TORONTO – By this weekend, the Toronto Blue Jays are expected to tell their players where to report for training camp by July 1.
Between now and then, a scramble to find a suitable spot for their part in baseball’s precarious restart looms, with the multiple COVID-19 cases among players and staff at the club’s now shut down facility in Dunedin, Fla., revealed by a source Wednesday afternoon fuelling the urgency.
Hours later, wheels were in motion on multiple fronts, with the team’s Rogers Centre home in Toronto its preferred landing spot. Doing so would require an exemption letter from the federal government similar to the one the NHL received allowing it to set up hub cities in the country, and would set the stage for regular-season games to take place in the city, too.
Anna Maddison, a spokeswoman for the Public Health Agency of Canada, told The Associated Press that the government “has received, and is currently assessing, a restart plan from Major League Baseball.” Whether that includes spring training or not wasn’t immediately clear, although an answer is expected by week’s end.
The Blue Jays could establish a relatively self-contained hub by using the hotel attached to the dome as a base for players, with direct access to the field below. The same process could be replicated for games during the season, with arriving clubs travelling directly from the airport to the hotel, playing their games, and leaving town right after with a minimal footprint.
Under such a scenario, the Blue Jays would potentially use Sahlen Field in Buffalo, home to the triple-A affiliate Bisons, as the Alternate Training Site for players not on the active roster required under Major League Baseball’s 2020 Operations Manual.
The Bisons have been in shutdown mode, with several employees furloughed, although tires were being kicked on how long it would take to ready the facility and make it compliant with baseball’s health and safety protocols.
Prior to this point, the majority of the Blue Jays’ legwork focused on holding camp in Dunedin, with TD Ballpark positioned as the fallback if border restrictions and the 14-day quarantine period for arriving travellers took Toronto off the table.
All that has been in flux since the complex was closed late last week after a player displayed symptoms at the same time the Philadelphia Phillies, a 15-minute drive away in Clearwater, confirmed that five players and three staffers had tested positive. On Tuesday, the Phillies added that another player two other staff members also had COVID-19, with the source revealing the positive tests at Blue Jays camp Wednesday.
Cases of COVID-19 have been spiking in Florida and Pinellas County, home to both Dunedin and Clearwater, has had six consecutive days with at least 201 new cases, including a single-day high of 353 Tuesday.
To contextualize the increase, on June 9 there were only 50 new cases.
Deeper within those numbers is that of the country’s 4,323 cases, 976 were in the 25-34 age bracket, with 677 more in the 15-24 range, the demographics closely aligned with baseball players.
Such a troubling prevalence left at least some with the club uneasy about reporting to Florida, even with MLB’s strict protocols in place.
The Operations Manual calls for arriving players to complete a symptom and exposure questionnaire as part of a pre-screening process, only proceeding to intake screening once cleared. At that point, an appointment 48-72 hours before the July 1 reporting date is scheduled for diagnostic/PCR testing as well as serology/antibody testing for the coronavirus.
The protocol also calls for daily symptom screens and temperature checks, diagnostic/PCR testing every other day, and monthly antibody testing.
Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.
Pivotal to winning approval from the Canadian government will be demonstrating a capability to keep players healthy once inside the ecosystem MLB teams must establish. Unclear is how the multiple positives from last week will affect the assessment, as bringing potentially infected players and staff into the country is a non-starter.
Failing that, the Blue Jays could always remain in Dunedin, although avoiding further outbreaks in an area with rampant community spread may be an impossible task.
In the worst-case scenario, the Operations Manual grants MLB the right during the season to relocate teams to “neutral sites, spring training sites, or other clubs’ home ballparks … for health/safety reasons, to comply with governmental restrictions, or to complete the schedule.”
The pressure is on with the report date only a week away.