After much rumor, pleading, and competing reports, the Toronto Blue Jays will officially play in Buffalo. The Major League affiliate of the Buffalo Bisons will call Sahlen Field its home, once the Buffalo ballpark is made ready.
The Jays organization announced Friday they would play most of their home games at Sahlen Field.
For Buffalo, it fulfills a quest by many to bring big league baseball to Buffalo, though in an unexpected way. Three decades ago, the city was abuzz with excitement as it opened what was then Pilot Field in 1988 and put out the message to Major League Baseball of its interest in securing an expansion team in the National League. That didn't happen, of course, but the Bisons have remained a steady franchise in Triple-A level baseball, winning the 1997 American Association championship and International League's 1998 and 2004 titles.
Mike Buczkowski, president of Rich Baseball Operations, owners of the Bisons and two other minor league baseball franchises, was with the Bisons organization during the pitch for a major league club. He took a moment during a Friday afternoon news conference to honor the Bisons' longtime owners, who spearheaded the big league dream.
"At this point, I think about Bob and Mindy Rich who, you know, have put their heart and soul into Bison baseball, whether that was to try to attract a major league team back in the day, or to have the best possible Triple-A ballpark, and keep the Bisons a great part of our community and what it is today," he said.
Major League Baseball, which suspended its season in late March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, opened its adjusted 2020 season this week. But because Canadian Government precautions against COVID-19 meant the Jays could not play on their home field at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, the team had been seeking approval to play in a U.S. major league park.
Those hopes were dashed when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania denied permission to play in Pittsburgh, and Maryland did not approve them to play at Baltimore's Camden Yards, due to their own COVID-19 precautions.
In the meantime, leaders in Buffalo including Mayor Byron Brown and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz lobbied the Blue Jays organization to bring the team to Buffalo. Poloncarz donned a Blue Jays uniform bearing his name during a Friday news conference in his office, while Mayor Brown joined Buczkowski and Jonathan Dandes, Corporate Vice President of Governmental Relations & Special Projects for Rich Products, in the concourse behind center field at Sahlen Field.
"When I first heard that the Blue Jays might not be able to play home games at Rogers Centre, my first call was to Mike Buczkowski and John Dandes, to offer my support as mayor, to help out any way I could assist the Bisons organization in getting the Blue Jays to play here in Buffalo," Brown said.
The Jays will play their first home series against the 2019 World Series Champion Washington Nationals on July 29 and 30, allowing time for infrastructure modifications at Sahlen Field to meet Major League Baseball's standards of play and safety. The needed adjustments include enhanced lighting and accommodations such as pitchers' bullpens, workout space and clubhouse space.
"Through this process, one of the unfortunate things has been a lot of reporting about Sahlen Field - outside of Buffalo - has been that this is not a major league baseball facility," Buczkowski said. "It is not a major league baseball facility. It is a great Triple-A baseball facility. There's not a minor league baseball facility in the country that meets major league standards."
The first game played in Buffalo could be July 31 against the Philadelphia Phillies, or August 11 against the Miami Marlins, depending on how soon the infrastructure changes can be finalized. Buczkowski said more information would be available over the next couple days, once officials in Buffalo could get a better idea of how long it will take to prepare Sahlen Field.
Fans, however, will not be allowed to attend games, as part of New York State's COVID prevention guidelines covering professional sports. Buczkowski was unaware of any special plans to televise Blue Jays games in the Buffalo market, but noted that local fans may watch Toronto games on MLB.tv.
“We are extremely grateful to have a home in Buffalo this season, thanks to the openness, creativity, and partnership of the Buffalo Bisons, Major League Baseball, and Blue Jays staff, who have worked tirelessly to prepare us for games at Sahlen Field,” said Mark Shapiro, Toronto Blue Jays President & CEO, in a prepared statement.
During his Friday morning briefing, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced he'd been in talks with the Blue Jays owners and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. At the time, Cuomo couldn't announce the deal was finalized, but offered support for bringing the Jays across the Canadian border.
"We have the protocols in place. It will be done safely. But the horse is out of the barn on this one. Major League Baseball is going to play. They're going to play all across the nation, fan-less. If it's going to happen, I'd rather it happen here. It's good for Buffalo," Cuomo said.
The Blue Jays will play their season opener against the Tampa Bay Rays at 6:40 p.m. in Florida.
The Buffalo Bisons have been the top minor league affiliate of the Blue Jays since 2012. Several players currently in the Jays' lineup are former Bisons. The affiliation agreement is currently set to expire at the end of this year. Buczkowski was asked if serving as the "home away from home" for the Jays could help serve to extend the affiliation.
"Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball still need to negotiate an overall agreement, which has not been done yet, and we're hopeful to get back to talking to them, now that Major League Baseball has gotten underway," he said. "But we love our partnership. There's no reason to think it wouldn't continue for many years to come."