After a winding journey, the Blue Jays will return to Canada

By James Wagner

The last time the Blue Jays played a game at Rogers Centre, their stadium in downtown Toronto, was Sept. 29, 2019. Since then, because the coronavirus pandemic led to the closing of the Canadian border, the country’s only big-league baseball team has been forced to find makeshift regular-season homes in Dunedin, Florida, its spring training site, and in Buffalo, New York, where it displaced the franchise’s top minor league team.

Finally, after nearly two years away, the Blue Jays are coming home.

The team announced late last week that it would be back in Toronto beginning July 30, with a three-game series against the Kansas City Royals. The Blue Jays said the Canadian government had granted them a “national interest exemption,” which allows Major League Baseball games to be played at Rogers Centre “with robust health and safety protocols in place.”

Marco Mendicino, the Canadian immigration minister, said in a statement posted online that the Blue Jays were given the exemption after “a careful review” by public health officials “at every level of government.”

“The plan contains significant measures to ensure the safety of the players, personnel and the public,” he added later. “This begins with pre- and post-arrival testing of everyone, and additional testing four times a week for unvaccinated individuals. It also includes significant limitations on unvaccinated individuals, who will have to undergo a modified quarantine, not be permitted to go anywhere but the hotel and stadium and have no interaction with the general public.”

Mendicino said there would be compliance officers and that if anyone connected with a team breached the rules, that person’s exemptions would be revoked and the person may also be subject to fines or prosecution under the country’s Quarantine Act.

The Blue Jays, who entered Tuesday with a 48-43 record and were in third place in the American League East, had been lobbying since last year to return to Canada. They held a preseason camp at Rogers Centre last summer, but their request to host regular-season games there was rejected by government officials because of fears that traveling teams could spread the virus.

During the pandemic-shortened, 60-game 2020 season, the Blue Jays played their home games in Buffalo at Sahlen Field, the headquarters of their Class AAA affiliate; the stadium’s capacity is one-third that of the 49,000-seat Rogers Centre. With a young and talented roster, the Blue Jays ended a four-season playoff drought.

This year, the Blue Jays began the season by staying in Dunedin, their spring training home, to start the regular season. On June 1, they shifted again to Buffalo, where they upgraded the stadium for major-league needs.

The Blue Jays are scheduled for 37 home games from July 30 to the end of the regular season.

Last month, Canada granted border travel exemptions for the final two rounds of the NHL playoffs. Although the U.S.-Canada border remains closed for nonessential travel until Aug. 9, MLS teams from Toronto and Montreal returned home recently after federal authorities loosened pandemic border restrictions. They allowed certain fully vaccinated travelers, including foreign professional athletes with work permits, to enter without a 14-day quarantine as long as they complied with testing before and after arrival.

The quarantine rules, though, still applied to travelers who were not fully vaccinated. And not all MLB players and staff members are vaccinated. As of late June, MLB and the players union said that 85% of people in key categories of players and staff had been vaccinated. But even then, teams with high vaccination rates have dealt with virus issues, including the New York Yankees, who are confronting their second serious outbreak despite the team having reached the 85% threshold.

“First and foremost, the Blue Jays wish to thank Canadians for their unprecedented public health efforts and support for the team,” the team said in a statement. “Without you, Blue Jays baseball would not be coming home this summer.”

On July 1, which is Canada Day, Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said he longed for the team’s home up north.

“Buffalo has been great to us, don’t get me wrong,” he told reporters. “But today is one of those days where, man, I wish we were in Toronto.” Soon, they will be.

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