Jordan Heath-Rawlings: One week from now, some baseball players will cross the border, go through COVID screening, and arrive in Toronto. In the grand scheme of things that doesn’t matter much, cases are low right now, most players are vaccinated, crossborder traffic is picking up, and less than two weeks after the ball players arrive, the border between Canada and the United States will finally be open, at least for fully vaccinated Americans. So, yeah, it’s just baseball. But try telling that to the Blue Jays, who have literally been a traveling team for almost two seasons. Now that this isn’t a big deal. Try telling it to their fans who haven’t seen their team in person since September of 2019, and try telling that to a federal government who clearly wants to make sure that Canadians appreciate the exemption they’re granting these ball players, enough so that they’ll put one of their key cabinet ministers on a sports network to gush over their decision.
News Clip: Just actually a few moments ago, I signed off on in a National interest exemption, which will bring the Jade home. And it feels pretty good.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It has been almost 700 days since the Blue Jays last played a game in Toronto. It’s been a long, hard time, and even in a time of unusual circumstances, this team’s journey has been an odyssey, and it took months of negotiations to bring them home. So how did it come together? Why now? What had to happen and to get the government to sign off on this, even as many Americans can still not visit their family in Canada? And will all of that be forgiven on July 30th, when an awkward rookie who left this city two seasons ago returns as this:
Baseball commentator: [Bat hits ball, crowd cheering] This is a long one over the hitters eye in deep centerfield! Wow!
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Shi Davidi has covered the Blue Jays for Sportsnet for several years now, I think, Shi, how long has it been?
Shi Davidi: I probably don’t want to say, my first season was, I took over the end of the 2002 seasons. So we’re coming up on two decades.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Do you remember the last Blue Jays game played into Toronto?
Shi Davidi: I mean, it was there it was at the end of the 2019 season. It was in 8-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays, I believe. And I don’t remember specifics from the game, but it was Justin Smoak’s last in Toronto. And I remember there being a lot of emotion around that. And him getting an ovation from the crowd and having a conversation with him afterwards, him entering his final media scrum as a member of the Blue Jays with a beer in hand and sips in between questions, which was very Justin Smoak. So that’s sort of my memory of it. And it’s kind of funny. It’s like you just, we thought, all right, well, onto the next one, right? You always think, you know, the baseballers are saying, the bus doesn’t stop moving. It certainly stopped moving in ways that we couldn’t have imagined.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So maybe if you could then just take us through briefly, because I know it kind of went all over the map, the odyssey the Blue Jays went on, beginning maybe with when spring training was canceled, right around the time that everything was canceled in March of 2020.
Shi Davidi: Sure. Okay. There’s the night where the NBA shuts down. And all of a sudden, people around baseball are like, wait, this is probably going to happen to us, too. And the next day, they go about their business as if everything’s normal. And then midway through spring training game, the Blue Jays get word, and Charlie Montoyo gets called into his office by Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins. And in the middle of the game, and they say, Hey, after this is done, the seasons being put on pause, and everybody had to process that. And then all of a sudden, there’s this massive scramble. Players are wondering what’s going on. And within a few days, everybody is being sent home. And then the lockdown occurs. And then as baseball started the process of trying to get restarted, the Blue Jays faced an issue that nobody else did because the border was closed. And as long as the border remained closed, they were going to have some difficulties trying to get back in Toronto.
