Without quick resolution, instability could increase Blue Jays’ health risks

Without quick resolution, instability could increase Blue Jays’ health risks

Without quick resolution, instability could increase Blue Jays’ health risks

TORONTO — Life in the grind can sometimes make it easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, and amid the mad scramble to find the Toronto Blue Jays a place to call home this summer, that bigger picture is far too important to miss.

Their looming July 29 ‘home’ opener, now less than a week away, is an albatross that becomes heavier and heavier each moment without a resolution. There’s a toll for players, stress for coaches as they try to map out routines and work schedules, an immense burden for the front office, ambiguity for visiting clubs, and loads of anxiety for Major League Baseball.

To say the pressure is on doesn’t even begin to do it justice.

The under-discussion option of staying in Washington July 29-30 and playing host to the Nationals there, and then flipping the subsequent July 31-Aug. 2 series with the Philadelphia Phillies to Citizens Bank Park, would buy everyone some time, right up to the Blue Jays’ Aug. 11 date with the Miami Marlins. Maybe it’s the breathing room everyone needs.

Still, the real risk here isn’t to the sanctity of the baseball schedule or the damage to the Blue Jays’ chances this summer — both of which take hits the longer this drags on — but to the health of players, coaches and staff who may end up on the road for three straight weeks amid a raging pandemic.

Not good.

The main fault of Major League Baseball’s impressively thorough back-to-play protocol is the amount of travel in it, the primary factor that the Canadian government cited in rejecting the Blue Jays’ plan for regular-season games at Rogers Centre on Saturday, and prompted the State of Pennsylvania to turn down a joint proposal with the Pittsburgh Pirates to tenant at PNC Park on Wednesday.

Consider their reasoning:

“Based on the best-available public health advice, we have concluded the cross-border travel required for MLB regular season play would not adequately protect Canadians’ health and safety,” said Marco Mendicino, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship. “Of particular concern, the Toronto Blue Jays would be required to play in locations where the risk of virus transmission remains high.”

“To add travellers to this region for any reason, including for professional sports events, risks residents, visitors and members of both teams,” said Pennsylvania’s health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine.

The underlying message there is a fear players will vector COVID-19 from one region to another, an issue exacerbated by the Blue Jays visiting the coronavirus hot spots of Florida and Georgia in the next two weeks, but also playing clubs who have been there, too.

Despite that, critics described the decisions as politically motivated or alarmist. There’s a case to be made for both, and I examined the issue about a month ago.

At the same time, there’s sound reasoning for caution, as well, as Dr. Andrew Morris, medical director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at Sinai Health System/University Health Network and an infectious diseases professor at the University of Toronto, explained.

“There are several things that in infectious disease we have known forever,” he said. “One is you get people congregating together, you’re going to have spread. Two is respiratory infections are very transmissible, just like this, and they are more transmissible than people ever believe that they are. And three, when you have lots of mixing, it’s bad for epidemiology, so when you have people moving all over the place, that is a bad policy for infectious-disease management. 

“The reason why a virus that came out of Wuhan, China is all over the world,” he added, “is because of migration patterns.”

Now, take away any periods spent at a proper base that gives players a break from road life — needing to find meals, entertainment, social connections and other basic necessities away from home — and it increases their chances of both contracting and spreading disease.

That’s why the barnstorming possibility first suggested by ESPN’s Buster Olney, where the Blue Jays would play their entire home schedule as the host team at the stadium of their opponent, is a reckless idea.

The Blue Jays are looking at alternative options to Pittsburgh, including going to the city of each scheduled opponent and playing as the home team.

— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) July 22, 2020

If they used the 60-game road trip plan, the Blue Jays would never be in one spot for more than four days until Sept. 7-17, when they are set to host the Yankees and Mets and then visit the Yankees. Such a schedule is not only a competitive disadvantage, it’s a threat to both the Blue Jays and public health.

So, for the good of the Blue Jays and the communities they visit, a proper home needs to be found for them, one that gives them an opportunity to spend time sheltering safely when they’re not at work.

To that end, the club is revisiting its previous groundwork looking into Baltimore’s Camden Yards, while Buffalo’s Sahlen Field, home to the Blue Jays’ triple-A affiliate, remains a reluctant emergency fallback that needs substantial infrastructure investment to meet both big-league standards and COVID-19 protocols.

The Blue Jays also looked into bouncing between Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, although a multi-stadium plan is less ideal because it means more temporary elements such as third clubhouses are needed.

If the logistical issues can be cleared up — and they are plentiful at any big-league park — the Orioles’ home schedule matches up well with the Blue Jays’ home schedule. The only conflicts are July 29-Aug. 2 and Aug. 14-16, but figuring out where to set up an alternative clubhouse, where to locate the clubs and ensuring all protocols are followed requires time that no one has.

Team president and CEO Mark Shapiro made clear Saturday, following the Canadian government’s decision, that his team’s health and safety would be the top priority, but the situation now is no longer fully under his control.

Opening day starter Hyun-Jin Ryu, again providing a voice of reason, emphasized how the uncertainty of where the Blue Jays play was a collective challenge for the whole organization, not just players, but added, “we just have to remember that we’re going to grind for two months instead of an 162-game season. If we can rally together and work as a team, we should get by fine.”

“This is something we’ve never had to deal with in the past, but honestly, this season is all about (the challenges) that we experience and overcoming them,” he continued. “It’s going to be difficult but I trust my teammates and I think we’ll be able to rally around just because it’s an unprecedented season.”

There’s little doubt about that, and manager Charlie Montoyo pointed to the health challenges his endearing son Alex has faced his entire life as perspective for the Blue Jays’ current woes, saying, “I’ve gone through worse, so it could be worse.”

Still, both he and the rest of the coaching staff have been “communicating with the players, talking to them and staying positive,” he said. “You have no control over what’s going on, just play the game, play to win and keep going. We’ll see where we’re going to play. Don’t worry about the stuff you can’t control. That’s what we’re mainly saying to all of them. And they’ve been really good. They really have. They deserve a lot of credit.”

More than credit, they deserve a home, and their plight is a reminder of how hard staging a season amid a pandemic is going to be. Major League Baseball and the players decided to make it even harder by adding a travel element to the mix, and now health officials in both Canada and Pennsylvania have said thanks but no thanks.

That’s quite troubling from a baseball perspective. In terms of health and safety, it may be even worse.

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