Blue Jays end nomadic trip to Buffalo, will host the first game on Tuesday

The signs are familiar. And that’s about it. But hey, it’s better than nothing.

Or, to be more precise, for the Toronto Blue Jays, it’s better than seeing their name at the bottom of the scoreboard in a visiting stadium for a game that is only “home” in name.

The Baseball nomads will run on the field at Sahlen Field in Buffalo, New York, on Tuesday, as the host team for the first time in 2020. Canada’s government would not allow the Blue Jays to hold games at Rogers Center in Toronto, fearing outside entities in the city amid the coronavirus pandemic. Pittsburgh asked to let the Blue Jays play at PNC Park while the Pirates were on their way, but Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf would not report it.

That left Buffalo, which was finally a regular season Major League Baseball game in 1915, when the Buffalo Blues finished sixth in the eight-team Federalist League.

The wait hasn’t been that long for the Blue Jays. Toronto spent the first two-plus weeks of this season from Tampa to Washington to Atlanta to Boston, while waiting for preparations on 16,600-seat Sahlen Field (all but a few will be empty) to be complete.

It will take some time to figure it out, no matter how many times the familiar Blue Jays logo is splashed all over bathroom cabinets to elevator doors to dugouts. Instead of a Marriott located across the window from the center-right field, Ellicott Square – which served as the backdrop for the hotel scenes in the 1984 film “The Natural” – sits across the street.

“We haven’t played in Buffalo, so it’s still a road trip, it feels like,” said Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo, whose team is 5-8 after being hopscotched up and down the East Coast. “But I’ll say after the first few games, it’s going to be kind of our home ball park.”

This ballpark is, by the way, not the one where Robert Hobford’s Roy Hobbs brushed all the lights in the climactic scene of “The Natural.” The film was shot at War Memorial Coliseum, which gave way to Sahlen Field in the late 1980s, though your Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly – whose team will forgive visitors Tuesday – for mixing things up.

“I’ve never been to Buffalo in my life,” said Mattingly, whose team dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak that disrupted its season two weeks ago. “I think of the Bills and then ‘The Natural.’ Are we playing in the same stadium? “

In fact, the Marlins and Blue Jays will find themselves working in a facility that could be just like a snapshot of the 2020 season. The lights were upgraded, the infield got a makeover and almost every available wall got a splash of blue paint. However, the real work focused on making the 32-year-old stadium compliant with MLB health protocols in place to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Batting boxes have been transformed into dressing rooms. Washrooms became workout areas. The concourse is now a well-equipped gym. BAM Productions, which helps MLB put on the Little League Classic and the NHL host the Winter Classic, took the lead in the transformation. Some of the changes will be temporary. Some will be permanent. All are designed to help the Blue Jays relax and escape, however short, about 100 miles south of Rogers Center.

“We want to make this feel like home for our boys,” said Blue Jays vice president Marnie Starkman.

First impressions were promising. Starkman called the reaction of Toronto’s coaching staff during a brief tour of the facility Sunday night “pretty cool.”

Although the deadlines were not in place until this weekend, the process was not as chaotic as the club feared. The Blue Jays had designated Buffalo as the alternative training site before Sahlen Field found him the best candidate to provide the big league club with temporary digs, meaning the lights were one of the first things to arrive when the makeover began.

The lawsuit has led Mike Buczkowski, president of Rich Baseball Operations, the owner group that runs the Bisons, to test what the franchise will do if things return to “normal” – if anything goes “normal” in a post- pandemic world.

“It really opened our eyes in terms of, ‘Should we really have the batting boxes where we had them?’ Things like that, “Buczkowski said. “It brings us to imitate space again.”

However, it will not allow Buczkowski to re-imagine Sahlen Field completing an entire league field. Buffalo was in the early 1990s for an MLB team, when the league expanded to Denver and Miami, but the economy that made sense then could not make sense three decades later. Buffalo is the 52nd ranked TV brand in the country, and Toronto, New York City and Cleveland are all within driving distance.

“We’ve always said it’s not that we will not have fans who would support MLB in Buffalo, it’s like we’re a big enough brand,” Buczkowski said. “You look at all the other revenue you have to generate. That’s the question … We did not really see this as something if we did it right, we would become a major candidate for baseball.”

That does not mean that Sahlen Field will not look like a big league when the city hosts its first major league game since Woodrow Wilson’s first term in the White House. Buczkowski will take over his office, providing a fairly good view of the action.

The view will be even better for the Blue Jays. Finally home – sort of.