So those conversations were taking place as baseball developed its plan. Once it put its plan into place. And there was the thought that they could have a summer camp. The Blue Jays got an exception in which to host their camp in Toronto. And that really went right down to the last minute. And during that time, they were trying to work through an exception plan with the federal government that would allow them to have the crossborder travel necessary to play a season. And just as their camp was finishing up in Toronto, they got turned down by the federal government, which left them homeless a week before the beginning of the regular season. And so a mad scramble followed. They hatched a plan to share PNC Park with the Pittsburgh Pirates, that got turned down by the health authorities in Pennsylvania. The Blue Jays were trying to do something similar with the Baltimore Orioles, that got shut down by health officials in Maryland. And at that point, the Blue Jays were really in a jam. They didn’t want to go to their spring training home in Dunedin, Florida, because that was the epicenter of cases at the time.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Shi Davidi: And so they ended up settling at Buffalo, and they turned that into a home. They made the playoffs. And this year was a similar story. The border remained closed. So they started out their season in Dunedin, Florida. They had hoped to move up North at a certain point, the border remained closed. The third wave hit on Ontario. So once the weather started becoming inhospitable in Florida, they moved North to Buffalo. And then, as we all know, just last week, they finally got the go ahead to resume crossborder travel for their players with a specific plan and they get back into their own Stadium.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Tell me what you can about how long those negotiations had been ongoing. It sounds from reports like this was a constant back and forth.
Shi Davidi: Yeah. There were conversations on a consistent basis, right. Check ins, what are you thinking now? Where is this thing trending? What did the data say? And that was continuous from when the Blue Jays got turned down through to when they got accepted. But I would say things started picking up a little bit towards the end of spring training because at that point, Major League Baseball was going to have access to vaccines. The United States in general was going to have access to vaccines, and that was going to be one of the changing factors. And then as vaccine access in Canada started increasing and coverage started increasing, then the conversations really got on the front burner because it was more realistic at that point.
And so that’s when the discussion between the Blue Jays and the various health officials at all different levels, municipal, provincial and federal, started hammering out details of the plan, obviously, the NHL being able to have some games here with the Montreal Canadians, receiving permission to host the Stanley Cup playoff series against the Las Vegas Golden Knights and the Tampa Bay Lightning. That really opened a bit of a pathway. And then as the travel restrictions were lifted on returning fully-vaccinated Canadians, well, you could see a pathway to the same application to American professional athletes. And so I would say that the back and forth on the plan took place, I would say end of May into June. And then a proposal was submitted about a month ago, and by at that point in time, it was mostly done. And it was really just getting the various sign-offs from the different levels of government that was necessary.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So all this time, while the negotiations are going on between the Jays and various levels of government, how are the Jays doing? Like, you know, you mentioned that they’d been vagabonds for a long time. What was that like for them?
Shi Davidi: I think that’s a question that could be asked on a number of different levels, right. So specific to on field performance, the Jays didn’t fare particularly well at Duniden. They were 10 and 11 there of the 21 games that they played. And they had very small crowds, was generating minimal revenue. And when they did have fans, they were mostly there to cheer for the other teams, so. At Buffalo, it got better. But they ended up finishing 12 and 11 there where compared to last year, it was a real home field advantage for them, they were 17 and 9 in Buffalo last year. So they didn’t play quite as well there, and they got better crowds. They averaged upwards of 7,700 fans during their 22 home dates in Buffalo, which is better than three Major League teams, which is kind of hard to believe. They mostly had some support there. But when the Yankees were in town, when the Red Sox were in town, those were very pro New York, pro Boston crowds. And it really underline to the Blue Jays that they were tenants at Sahlen Field. As much as it was a good landing spot, it was a safe haven for them in a difficult period. That wasn’t their true home.
Now, on a personal level, their lives are definitely less complicated, right? It’s easier to travel within the United States than it is to cross the border, for players with families, especially for young children who aren’t vaccinated, who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated. It’s a far less complicated situation. In the United States, players are essentially living as they are, even the small minority of players that’s unvaccinated, whereas the unvaccinated players in Toronto are going to be limited to their hotel slash place of residence and the ballpark. And if they violate that, they can have their exemptions removed and they can face very, very steep fines under the Quarantine Act. You know, I think on a personal level, it’s a little bit more complicated for a certain segment of players, both those with young families, vaccinated or not, and definitely the unvaccinated population. And so I think there’s a little bit of mixed feelings about that.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How far behind the rest of Major League Baseball are the Blue Jays in terms of coming home, what they’ve been able to do, how their lives have been, what their stadiums are like, et cetera?
