TORONTO — For the second time in five days, the homeless Toronto Blue Jays watched as a stadium plan fell apart in front of their eyes Wednesday when Pennsylvania state health authorities put the kibosh on a deal between the club and the Pittsburgh Pirates to play out of PNC Park.
Tick, tock ... the clock on the Blue Jays’ home opener, scheduled for July 29, is down to just seven days.
Of the known options we reported Monday, there are three left: Camden Yards in Baltimore, Sahlen Field in Buffalo, or a trek back down to the COVID-19 hotbed of Florida to play out of their spring training complex in Dunedin.
A fourth option of the Jays barnstorming and playing as the home team in that particular opponent’s stadium was floated Wednesday, but the organization — and the players would have all the say in this, as they did over the weekend when the Jays’ front office went seeking an MLB ballpark — would have to weigh having their own setup in Buffalo versus a 66-day road trip and no home base for the 30 games it will bat last in front of zero fans.
The Pittsburgh plan fell apart for the exact same reasons the Toronto plan did Saturday when the Canadian federal government decided there was too much risk to public health to allow the Jays to fly south to places like Tampa and Miami, as well as those teams flying north, Rogers Centre/hotel quarantine bubble aside.
That’s on Major League Baseball’s plan, one that includes lots of testing, but no bubble, lots of travel, and many, many ways you can envision things going sideways as the U.S. attempts to rein in a pandemic that even has the U.S. President warning it will get worse, a stark departure from his usual messaging.
The deal with the Pirates, an organization ready, willing and on record wanting to help the Jays, was signed off on by both clubs, and players inside the hotel in Boston on Wednesday thought they were going to be calling PNC Park home.
They also thought next week’s home-and-home series at Nationals Park in Washington was now going to be a home-and-“home” with the Jays batting last in the final two games of the four pack.
That’s how far down the road this had gone, again, and the Jays were confident it would get final approval, again.
Then the Pennsylvania Department of Health weighed in late in the afternoon.
“In recent weeks, we have seen a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in southwestern Pennsylvania,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said in a statement. “To add travelers to this region for any reason, including for professional sports events, risks residents, visitors and members of both teams. We know that this virus does not discriminate, and can even make professional athletes very sick. We are committed to protecting the health and well-being of all Pennsylvanians.”
End of story.
Now it’s on to the next option, likely a push to convince Maryland that the extra travellers will pose no risk to public health and a simultaneous negotiation with the Baltimore Orioles to convince them that sharing a facility in a time of social distancing is a smart plan.
For that plan to work, scheduling conflicts for two series, July 29-Aug. 2 and Aug. 14-16, would have to be resolved, but that’s a relatively minor problem that could be solved with some flexibility, likely the Jays playing games as the home team in Washington, Philadelphia and Tampa.
“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,” Jays GM Ross Atkins said Monday. “And to hear our players talk about it, they say, ‘Hey, that wouldn’t be so bad.’”
If not, it could be back to Buffalo, which would not make Jays players happy.
That would also be after not exactly shining positive light on Sahlen Field, with Jays players and management essentially scoffing at a venue generally considered one of the better Triple-A facilities out there.
There are two main issues with their Triple-A affiliate’s ballpark.
The first is the lighting has to be upgraded to comply with MLB requirements.
The second is the amenities are both far from big-league ready and the confines are tight, something players like Randal Grichuk have openly panned this week.
The Jays had an operations team in Buffalo this week, and president Mark Shapiro said Saturday that he’s confident it could be a viable alternative if needed.
“There’s a lot that we have to do and some of it might get done after we start playing, but I’m confident that Buffalo is a viable alternative and that with the amount of resources that we would marshal if we focused solely on Buffalo that we could make it what it needs to be for us in time to play games,” Shapiro said.
Meanwhile, manager Charlie Montoyo has a 30-man roster to set ahead of Thursday’s deadline and a trip to Tampa to prepare for ahead of Friday’s opening day clash with Charlie Morton and the Rays.
Montoyo is trying to keep his group focused on the task at home, not their unenviable situation.
“You have no control over what’s going on, just play the game, play to win and keep going,” manager Charlie Montoyo said of his message to the players Wednesday. “We’ll see where we’re going to play. Don’t worry about the stuff you can’t control.”