Embrace the Weird

Cast out of Toronto, the Blue Jays are settling into their new Buffalo 'home' while getting used to the chicken wings and hotels that comprise the longest road trip in the majors this season.
photo of Scott MillerScott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistAugust 13, 2020

Somewhere along the way, Buffalonee TorontoBlue Jays right-hander Tanner Roark acquired a stack of T-shirts from former Washington teammate Dan Uggla, who loved to spit a crass phrase after smashing a home run, words that were blown up on those shirts over a silhouette of a swinging batter:

Sack Up!

Roark's stash of tees is five or six years old, but you know what they say about fashion: Wait long enough and what was old becomes new again. something will come back into style again. And so it is that during their three-week travel odyssey leading to Buffalo and this week's inaugural "homestand," Roark is delighting, again, in his sartorial choice at the ballpark. 

"I honestly stole it from [Uggla] because it's what we've gotta do, right?" Roark said on a videoconference the other day while wearing one of the shirts.

Sack Up!

Even while debuting in Buffalo this week, America's Favourite Adopted Road Team is playing out this funky, fragile and abbreviated season as the baseball version of a Johnny Cash song. They've been everywhere, man. Boston; Tampa; Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; and Boston (again) over the past three weeks. Now Buffalo…then Baltimore, then Buffalo, Tampa and Buffalo (again).

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They were supposed to be in Philadelphia to begin this month, too, but instead the Jays were marooned in Washington for a weekend when their series with the Phillies was postponed because of COVID-19 concerns.

"Worst part was, Washington was there too," Blue Jays right-hander Trent Thornton tells B/R. "We were hoping we could keep playing them so we wouldn't have so many days off, especially for the guys swinging a hot bat or pitching well."

What's even weirder was the Jays' status as the designated "home" team on July 29 and 30 and Nationals Park suddenly becoming Toronto-centric, including stadium personnel blasting the seventh-inning anthem "OK Blue Jays"one of the game's most underappreciated traditionson the big-screen scoreboard.

"There were a couple of guys chuckling, but with no fans, it's not like there was anyone other than us to appreciate it," Thornton says.

Then, after splitting a four-game series against the Nationals from July 27 to July 30, the Jays were forced to go dark for four days before resurfacing in Atlanta on Aug. 4.

It's been dizzying. The Blue Jays last saw Toronto on July 20, when they finished spring training 2.0 at the Rogers Centre. They next will see Toronto, theoretically, April 8 for their 2021 home opener against the Los Angeles Angels.

That is, if the pandemic has cleared by then.

"It hasn't been easy, but I'm proud of my team," says manager Charlie Montoyo, whose Jays are 6-8 and 3.5 games behind the Yankees in the AL East. 

"You know, at first Buffalo is going to feel like a visiting ballpark. But after a couple of days, it's going to feel like home."

Toronto's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition started in mid-July, when the Canadian government declined to grant permission to the Jays to play in Toronto.

"Unlike preseason training, regular-season games would require repeated cross-border travel of Blue Jays players and staff, as well as opponent teams into and out of Canada," Marco Mendicino, Canadian immigration minister, said in a statement. "Of particular concern, the Toronto Blue Jays would be required to play in locations where the risk of virus transmission remains high."

The Jays briefly considered playing at their spring home in Dunedin, Florida, and then cut a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates to borrow PNC Park as their home yard. But that, too, was nixed, this time by Pennsylvania health officials because of a steep increase in COVID-19 cases in the southwestern portion of the state.

Then there were talks between the Jays and the Baltimore Orioles…but before Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, top pitching prospect Nate Pearson and the rest of the Baby Blue Jays could take an 0-for-3, the team decided to nest at Sahlen Field, home of its Triple-A Buffalo affiliate.

From there, the GPSs were locked and loaded.

The last team to encounter such unusual travel was the Expos during their final two seasons in Montreal, when they played part of their "home" schedule in Puerto Rico in 2003 and 2004. At one point in '03, the Expos played 22 games over 24 days in six cities covering nearly 12,000 miles.

