The Toronto Blue Jays' highly-anticipated first game in its temporary home ballpark comes Tuesday evening. On the eve of the first pitch, Blue Jays officials explained some of the changes and realignments within Sahlen Field in order to accommodate big league ballplayers safely in an ongoing pandemic.
The Blue Jays and Buffalo Bisons, the Jays' top minor league affiliate, announced in late July that Sahlen Field would serve as the official home ballpark for the big league club. The Jays were forced to find a surrogate home stadium after the Canadian federal government, citing concerns about potential COVID spread, denied permission to play in their usual venue, Rogers Centre.
Adjustments needed to accommodate the Blue Jays and their guests include expanded clubhouse and weight room facilities, improved lighting and expanded bench space beyond the dugouts.
Marnie Starkman, the Toronto Blue Jays' senior vice president of marketing and business operations, praised the Buffalo Bisons for their assistance and said they're proud of the work achieved to get the ballpark ready for their own players.
The team will use both the home and visitors' clubhouses for their space. The visitors' locker room has been converted into a stretch area, while the coaches will utilize the home locker room for its dressing and office area. The batting cages, usually found in the basement level of Sahlen Field, have been moved into the main concourse so that the players' locker room space can be located there.
Opponents will change, stretch and shower in a temporary large shelter built beyond center field just outside the stadium. They also have a separate batting cage set up.
"Last night was pretty cool. Our coaching staff arrived and just watching their reaction when they walked in, I think, made us feel like we had at least achieved making it feel like home, which was a priority," she said. "I think we are we're happy so far. I mean, we'll see as we live through this phase, but yeah, we're pretty proud of what collectively we were able to accomplish."
The Blue Jays have also reworked the Sahlen Field infield grass, and some of the outfield grass. Starkman explained the lip between the infield and the grass was "too significant."
The team worked with Major League Baseball and a company known as BaAM Productions, headquartered in Etobicoke, Ontario. BaAM's past work with MLB includes special games held in Iowa, in celebration of the film Field of Dreams, and in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, better known in baseball as the hometown of the Little League World Series.
"They subcontracted companies and yes, most of them where we can, we worked with local crews that have, honestly, been just absolutely fantastic to work with," Starkman said. "The Bisons obviously had vendors, and the Buffalo Bills have been fantastic to work with as well. They provided us with vendors that they use in the local area as well. So it's sort of been a mix, but as much as we could we used local subcontractors, and that was through BaAM productions."
The Blue Jays and Major League Baseball are covering the cost of the conversion. When the season ends, and it's time to reconvert Sahlen Field back into the home of the Bisons, how much will be left behind?
"We're going to work with the Bisons on what will go home," Starkman replied.
When first announcing the agreement to open Sahlen Field to the Blue Jays, Bisons officials expressed their desire to renew an affiliation with Toronto which has been in place since 2012. That agreement is set to expire at the end of this year, and Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball must still negotiate a new professional agreement.
Once the majors and minors reach a new deal, Jays officials also wish to extend their partnership with the Bisons. While this temporary arrangement will strengthen the relationship between the two clubs, it won't allow the Jays to market directly to a Western New York fan base. Major League Baseball, Starkman explains, looks upon Western New York as the territory of the New York Yankees and New York Mets, including broadcasting rights.
"We love that our fans come over here to watch the Bisons. We're happy with the proximity and from a marketing standpoint, marketing events, our home away from home has been fantastic. But we're also respectful that we're in someone else's marketing territory. We will be respectful of that," she said.