Shi Davidi: The rest of the baseball has been normal. Everybody’s been at their home Stadium, except for the Blue Jays. The Blue Jays haven’t been there since 2019. This year, they will have had three different home stadiums once they return to Toronto on July 30th. In two different States and a province. It’s really unprecedented stuff. It’s something that nobody else has had to deal with. And sometimes players get traded and that happens. But for that to happen to an entire team, for an organization to have to set up an infrastructure in three different places in one year, to have to move entire families on multiple occasions, this level of disruption in personal life on such a wide scale, it’s absolutely unprecedented.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: There’s been a lot of talk about the federal government perhaps preparing for an election, and a Blue Jays homecoming is certainly a really nice sign of a return to normal. Have you heard anything about what the final decision entailed?
Shi Davidi: Well, there are a few factors. One is that vaccination levels in this country have gotten so high that we’ve reached some of the thresholds where there is a reopening. This isn’t happening in isolation. This is happening within the broader scope of changes and gradual reopenings that are taking place in every aspect of everyday life. The one exception that’s being made here is that some unvaccinated travelers are being allowed in, but they’re being isolated. And there’s I guess, the sense that there is, in the words of Intergovernmental ministers, Dominic LeBlanc’s words, a National interest or a significant interest in having the Blue Jays play home games here. There’s some economic benefits, and there’s the sense that this can be done safely at this point. Whereas before and baseball did suffer two significant coronavirus outbreaks during the 2020 season, one of them, at a certain point, risked forcing the cancellation of the entire season.
That’s not the case anymore. This is Major League Baseball’s, positivity rates are stunningly low, much lower than the general populations. They’ve had been able to contain any outbreaks, in the general population, an 85% or higher level of vaccination. All those pieces put together, there was no way for the federal government to say this is unsafe and that the risks outweigh the benefits. And very clearly at this point, from economic activity, local morale, restoring normalcy for people, all those pieces were pointing to this, and the fact that there wasn’t a sizable risk really tipped the scales.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Last question on this before I want to ask you a few about the actual onfield team before I let you go. But in terms of the decision, I know the border doesn’t open to regular, fully vaccinated Americans until August 9th, and the baseball team gets to allow nonvaccinated Americans, albeit in quarantine, in as of July 30th. Has there been any blowback about this?
Shi Davidi: I’m sure that in some quarters there has been look on. Everything that’s happening in these days seems to draw some criticism and some level of complaint, but I haven’t seen any substantial complaining about this. And this one is so, I think, on the list of grievances that people can have, this one’s got to be small on the list, at least a lot of the reaction I’ve tended to see, and certainly that’s probably limited a little bit in the scope of sports fans. But people are really excited about this. People want to see life returning back to normal, I believe. And this is a small little sign of it, and it’s something that hasn’t been in the community for a long time. It’s one of the most high profile businesses that’s been disrupted because of the pandemic. And to see it coming back to Toronto, there being some excitement about the team, there being some optimism around it. I think all those pieces largely drowned out anybody who’s sort of taking issue with some of the points of the plan.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So you mentioned at the beginning of this conversation, Justin Smoak’s last game as a Jay, being the last time the Jays played in Toronto, how different will the team that plays on July 30th be from that team, from September 2019.
