in a minor-league facility. The most likely there would be Buffalo. Two is we’re in a major-league facility that is obviously not our typical home stadium, but we make it our home stadium, with some potential hybrid, with some potential small schedule adjustments that would involve Major League Baseball and would involve, obviously, contributions and open-mindedness from other teams. We’re working through all of those alternatives and we will obviously have a much more extensive update for you when we have a better picture of what’s the most realistic.”
For those wondering why these contingency plans weren’t worked through and ready to go whenever the federal government made a final decision on the viability of Toronto, Atkins says they were.
But they simply needed the situation of the Jays not being able to use Rogers Centre to become a reality before the conversations with Major League Baseball, the MLBPA and other teams could really ramp up.
“It needed to become a reality for all of the stakeholders to put it all systems go into these potential contingencies, and all we could do as an organization was paint them to the best them of our ability,” Atkins said.
“It’s something that we’ve been thinking about for two months and we have well over five solid contingency plans that we need support, we need adjustment and adaptability – not just from this organization but others, and that’s what we’re working through now.”
Major League Baseball and the commissioner’s office have a lot of say in what’s happening, and Atkins feels everyone involved is on the same page as the time crunch starts to become real, with the Jays flying to Boston for a pair of exhibition games Tuesday and Wednesday, before opening day in Tampa on Friday.
“Generally, my perception of how they’re viewing it and thinking about it is, ‘How can they help, how can they support?’” Atkins said. “And we’re all weighing the alternatives and every decision you make it’s weighing the pros and cons with health and safety at the forefront. We’re aligned. We’re 100 per cent aligned with our players, we’re 100 per cent aligned with Major League Baseball.”
As far as clarity, the Jays are working to gain that as soon as possible, but there’s still no deadline.
“Yesterday would be great, right?” Atkins mused. “We’d all love to have direction and clarity.”
With the Jays playing a home-and-home set with the Washington Nationals starting Monday, their Wednesday and Thursday “home” games could simply stay at Nationals Park, leaving the July 31 “home” game against the Philadelphia Phillies as the one to eye.
“As opposed to a minor-league stadium, just staying on the road and being the home team at an away ballpark is something we have to consider,” Atkins said. “And to hear our players talk about it, they say, ‘Hey, that wouldn’t be so bad.’”
The Jays will take 38 players with them to Boston, an eventual 30-man opening day roster and a taxi squad.
The rest of the 60-man player pool is expected to remain in their Marriott City Centre Hotel bubble for the time being before shifting to Buffalo, which would be the team’s alternate training site if they’re in an MLB stadium, or Rochester’s Frontier Field, where the alternate training site would reside if the Jays end up needing to use Sahlen Field.
In Atkins’ view, the players remain upbeat and are aware the situation is one marked by the uncertainty that stretches far beyond baseball.
“I’ve just been so impressed that we haven’t had to remind our players about the situation that the world is in,” Atkins said. “That is not something they’ve lost sight of, even though they are in a bubble, they in a small cohort, in a very different existence than most people in the world right now.”