When Don Mattingly was asked about Buffalo, he pondered football and films.
“The one thing I think about is the Bills, and The Natural. Wasn’t that filmed in Buffalo? Are we playing in that same stadium?” asked the onetime American League batting champ, with the New York Yankees, and now manager of the Miami Marlins.
No, The Natural was filmed in the War Memorial, which was torn down in 1988, about the time the multi-named Pilot Field opened. A lot of work needed to be done on that current Triple-A facility, now called Sahlen Field, to get it ready for Major League Baseball.
The nomadic Toronto Blue Jays are slated to finally open their “home” schedule Tuesday against the virus-riddled Marlins. The Buffalo Blue Jays have a nice ring to it.
“There’s been a ton of attention given to detail,” Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said. “To how players are moving during a game and where they can be seated, whether that’s in the bullpen or making the dugouts bigger by getting access into the stands.”
Because of the coronavirus, the Blue Jays were barred from playing home games this season by their own country. The Canadian government required that MLB players quarantine for 14 days every time they crossed the border, a non-starter in terms of completing a 60-game season by September.
The American League East team was also shunned by governments in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and because of health reasons, it couldn’t share ballparks in either Major League town. Over the weekend of Aug. 1-2, the Blue Jays had a series at Citizens Bank Park postponed as the Philadelphia Phillies waited on COVID-19 test results.
The Blue Jays have been on the road to five cities since July 21. But that’s all expected to end, as the Jays fill in at the home of their Triple-A affiliate Bisons, whose season was eliminated because of the pandemic.
Since the decision to play at Sahlen, the Blue Jays and MLB have been at work upgrading the lighting, the field, the clubhouses and the dugouts to at least simulate Major League standards.
“We will be using a lot of outside space for players to prepare and train and get ready and recover,” Atkins said. “We’ll have batting cages and places to prepare, throw and throw bullpens even in the concourses. We’re expanding the clubhouse for the home side to be extremely expansive and at least eight feet between every player by using almost the entire underground area for our players and staff.”
As it stands, the Blue Jays will play 27 of their 30 home games in 48 days, ending the regular season at Sahlen against the Orioles on Sept. 27. They’ve already played what would’ve been two home dates against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park.
Since the two teams don’t play again in what was originally an abbreviated 60-game season, the Blue Jays can’t retrieve those two games for Buffalo. But the three games postponed in Philadelphia were also Jays home games, and two of them have been rescheduled as an Aug. 20 doubleheader in western New York. The other will be in Philadelphia.
Those games in Philly were postponed after 18 Marlins players and three coaches tested positive for COVID-19. Their odyssey had begun with a game against the Phillies July 26 at The Bank. Both teams didn’t play for a week.
“Obviously this year is crazy,” Mattingly said. “From the spring to the downtime to the summer camp. Now trying to play through this thing. It’s definitely a different year.”
For Buffalo, this a renaissance of sorts. The city was promised an AL team when what has long been dubbed the Junior Circuit was formed at the turn of the 20th Century. Instead, the franchise was awarded to Boston. Tuesday will mark the first regular season MLB game in Buffalo, where professional football and hockey have long reigned.
And, of those mythical Knights of Roy Hobbs, managed by actor Will Brimley, who passed away last week.
“If you would have submitted this as a movie script, it would’ve been turned down because people would’ve said it’s not believable enough,” said Mike Buczkowski, the president of baseball operations for the Bisons. “There’s no way that that could happen. It has been a rollercoaster since they shut down the facilities and cleared everything out, because of the COVID outbreaks.”
That the Buffalo Blue Jays could materialize?
“Unimaginable,” he said.