Shi Davidi: Well, it’s just about half the roster right now has never played a home game in Toronto. So if you wanted to sort of put it into context, I think that one really frames it. Before the 2020 season, the big free agent addition for the Blue Jays was lefthanded starter Hyun Jin Ryu, and he got the biggest contract ever given to a pitcher by the franchise. And he hasn’t thrown one pitch in Toronto as a member of the Blue Jays just yet. George Springer, who was the major edition this time around. He’s been here as a visiting player, but he hasn’t even been able to come visit Toronto because the border has been closed. So he made the decision to sign here based on the fact that his experience as a previous player and believing in the team, believing in the franchise, 150,000,000 dollars over six seasons probably helps, too. But there’s certainly a bit of a leap of faith there. For a lot of these players, coming home is going to be a bit of a new experience, but it tells you, one: how much change there’s been. The 2019 season was in many ways, the bottom of the fall for a Blue Jays team that had been in the playoffs in 2015-16. They lost 95 games that season, and that was really a transitionary year. Since the rebound has begun, the Blue Jays hadn’t gotten home yet. So the team that is coming back to Toronto is one that Blue Jays fans haven’t gotten a chance to see in person and become familiar with in person.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: The last time the Blue Jays played in Toronto, we were discussing whether or not Vlad Guerrero Jr. Would ever live up to expectations.
Shi Davidi: Yeah, it’s pretty funny, right? How dumb do those conversations seem now? I think that his emergence is a really important reminder for sports fans about why you have to have patience, and it’s difficult to have patience, right? As you want your team to do well. And I understand that, and it’s emotional. But Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was a kid when he came up and had all the pressure in the world on him, was supposed to set the world on fire, and he simply needed the major leagues to show him what he didn’t know. He needed to understand what that meant for him and how that impacted trading routines, his personal habits, the way he prepared for baseball games, all those things. And because he wants to be the best player in the world, he put in the work to make sure that it would happen once he realized what the gaps were in his game. To me, it’s an affirmation of why you have to have runway even for talented players, incredibly talented players, generationally, talented young players. And he’s certainly rewarding that faith. And it’s full credit to him. He made the decision. He decided that he needed to be accountable to his teammates, and he is having a season that is on track to be the greatest offensive season in Blue Jays history. And it’s just absolutely special what he’s doing. And it’s a lot of fun to watch it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Last question for you, you’ll be there, I assume, on July 30th, what do you think the atmosphere there is going to be like? Just based on what I’m seeing on social media and from the players, even, I think it’ll be kind of emotional.
Shi Davidi: Oh, Yeah. It’s definitely going to be that, it’s going to be a lot of things, too, right. Let’s keep in mind that July 30th is also the trade deadline.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Shi Davidi: And if they do something that captures the imagination of people a little bit as well, it could be an absolutely incredible atmosphere. And I think back to 2015 and the day that Troy Tulowitzki debuted, his acquisition was a shock, and it just completely spun around the perception of what the Blue Jays were and what they were trying to accomplish. And when he debuted, it wasn’t a sellout crowd, I think, was in the 30s, mid 30s maybe. But the crowd was as electric as any that I could remember, because there was just sort of this moment where everybody was like, we’ve arrived. This is it. This is what we’ve been waiting for. And I can see there being a similar type of vibe on the 30th, right. You got people who have been locked down for the majority of the past year and change, haven’t seen their baseball team in a long time. You’ve got a young team that’s seemingly emerging and then coming back for the first time, this reconnection with the club, and then you throw in a move or two excitement into the mix. It can be pretty special.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’m excited. Shi, thank you for this. And hopefully I see around the ballpark this summer.
Shi Davidi: That’s what everybody’s hoping for. The reconnection with everybody that we’ve been apart from it for a long, long time. I appreciate it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Shi Dividi of Sportsnet. That was The Big Story for more from us, including all the other episodes I make us do about the Blue Jays because baseball keeps me happy during a pandemic, you can head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find us anytime on Twitter to chat at @TheBigStoryFPN. You can email us and tell me to stop doing so many damn stories about the Blue Jays by emailing thebigstorypodcast, all one word, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. If you’ve made it this far, you probably like the show so you can go and show that love in your favourite podcast player, Apple or Google or Stitcher or Spotify or whichever one you choose. Please leave a rating. Please do leave a review.
Stefanie Phillips is the lead producer of The Big Story. Ryan Clarke and Joseph Fish are our associate producers. And I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. Thanks so much for listening, have a great weekend, Go Blue Jays, we’ll Talk Monday.
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