Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, but the Blue Jays will have more incentive than just preparing for the MLB regular season when summer camp settles into the Rogers Centre over the weekend.
Operating under a modified quarantine where they will be staying at the hotel attached to the stadium and working out at their home field below, the Jays will be intent on proving they can function in a safe, responsible and COVID-19 free environment.
If all goes well in that regard, then team president Mark Shapiro is hopeful government and health officials at the federal and provincial level will clear the way for the team’s 30 home games to be played on the familiar diamond.
“The regular season is a different circumstance and scenario and a different situation,” Shapiro said on a conference call with local media on Thursday. “We will look to end up with a similar result where we can protect the public in every way possible.”
The Jays finally received the outstanding and elusive slip of approval from the federal government on Thursday, granting exemption to the closing of the Canada-U.S. border to all but essential personnel. The team plans to mobilize quickly so that it can begin full-team workouts at the downtown Toronto stadium by Monday.
The Jays will operate under an enhanced health and safety protocol above and beyond the rigid guidelines set out by MLB. No players or club staff will be allowed to enter the country until they clear intake screening for the virus.
As many as four individuals on the team’s player pool are expected to remain behind for the opening of camp. Anyone held back will have to pass two intake tests before being allowed to rejoin the team.
The Jays had hoped to get the green light for both camp and the regular season, but travel and logistical issues regarding visiting teams still need to be worked out.
Shapiro said the plan is to recreate the same bubble for opponents as the Jays will operate under during training. That includes boarding a private, sterilized bus at Pearson, proceeding directly to the Marriott at the Rogers Centre and not leaving the building until the completion of a three-game series.
Once the season starts, the Jays will be traveling in and out of the country as well for as many as 10 different series, further complicating safety concerns.
Just how easy it will be to pin in millionaire athletes looking to go out on the town remains to be seen, but Shapiro seems confident it can work.
“We did, through MLB, engage the players association early in the process and they are co-operative,” Shaprio said. “The visiting teams … it’s not much of a hardship. Obviously it’s more limiting because a visiting team that comes in will not be allowed to leave the confines.
“That is something we do have a buy-in for. The over-arching premise is we would create a modified quarantine or bubble for both home and visiting teams.”
For training camp, the Jays stress that players will be isolated from the general public and that players will not be allowed to depart “the stadium footprint.”
In order to maintain that bubble, the Jays will not play any exhibition games prior to their season opener which is expected to go July 24 against Tampa Bay in St. Pete. Instead, the team will prepare for the 60-game campaign with intrasquad contests.
Several players have already passed the test in Florida and have been cleared to begin workouts at the team’s minor-league complex beginning Friday. MLB did not require teams to be at their home stadium for that portion of the reboot testing.
Once they establish themselves at the dome, Shapiro said he hopes to gain clarity on whether the team will be able to remain here for games sometime in the next seven to 10 days. If denied approval, Plan B will be to return to Dunedin where the Jays would be based at TD Ballpark.
Shapiro said Jays players were enthusiastic about having camp in Toronto, which keeps them on similar ground to the rest of the 29 MLB teams.
“Being in a major-league environment and one that provided the flexibility of the roof one that provided them a smoother transition into a major-league season and one that felt safe to them,” Shapiro said when asked about the appeal of the Rogers Centre.
With around 60 players going through workouts, manager Charlie Montoyo and his coaching staff will need to be creative. There will be five mounds at their disposal — the main one on the diamond plus two in each bullpen — as well as home and visitors indoor batting cages.
The team will use four different locker rooms in the bowels of the aging dome to help enforce social distancing.
Given the hurdles the Jays had to clear and the attention to detail they paid in formulating a plan, the hope is that players will live up to their end and be diligent in respecting the quarantine.
Living in Toronto, Shapiro has certainly respected the success in controlling the virus here compared to so many U.S. states and is respectful of the government unlocking the rules.
“We were deferential every step of the way in ensuring what has been so well led and so fiercely protected in Toronto, Ontario and Canada was respected,” Shapiro said.
“We were certainly fine if at any point we could not satisfy their concerns from a public health standpoint and moving to our alternatives.”