TORONTO — Describing the past few weeks as “sleepless” as he tries to find a place for the Toronto Blue Jays to run their 60-game sprint, team president Mark Shapiro expects to have that answer within the next couple of days.
With players around baseball set to report to spring training 2.0 on Wednesday, the dialogue between the Blue Jays and the federal government surrounding the team finding a way to skirt the closed border and quarantine rules in order to avoid virus-ridden Florida is still ongoing, leaving Blue Jays players and staff in the same holding pattern they’ve been in all week.
The club has been spending the week planning for two potential scenarios.
The preferred plan is to hold training camp in Toronto.
The only other option on the table currently is to go to their Dunedin facility, in a state where COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing by the day.
Even if the Jays do end up in Dunedin, they’re still hoping to get approval to return north once games start July 23.
In other words, things are very fluid still.
“We always have been planning for a dual scenario where training and games could be in Dunedin and then [regular season] games could be here,” Shapiro said on a conference call with Blue Jays beat writers Friday afternoon. “That has been kind of an underlying reality. As the conditions in Florida got worse and the spike happened — not just in Florida, but, obviously, in 21 states in the U.S. — we raised the possibility of conducting our training in Toronto as every other major-league team is doing at their home stadium. It just seemed like that was a safer alternative and yet still provided us the scale of both the resources and facility that we could conduct a safe and healthy spring training.”
Thanks to the labour war between the league and the players’ union, Shapiro and the Jays were unable to present official MLB health protocols or even make a formal request to play in Toronto until that deal got done.
With that process lasting far longer than anyone could’ve imagined, the timeline for federal approval is now about as tight as it gets.
With the MLB health protocols, as well as the Jays’ modified quarantine plan that would use Rogers Centre and the adjacent hotel, in the hands of all three levels of government, the team is crossing its fingers.
Shapiro called the dialogue with Toronto Mayor John Tory and Ontario Premier Doug Ford “encouraging.”
“A deadline does not exist formally, however, I think we just have to deal with the reality that we have logistical issues to transport 60 players and support staff, we have reality issues of the [COVID-19 testing] intake process and some downtime on top of that, and then we have training to begin,” Shapiro said. “If we delay a decision too long, there are implications in our readiness and competitiveness.
“We are obviously working on an accelerated timeframe and we need to make a decision very soon.”
Shapiro feels confident in the plan the club has laid out before federal health authorities, who have a 14-day quarantine rule in place and a restricted border until at least July 21.
“If anything, I think we’re going above and beyond the MLB operations manual,” said Shapiro, who declined to go into specifics about what the Rogers Centre quarantine would look like for his players or visiting players if regular-season games are approved for late next month. “We’ve created what would be an appendix or additional plan that would create a modified quarantine for our players and if we move to a regular season scenario, for visiting players that would be in addition to the MLB protocol.”
Throughout the process, the Jays investigated a number of possibilities, including playing in Buffalo at their Triple-A affiliate’s downtown stadium.
While the logistics of that plan didn’t work, there is the likelihood that the team’s taxi squad is housed there.
Sharing Tropicana Field with the Tampa Bay Rays was also a possibility, but the Jays would’ve had to finance and build a locker-room, something that didn’t overly excite Shapiro, so they passed.
Ultimately, the club’s vast resources in both Toronto and Dunedin led them to ruling out other options and focusing on how to make those two plans work, despite the obvious stumbling blocks.
“In the end, and where we still are now, we still feel like our two best alternatives are between Dunedin and Toronto,” Shapiro said.
There’s obvious concern about reconvening in Florida.
He’s heard it from both players and staff.
If they do end up in Dunedin, where several players and staff tested positive for the virus last week, prompting the facility to be shut down and cleaned, Shapiro is well aware they’ll have to take extra precautions in the area.
Baseball is also bracing for a huge amount of positive results next week when 100 per cent of the sport’s population is tested.
“We expect a lot of positive tests,” Shapiro said.
“If we’re testing every single person at intake, I can’t characterize what it means, but I would expect a large number of positive tests and that’s going to be part of the transition process into creating the closed environment as much as possible around our players.”
For a while, the labour issues were at the forefront of baseball’s problems.
That’s over, but the virus — maybe as it should have been all along — is back to being the focus.
Shapiro is aware of the criticism both his request to play in Toronto and MLB’s attempt to get back on the field as a whole in the middle of a pandemic are facing.
“We all are aware of the backdrop of the challenges we’re facing,” Shapiro said. “We all understand that the task of executing and pulling off Major League Baseball on the backdrop of what we’re going through is not going to be an easy one, but that we, who love the game, want the game to be part of the process of us slowly moving towards normalcy, providing fans and sports fans in general with the opportunity to lose themselves within the beauty of the game of baseball for three hours a night or an afternoon.”
Like the Blue Jays, the entire sport is taking it day-by-day, and Shapiro says they should have clarity on where the team will head by Monday.