Blue Jays gather in Dunedin for tests while awaiting clearance to fly north

Blue Jays players hang out at the team’s spring training facility in Dunedin, Fla., waiting to undergo COVID-19 testing. Eddie Michels / Photo

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In these unusual and uncertain times, it was about as close to business as usual for the Blue Jays on Wednesday morning at the team’s Florida headquarters in Dunedin.

Players arrived and shared excitement for the season (strange and uncertain as it is) that awaits. They caught up on life in the quarantine (as opposed to a normal off- season hiatus) and as much as possible enjoyed the camaraderie of a COVID-19 clubhouse.

And then there were the tests, assuredly the most unpleasant piece of business of the reunion and one that will soon become part of the ball players’ regimen — a task not nearly as enjoyable as the usual routines around the batting cage and bullpen.

No one is getting too settled in at TD Ballpark just yet, however, as it is still believed the stay at the team’s spring training base will be short-lived.

The Jays personnel we communicated with on Wednesday are under the optimistic impression that the team will be on its way back north to the Rogers Centre for the bulk of training camp, possibly as soon as Saturday.

While there had been hope that flight would have occurred first on Wednesday and then Friday, it would hardly be a worst-case development given the lingering uncertainty of where they will be based for the postponed and abbreviated 60-game season.

Officially, the Jays are still awaiting final clearance from the federal government to proceed to Toronto for close to three weeks of training camp under modified quarantine conditions.

Though each MLB team is allowed to host as many as three exhibition games, intra-squad contests are another possible means of preparation for the season.

Those around the team are clinging to the belief that a charter will be on its way by the weekend and, in fact, a plane is at the ready nearby.

While the Jays will be operating under different logistical circumstances, it is likely encouraged by the fact that Toronto and Edmonton have been cleared to be hockey playoff hubs, which could work in favour of the country’s only big-league baseball team.

With clearance from the feds still delayed, the Jays opted to mobilize in Dunedin to at least get the medical testing for the virus out of the way. TD Ballpark also remains as the prime backup plan for the regular season.
On Wednesday, the players parking lot at the renovated spring training facility was full as testing was under way while a truck with the team’s equipment remained at the ready.

Once in Canada, the Jays plan to work under a quarantine environment, staying at the Marriott Hotel attached to the Rogers Centre and practising on the field below. The stadium’s grounds crew has been working on readying the field this week.

While the team has said little about the developments, president and CEO Mark Shapiro has been working behind the scenes with federal, provincial and municipal governments. It is believed that the final issues involve quarantining players from visiting teams once the regular season begins.

With close to a month to work out those details, the Jays are confident they can run a safe, effective and responsible training camp at the Rogers Centre.

“We are all aware of the challenges we are facing,” Shapiro said recently. “We all understand that the task of executing and pulling off Major League Baseball in the backdrop of what we are going through is not going to be an easy one.

“There is a willingness and a desire to face that challenge. We want to have some normalcy where we can have it and this is one piece of bringing back a positive distraction for baseball fans and sports fans throughout Canada.”

Meanwhile, Canada Day was never supposed to be like this for the Jays, of course. Always a highlight of the team’s home calendar, on the original 2020 schedule a Wednesday matinee was slated to be the finale of a three-game series at the Rogers Centre against the Chicago White Sox.

That plan scuttled by the pandemic, it was then supposed to be the report date back in Toronto for players to be tested for COVID-19 and to get settled in for first workouts on Friday, the first day such gatherings are permitted under MLB’s back-to-work plans.

It is unclear whether the Jays will start workouts in Dunedin and then pick them up when the team returns north. Several teams won’t begin full team training sessions until Saturday as the testing necessitates a quarantine period of up to 48 hours.

If and when the Jays finally make it to Canada, they will do so under the assumption they will be here for good — health and pandemic status willing. It would be pointless, after all, to have training camp here only to return to Dunedin for games.

Meanwhile, like the rest of the league, the Jays await a firm schedule from MLB outlining the abbreviated 60-game campaign that will see Toronto play 40 games against its AL East rivals and the remaining 20 against NL East foes.

The Tampa Bay Times has reported that the Jays will open the season on July 24 in a series with the Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.