After 22 months without playing baseball at home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Toronto Blue Jays will finally return to the Rogers Centre on Friday, hosting the Kansas City Royals.
The team’s return to Toronto comes after the federal government granted it a national interest travel exemption, allowing Major League Baseball games to be played in downtown Toronto for the first time in 670 days.
The exemption, confirmed by the federal immigration minister’s office, will allow players to cross the border without being subject to Canada’s COVID-19 travel restrictions. The federal government says the plan includes pre- and post-arrival testing of everyone crossing the border, as well as additional testing four times a week for unvaccinated individuals.
The Jays last played at Rogers Centre on Sept. 29, 2019, when they closed out the season with an 8-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays.
The team played last season’s 60-game condensed schedule out of Buffalo, N.Y., and started this year’s campaign in Dunedin, Fla., before relocating to Buffalo.
This will be the first home game in Toronto for many Blue Jays, including right-hander Ross Stripling. His only start at the Rogers Centre was a six-inning, one-run performance against the Blue Jays in 2016.
Road closures will be in effect
Preparations are underway as the city gears up to finally welcome its team back home.
Toronto police say road closures will be in effect for all upcoming home games, including pre- and post-game road restrictions surrounding the Rogers Centre.
The closures will go into effect two hours before game time and will remain in place until the game ends.
Meanwhile, Boston Pizza, the official sports bar of the Blue Jays, is set to host five viewing parties in the following cities across Canada: Ajax, Ont., Victoria, Calgary, Winnipeg and St. John’s.
The CN Tower will also be lit up blue tonight to celebrate the team’s return to their home turf.
Team treating stadium as outdoor venue
Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro has said the team has received approval to treat the stadium as an outdoor venue and allow up to 15,000 fans at games, which is about 30 per cent of the stadium’s 49,286-person capacity.
He said the retractable roof will be open as long as the weather allows, and additional measures have been taken to ensure proper ventilation.
The stadium has also undergone renovations, including new turf, a new sound system, new batting cages and cosmetic changes to the 100-level concourse.
Players and staff alike are looking forward to being back in Toronto, Shapiro said, even if it means moving for the second time this season.
“I think about Marcus Semien, Hyun Jin Ryu, George Springer, players who made a decision to come to the Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto was a big part of that decision, Canada was a big part of that decision,” Shapiro said in a previous interview. “And yet they’ve never played a game as a hometown player in Rogers Centre. So there’s a lot of excitement.”
Settling back into Toronto and playing in front of hometown fans again will be a boost for the team as it strives to clinch a playoff spot, he said. The Jays currently sit fourth in the AL East.
Both the Jays and the Royals are coming off wins on Thursday.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. drove in three runs with his 33rd home run of the season as the Blue Jays defeated the host Boston Red Sox 13-1 to gain a split of a four-game series. The Royals beat the visiting Chicago White Sox 5-0 to take the series 3-1.
Other leagues eye return to Canada
The Blue Jays’ return is the latest step in professional sports returning to something closer to normal north of the border.
Ottawa gave the NHL a travel exemption for the final two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs and recently approved a plan that allowed CFL players and staff to return to Canada without undergoing a full 14-day quarantine.
Major League Soccer teams Toronto FC and CF Montreal have also hosted games against U.S.-based opponents this month.
While a quarantine exemption has not been granted to MLS, fully vaccinated athletes with work permits can enter the country without completing a 14-day quarantine.
The Toronto Raptors, the lone NBA team not located in the U.S., played in the league’s Orlando, Fla., bubble during the 2020 playoffs, where they lost to the Boston Celtics.
The team announced in November 2020 it would play at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., and finished out the regular season there, missing out on a playoff spot for the first time in eight seasons. As of Thursday, there was still no word on when the Raptors would return to Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena.