Ontario is falling apart.
Canada’s biggest province, home to more than a third of the country’s population, is in the midst of the worst spike in COVID-19 transmission yet. ICUs are on the brink of being overwhelmed, and Premier (think governor) Doug Ford warned of extreme emergency measures coming as the province struggles to get a handle on this public health crisis.
The Canadian government, meanwhile, continues to extend border closures along the United States-Canada crossings, in order to limit contact as much as possible, thus controlling exposure and making tracing easier. Although the sports world is far less important than the broader public, a consequence of these closures has been the creation of an All-Canadian division in the NHL to eliminate international travel, and the NBA’s Toronto Raptors are playing out this season using Tampa as a “home” court.
In MLB’s case, the Toronto Blue Jays famously commandeered their Triple-A facilities in Buffalo, which definitely had a negative effect on the Yankees in 2020. The Bombers could never get the hang of Sahlen Field, as they went 2-5 there with some of their most miserable games of the season. Fans won’t easily forget the 10-run sixth inning on September 7th, the 11-5 loss on the 21st, or the four-error, 14-1 drubbing two days later. Playing games in Buffalo essentially ruined Adam Ottavino’s season, as his disastrous outings at Sahlen Field took his three-ish ERA to 5.89.
Now, as we approach an uncertain 2021, the Blue Jays exist in as opaque a situation as has ever existed for a baseball team. It’s unlikely that the country and province will relax border restrictions before the season’s scheduled Opening Day, and it’s equally unlikely that the United States will have control over this pandemic in the same time. The minor leagues have yet to announce specific plans for this upcoming season, but the prospect of two years of limited development for prospects is sure to put pressure on teams to have something resembling a season.
Where, then, do the Blue Jays play?
Sahlen Field has to once again be considered the favorite for the squad’s “home” field, but that creates disruption along the MiLB chain since the Triple-A Bisons have to host games somewhere, too. The Jays could become a modern barnstorming club, playing its home games in rival stadiums while those teams are on the road. This idea becomes particularly feasible if fans are not allowed to attend games.
This model was briefly considered at the beginning of the 2020 season, with Pittsburgh’s PNC Park being offered as a potential landing spot. Practically, the Jays are scheduled to begin the season on the road as it is, opening the campaign in the Bronx before travelling to Texas. The club isn’t scheduled for a “home” game until April 8th against the Angels, when the Red Sox are on the road, and the Yankees, Phillies and Tigers are all off before a road trip of their own. All three cities would be easy for the Jays to travel to, and it might be possible to “borrow” a stadium for a series at a time.
This is the kind of creativity it would take for a modern “barnstorming” season. The Jays could play their first six games on the road, then their home series at Yankee Stadium. At that point, the very next series would be a “home” set where the Yankees themselves were supposed to travel to Toronto. This series could also be played in the Bronx, in the same vein as the Mets series in 2020 where the team from Queens was the “home” squad for a game against the Yankees. (Ideally for Aaron Boone’s club, this would not include a walk-off loss at Yankee Stadium, à la Amed Rosario.)
The other alternative is a two-city structure, with the hope that restrictions and vaccination will allow Toronto to open up and border crossings to be more relaxed later in the season — although Ontario’s vaccine rollout is among the worst in the country, so it may not be worth holding your breath. Somewhat ironically, this is a bastardization of the peculiar two-city, two-country idea floated by the Tampa Bay Rays a couple seasons ago, where the team would play half their games in St Petersburg and half in Montreal. This idea never got off the ground for a variety of reasons, but the existence of MLB-caliber facilities in Toronto already may make it possible for the Jays in an extraordinary season.
Of course, all of this is further complicated by the Jays’ reported interest in building a new stadium in downtown Toronto. For those unaware of Toronto’s geography, there really isn’t a place to build an MLB-code facility unless Rogers Centre were knocked down beforehand — unlike what happened with YSIII, where there was adequate real estate in the Bronx to construct a new ballpark between 2006 and 2008 while the team continued to play in the existing Yankee Stadium.
I think a lot of us initially felt that 2020 was a write-off year, and that this uncertainty would evaporate with the turn of the calendar. Instead, the pandemic is worse than it’s ever been, and while baseball is trying to return to business as normal, its only international franchise is a stateless entity facing more questions than perhaps any time in its history.