"We measure it by pairs of underwear," Montreal shortstop Orlando Cabrera quipped to ESPN at the time. "This is a 25-underwear trip."

The Jays have been gone so long that when Rob Longley, who covers the club for the Toronto Sun, encountered a coach on the streets of Boston over the weekend, the coach admitted he was shopping for a desperately needed sundry: underwear.

Yes, what's old is new again.

"We've been put through the wringer," Bichette said on a recent videoconference call. "We've been in limbo since spring training was canceled [in March]." Who knows, maybe that wringer eventually will be needed to help clean their underwear too.

"We're still in limbo," Bichette continued. "But we're going to continue to fight and continue to battle, no matter the circumstances."

Shortstop Bo Bichette and his Blue Jays teammates found a home in Buffalo for the 2020 season after potential plans to play in Pittsburgh and Baltimore never came to fruition.
Shortstop Bo Bichette and his Blue Jays teammates found a home in Buffalo for the 2020 season after potential plans to play in Pittsburgh and Baltimore never came to fruition.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press/Associated Press

The Jays' first "home" game was supposed to have been July 29, the week they were in Washington. But because of the late agreement with Buffalo, Sahlen Field was still undergoing its big league face-lift.

The Jays and MLB installed new lighting and brought in lighting trucks too. They laid new infield sod and built a temporary clubhouse in the right field parking lot area for visiting clubs. Toronto is using both the home and visitor clubhouses so as to meet social distancing guidelines. They constructed batting cages in the stadium's concourses (doable, because no fans) so the players have extra space to hit and throw.

And they splashed new paint all around the joint in Blue Jays colors and put up team logos to make this traveling band of merry baseball nomads feel at home.

Well, as much as you can feel at home when you don't have your own fridge, couch or closet.

"This is a complete and total mental grind on and off the field," Roark says. "Most of us are not able to see our families for quite some time. I just saw my wife and kids for the first time in a month.

"It's definitely grinding on both sides. But once you step on the field, it feels normal, pitching and competing."

For the 29 other teams that are playing real, live home games, at least most of those players have houses and loved ones to return to, with grassy backyards or nearby parks to get some fresh air during the day.

Not the Blue Jays. Because they are even headquartered in a hotel while in Buffalo and must follow all of MLB's road protocols every day. Which, having been tightened following the COVID-19 outbreaks among the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals, means they aren't allowed to leave the hotel except to go to the ballpark. The only hall pass is to seek permission from the club's traveling compliance officer for a legitimate need, such as, say, walking to a nearby drugstore to obtain a prescription. With masks, of course.

Right-hander Trent Thornton says the strict protocols the team must undergo all season makes players feel a little like "robots."
Right-hander Trent Thornton says the strict protocols the team must undergo all season makes players feel a little like "robots."Charles Krupa/Associated Press/Associated Press

"We're basically like robots," Thornton says. "We wake up, go pick up our food from a little ballroom or the lobby and take it right back to our rooms and eat. We're not allowed to be in each other's rooms.

"Then it's time to go to the field, and it's the same thing there. We don't get to make any of our own decisions. If you do, there are consequences."

The people they see are the same every day, right down to the pilot and flight crews for their charters.

There was a glimmer of fun on the horizon during those four days without a game in Washington when Michael Shaw, director of team travel, was arranging a bus tour through D.C. to see the monuments and historic sites. But then, because of virus concerns, that was canceled.

"That was my first time being in Washington, and I was hoping to be able to see some of the things around there," Thornton says. "There was a decent amount of us going. But then they had to pull the plug, and we couldn't even do that."

In their blur of planes, buses and ballparks, there are no breaks for the Blue Jays, even to, say, enjoy a nice dinner out on an off night.

And that's what separates the Jays from everyone else.

"We're legitimately hardcore quarantining," Thornton says. "[Other] people can quarantine at their house, go out, keep themselves busy. Where we're maybe eating, sleeping, on our phones or watching a movie in our room. That's all we can do."

Says Roark: "The good thing is, I'm a gamer. I could sit here and play PlayStation and be fine. ... We'll see how it goes from here."

