The Blue Jays are entering their final week in delightfully different Dunedin, and for some members of the organization the extended Florida staycation cannot end soon enough.
There are seven games remaining in the Sunshine State before the Jays pack their bags and head out on the road, not scheduled for a return to TD Ballpark until next spring. Few tears will be shed on their way out the door, eventually destined for Buffalo.
The time has come to say goodbye to a facility that served its purpose for the last three-plus months but is becoming increasingly problematic by the day.
The stadium itself is charming and up to date following recent renovations. The playing conditions are a nightmare for anything other than spring training or Class-A ball games.
The lack of a second and third deck in the stands has been wreaking havoc on the field. Outfielders are getting blinded by the sun, pop-ups can be blown in any direction and hitters sometimes have trouble tracking balls because of the lights.
Shortstop Marcus Semien shared some of his frustrations after Sunday’s 10-8 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. The conversation started when a local reporter asked whether the Jays were enjoying settling in during a rare 10-game homestand. After all, this was a team that recently came off a three-city trip through three time zones.
Must be nice to be home, right? No, not really.
“That’s a tough one to answer,” Semien admitted. “I’ve enjoyed being on the road this year actually, because we’re playing in big-league stadiums. I do enjoy the Tampa area, Dunedin area, living here off the field. But I think a lot of us wish we were in a big-league ballpark.
“Yes, when you go on the road you may get booed, or no cheers for you, but it seems like that’s how it is here in Dunedin too; there’s a lot of fans of other teams. Personally, I don’t think playing here is a relief. I just enjoy living in the Tampa area.”
Negative on-the-record comments about Dunedin have been few and far between because players don’t want to come off as complainers. They have nothing against the region—many choose to live there during the off-season—and they’re appreciative of having a spot to call their own after the Canada-U.S. border was closed to non-essential travel.
The situation could be a lot worse and everyone knows it, but that doesn’t make it ideal. At times it has been hazardous.
Semien is one of the few players with enough experience and status to openly share his feelings. As Oakland’s former player rep with the union, he’s accustomed to speaking on behalf of others and this weekend he said what many of his teammates have been thinking.
Every home game seems to begin the same way, with a camera panning to Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and a glove shielding his face in left field. He’s squinting through sunglasses and, like the old Adam Sandler skit, appears to be praying that a ball doesn’t get hit to him in the air. If it does, he might be the last one in the ballpark to know.
Even when the ball is visible there are problems. The ocean is a few blocks to the west and the breeze varies by the day. Home-run balls to left sometimes fall well short of the warning track. Weak bloopers to right field somehow find their way to the wall. There’s no home-field advantage when even the locals can’t predict what’s going to happen next.
“It has been kind of weird out there,” said manager Charlie Montoyo, whose team opens a three-game series against Boston on Tuesday. “(Saturday) there were a lot of balls hit hard to left and they weren’t going anywhere, and then to right field the wind takes it. So, any fly ball carries. It has been tough out there for all outfielders. It hasn’t been easy, honestly.”
The conditions have sometimes made the play appear amateurish. When an injury-riddled Phillies team tried to throw two infielders into the corner outfield spots, it looked like they had never seen the game before, let alone caught a baseball. The only thing missing was circus music every time a ball was hit skyward. Earlier in the year, Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier joked that he was just happy to come out of the experience “alive.”
These are all reasons, combined with the heat and rain that will soon come with a Florida summer, why the Jays are anxiously awaiting their move to Buffalo with the first home game set for June 1.
Sahlen Field isn’t a big-league facility either, but it does have an upper deck and the capacity to host upwards of 17,000 fans during non-pandemic times. The Jays had success there last year with a 17-9 mark, which propelled them into the post-season. Since they were last in town, the ballpark has received a facelift. The bullpens have been moved behind the outfield walls, new batting cages and weight rooms were built, additional light structures were added.
It’s not the Rogers Centre and it’s still on the lowest end of MLB standards, but it’s better than what the Jays have now as they await approval to return to Canada.
“Mark (Shapiro) has had a lot of consistent dialogue and communication with the government,” general manager Ross Atkins said when asked for the latest on playing at the Rogers Centre. “But we’re more focused on making sure those trends from a health standpoint in Toronto and Canada take the forefront, but encouraged by the communication that has occurred.”
Two, maybe three, home ballparks in one season aren’t ideal, but the Jays are trying to do their best with the hand they were dealt. With the weather starting to warm up, it’s time to fly north, and no one can blame these guys for counting down the days until it happens.
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