08/10 17:42 CDT Safe at home? Blue Jays end nomadic journey in Buffalo
Safe at home? Blue Jays end nomadic journey in Buffalo
By WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
The signage is familiar. And well, really, that's about it. But hey, it beats
nothing. Or, to be more precise for the Toronto Blue Jays, it beats seeing
their name on the bottom of a scoreboard in a visiting stadium for a game that
is "home" in name only.
Baseball's nomads will walk onto the field at Sahlen Field in Buffalo, New
York, on Tuesday night as the host team for the first time in 2020. Canada's
government wouldn't let the Blue Jays hold games at Rogers Centre in Toronto,
fearful of outside entities coming into the city amid a pandemic. Pittsburgh
offered to let the Blue Jays play at PNC Park when the Pirates were on the
road, but Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf wouldn't sign off on it.
That left Buffalo, which last hosted a regular-season Major League Baseball
game in 1915 when the Buffalo Blues finished sixth in the eight-team Federalist
The wait hasn't been quite as long for the Blue Jays. Toronto spent the first
two-plus weeks bouncing from Tampa to Washington to Atlanta to Boston waiting
for preparations at 16,600-seat Sahlen Field (all but a few of which will be
empty) to be complete.
Yes, it's going to take some getting used to, no matter how many times the
familiar Blue Jays logo is splashed on everything from bathroom sinks to
elevator doors to dugouts. Instead of a Marriott situated over the right-center
field fence, Ellicott Square --- which served as the backdrop for all the hotel
scenes in the 1984 classic film "The Natural" --- sits across the street.
"We haven't played in Buffalo, so it's still a road trip it feels like," said
Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo, whose team is 5-8 after hopscotching up and
down the East Coast. "But I'm going to say after the first couple of games,
then it kind of becomes our home ballpark."
A ballpark, by the way, that is not the one in which Robert Redford's Roy Hobbs
busted out all the lights in the climactic scene of "The Natural." The movie
was shot at War Memorial Coliseum, which gave way to Sahlen Field in the late
1980s, though you could forgive Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly --- whose
team will be the visitors on Tuesday --- for getting things mixed up.
"I'd never been to Buffalo in my life until this last winter," said Mattingly,
whose team dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak two weeks ago that disrupted its own
season. "I think about the Bills, and then ?The Natural.' Are we playing in
that same stadium?"
Instead, the Marlins and Blue Jays will find themselves working in a facility
that might as well be a snapshot of the 2020 season. Sure, the lights have been
upgraded, the infield received a makeover and nearly every available wall
received a splash of blue paint. The real work, however, focused on making the
32-year-old stadium compliant with MLB health protocols put in place to deal
with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Batting cages morphed into locker rooms. Washrooms became workout areas. The
concourse is now a well-appointed gym. BAM Productions, which helps MLB put on
the Little League Classic and NHL host the Winter Classic, took the lead in the
transformation process. Some of the changes will be temporary. Some will be
permanent. All of them are designed to help the Blue Jays relax and exhale,
however briefly, about 100 miles south of the Rogers Centre.
"We want to make this feel like home for our guys," Blue Jays vice president
Marnie Starkman said.
First impressions were promising. Starkman called the reaction from the Toronto
coaching staff during a brief tour of the facility Sunday night "pretty cool."
Though the finishing touches weren't put in place until this weekend, the
process wasn't as chaotic as the club initially feared. The Blue Jays had
already designated Buffalo as Toronto's alternate training site before Sahlen
Field suddenly found itself as the best candidate to provide the big league
club with temporary digs, meaning the lights were among the first things to
arrive when the makeover began.
The process has led Mike Buczkowski, president of Rich Baseball Operations, the
ownership group that runs the Bisons, to reevaluate what the franchise will do
when things return to "normal" --- or whatever passes for "normal" in a
"It's really opened our eyes in terms of ?do we really need the batting cages
where we had them?' Things like that," Buczkowski said. "It's getting us to
reimagine the space."
It will not, however, allow Buczkowski to reimagine Sahlen Field becoming a
major league field full time. Buffalo was in the running in the early 1990s
when MLB expanded to Denver and Miami. The economics that made sense back then
may no longer make sense three decades later. Buffalo is the 52nd-ranked TV
market in the country and Toronto, New York City and even Cleveland are all
well within driving distance.
"We've always said it's not that we wouldn't have fans that would support MLB
in Buffalo, it's whether we're a big enough market," Buczkowski said. "You look
at all the other revenues you need to generate, that's the question ... We
didn't really look at this is something if we do this well, we would become a
major league baseball candidate."
That doesn't mean Sahlen Field won't look major league ready when the city
hosts its first big league game since Woodrow Wilson's first term in the White
House. Buczowski will take it in from his office, which offers a pretty good
view of the action. The view will be even better for the Blue Jays, home at
last. Sort of.
AP Sports Writers Kyle Hightower in Boston and Steven Wine in Miami contributed
to this report.
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