Blue Jays a hit in Buffalo
It seems Buffalo was destined to be the COVID-19 home of the Toronto Blue Jays all along.
When the Canadian federal government rejected a plan to the team to use Rogers Centre in Toronto as their home field, the Jays were left scrambling to find a temporary home for the 60-game season.
Parks in Florida, Baltimore and Pittsburgh were all considered but the Jays knew they had an ace in the hole. Sahlen Field, the 32-year-old home of the team’s AAA affiliate just over the American border in downtown Buffalo, was sitting idle and with some work could be brought up to acceptable standards under the circumstances.
“The front office of the Jays, way before it was official they were coming here, we were working on stuff way ahead of it,” Bisons general manager Anthony Sprague said. “They had a crew here well in advance of when they knew they were coming here.
“I think they potentially took a little flack for the hemming and hawing but they weren’t hemming and hawing when it came to Buffalo. They were really putting investments in and getting things ready before it was publicly known they were coming here.”
Sprague gave props to the Jays for keeping the Bisons up to speed with the ever-changing situation.
“They did a great job communicating to us,” he said. “There were conversations long before it was out there.”
The changes at Sahlen Field are clear, even on television.
Green has been replaced in most areas of the park with blue and Blue Jay logos are everywhere.
The service level, which was previously home to the clubhouses and batting cages, was updated. Both the home and visiting clubhouses are used by the Jays and even chairs from Toronto’s clubhouse at Rogers Centre were brought in.
As well, the infield grass was replaced, the space behind home plate extended about 20 feet, and temporary lighting trucks brought in. Those trucks were originally slated to be part of MLB’s Field of Dreams game in Iowa between the Cardinals and White Sox that was cancelled.
Visiting teams dress in a temporary building beyond the outfield wall that will be removed when the season is over.
“I don’t want to downplay the undertaking that it was at all,” Sprague said. “The guts of it itself was a pretty big undertaking to get it all set up and running.
“Only the crew that was here everyday really sees the transformation. You see pictures of it, if you weren’t in the ball park and were down in the guts of it, you probably don’t understand all the work that went into it.”
Sprague is hopeful the Bisons will profit from the upgrades.
“New paint, new carpeting, a lot of the stuff that you see in the pictures, a lot of it is going to stay. A lot of what they put into the building, we’ll benefit for years to come,” he said.
The batting cages are now housed in the concession area, which is something Sprague hopes won’t be around next season.
“Hopefully we have fans next year and we’re going to want to use that area,” he said. “What we’re able to keep and what we’re able to do is a little tricky. No one knows what next year is going to be. No one knows what we can remove and what we should keep. Those are going to be questions for a while.”
Off the field, the exposure should also prove beneficial.
“I think there’s a few different layers from having the Jays here. Obviously, our named rights partner (Sahlen) has picked up pretty good recognition throughout Canada and the US. Buffalo is on a lot of (TV) stations. All those things I understood and knew were going to be a part of this.
“The hard core baseball fans know the Jays affiliate was here in Buffalo, but this opens it up to a whole new group of people who may not care about the minor league system as much but now they see the Jays are playing in Buffalo and that’s where their minor league affiliate is. I didn’t really understand or think about it but certainly has come out now.”
The downside has been the lack of accessibility for fans due to the pandemic.
“It’s a bittersweet type of thing,” Sprague said. “This is one of the coolest things to happen here but we can’t share it with any of our fans. It’s really eerie and odd being at the ball park and not hearing the murmur of the crowd.”
Still, Sprague said he’s received countless inquiries.
“I’ve lost count the amount of people how have asked to try and come in, anything from buying a suite at enormous prices or just wanting to volunteer their time,” he said. “Lots and lots of people who have reached out. You have different levels of people who understand that they’re not allowed in and other people who don’t have any clue whatsoever.”
Sprague said the players are housed in a hotel in Buffalo and then bussed to the games or the airport.
“They’re really not doing much of anything else. The meals are here (park) or in the hotel. Unfortunately they haven’t been able to experience the dining which may be better for them because they won’t put on too many pounds. They’re not having any chicken wings!”
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