The Jays’ Long Flight – The strange pilgrimage of the 2020 Blue Jays

Nothing could be a stranger than a whole season on the road

It’s a cliche to say that home is where the heart is. Maybe it’s equally cliche to say that home is where you make it.

For much of the 2020 season, the Toronto Blue Jays have been adhering to another, lesser-known cliche – at least as it pertains to the bizarre circumstances surrounding their ‘home park’ For the Jays, home has been wherever they’ve lain their head for the night.

Being the only non-American team in MLB, the Jays are used to their presence obtruding like the veritable sore thumb in baseball circles. Whether it’s bizarre, politically-motivated bastardizations of the national anthem by operatic pop nobodies, condescending stereotype-baiting about their ability to catch foul balls, or a national bout of navel-gazing at unpatriotic comments made by a favourite son, there’s always been something idiosyncratic about baseball north of the border. We can now add the Blue Jays bizarre 2020 season to the docket.

With the Jays preparing for their first ‘home’ game of the 2020 season on Tuesday, in nearby Buffalo, New York, 2020 will mark the first MLB season since 1969 without a regular season game played in Canada. And it’s not as though the club wasn’t willing. Up until mid-July, it looked like Rogers Centre would still play host to a rotating cavalcade of visiting clubs from the U.S. The Ontario provincial government okayed the Jays plans to play at home as recently as July 16th, and the club had undertaken the necessary infrastructure upgrades and changes to facilitate the league’s anticipated COVID protocols.

But it all came crashing down around the Jays on July 18th, when the Canadian Federal Government nixed the proposed slate of home games for the Jays – a mere 5 days before Opening Day.

The optics of the denial make perfect sense, too, when taking COVID numbers into account. The province of Ontario has seen a steady decline in COVID cases since a May 3rd single-day peak of 2,760, with the province recording just 23 cases (from a population of 14.57 million) on August 4th. Numbers across Canada have also been declining steadily (with occasional blips) throughout the summer, and the Canadian government has generally been praised for its pandemic protocol and response measures. As part of these measures, the Canadian government has instituted a strict 14-day quarantine procedure for foreign nationals arriving in the country, which would prove an overwhelming logistical barrier to teams visiting from the US. To whit, the Canada/US border – often considered the most gently-guarded and congenial of all the world’s border crossings – has been closed since March 21st. Consistent public opinion polling has shown that Canadians aren’t entirely keen on reopening the border anytime soon, either.

All of this is, of course, buffeted by increasingly worsening COVID case numbers in the United States, and – perhaps more pertinent – MLB’s handful of in-club outbreaks that have occurred in the first weeks of the season. The federal government had absolutely no choice but to follow-through on the ban, and they have been vindicated by everything that has occurred around the league thus far.

Obvious health concerns aside, these protocols have presented unprecedented logistical hurdles for both MLB and the Blue Jays organization – hurdles which have been increasingly heightened as the team has tried to scramble for solutions. Initial plans to play the team’s ‘home’ games at PNC Park in Pittsburgh and Baltimore were nixed by respective state governments, on account of the increased risk and comparatively minimal economic benefit that would come with hosting another team’s games. The team played their first ‘home’ series – that is to say, the first series in which they wore home whites and hit in the bottom-half of the inning – in Washington, and only recently solidified plans to play their home games in nearby Buffalo – at a park that outfielder Randal Grichuk ironically called the ‘worst-case scenario’ a few days prior to the plan’s approval. The club’s Triple-A affiliate is undergoing much-needed stadium upgrades in anticipation of the games, which will be the city of Buffalo’s first MLB games since 1939.

Indeed, Blue Jays players and staff have been forced to rapidly come to grips with the idea of an entire season on the road. The significant competitive advantage that one would assume this portends may serve to undercut a hungry young team’s playoff aspirations, but it could also serve as a crucible for the group to come together. Jays manager Charlie Montoyo has used the move as a rallying cry for the team, and despite some early-season setbacks (including a cancelled series against the COVID-stricken Phillies), the Jays have gotten off to a respectable 4-5 start. In a shortened anomaly of a season, they will likely still be in contention for a playoff spot late into the season, which should provide a healthy dose of high-leverage game situations for a young core in need of such experience. Indeed, it’s fair to say that an energetic young group like the Jays may have an easier time adjusting to a nomadic season than an older, more situated group.

Regardless of what happens on the competitive front, the Jays franchise is undergoing an odyssey that’d make Odysseus blush. Looking back at the end of the year, we’ll undoubtedly still view is as being the right choice – and next year, when they make it back to Ithaca (er, Toronto), they’ll have one helluva story to tell.

Daniel MacDonald

Daniel is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (2014), and has carried his love of baseball drama and storytelling across oceans and continents. He remembers exactly where he was sitting and what he was wearing when Kerry Wood struck out 20. You can find him talking baseball and music on Twitter @danthemacs

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