Since the season started, things are looking up: When spring training 2.0 began in Toronto in early July, the Jays all had to quarantine for 14 days after crossing the border into Canada, which meant they worked out at the Rogers Centre and lived in the hotel on the property.

Even during homestands this year, the Jays will be living the life of a road team, as they are forced to stay at hotels without family in Buffalo.
Even during homestands this year, the Jays will be living the life of a road team, as they are forced to stay at hotels without family in Buffalo.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

"You'd go days without sunlight because you were in a dome," Thornton says.

Any player caught stepping out of that dome was subject to a $750,000 fine from the Canadian government, so that sort of discouraged any temptations to go rogue for, say, a doughnut run.

"I think they really benefited from being stuck at Rogers Centre for those two-and-a-half weeks," says Jays television analyst Buck Martinez, who managed Toronto in 2001 and 2002 following a 17-year playing career. "We saw them many times just sitting around the ballpark talking baseball.

"Travis Shaw would have the position players sitting around one corner talking, and the pitchers would be together too. A couple of guys said, 'This reminds me of college, just sitting around and talking.'"

Indeed, the organization has been impressed by the players' esprit de corps.

"If you look back to the beginning of summer camp and think about the different things that have been asked of our players, the different turns our season has taken from a location and challenge standpoint, navigating the virus, remaining safe and healthy, the evolution of the virus in the U.S. and the evolution in Toronto…" Jays general manager Ross Atkins said on a videoconference call Tuesday. "Navigating all of these things, our players have been just awesome.

"There is zero complaining and zero excuse-making happening."

The joint effort between the organization and the city of Buffalo to transform Sahlen Field into a major league facility provided a pick-me-up this week for the suitcase-toting Blue Jays. Atkins, whose first experience at Sahlen was in 1997 when he was a pitcher in the Cleveland organization and Buffalo was the Indians' Triple-A affiliate, said his first glimpse of the renovated park "from the highway was a mouth-opening, jaw-dropping experience."

"What they did to brand it and make it feel like the Toronto Blue Jays' home really is jaw-dropping," Atkins says.

From Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown's point of view, the work wasn't all that onerous.

"We didn't have to repair any damage from Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s line drives or fix any streets outside of the stadium from his home runs that left the ballpark and crashed down in the streets, fortunately," Brown jokes to B/R of the Jays' slugger who briefly called Sahlen Field home in 2018 and 2019. "So we're a step ahead there."

Brown recalled how much excitement Guerrero Jr. provided for Buffalo then, how he "absolutely packed" the stadium and that "even though [fans] can't be in the stands, they're really excited to have Vladimir back here and calling Sahlen Field his home again."

Not far from the field, where Gabriel's Gate serves up the best wings in Buffalo, according to Bon Appetit magazine, the city is doing its best to roll out the red carpet—even if its people are still learning about the new kids in town.

"Oh my gosh, I can tell you what you need to know about chicken wings. But the Blue Jays, not as much," restaurant manager Kelly Hall says.

It's OK, Blue Jays. Focus on the wings!

"I'm a big wings fan," Thornton says. "I definitely want to try as many wings as possible. I've been talking to a lot of teammates who played here before, trying to get their best recommendations."

With players prohibited from going out, even ordering in is a challenge: Delivery people must drop the food off at the hotel's front desk, and then someone is required to bring it to a player's room from there.

"It's a process within a process within a process," Thornton says.

As important as the W's on the scoreboard will be, it's the little victories off the field that will help break the monotony of this strangest of seasons. To that end, Thornton plans to see if he can score one of those T-shirts from Roark, whom he calls a "great leader" and says "is going to be a big part of our success this year, steering the young guys in the right direction."

Roark already has done a little of that, counting himself as one of the guys who voted to play in Buffalo.

"Go the old-school route and sack up," Roark said. "Ultimately, it's going to build that cohesion, playing in a Triple-A facility. It's going to build the toughness, the grit.

"Other teams are not going to want to come in there and play us just because it's Triple-A and they don't have all of the amenities as they do at a big league ballpark.

"We're going to be known as grinders. And I love grinders, because that's what makes you who you are at the end of your career, or at the end of the day."

        

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.