The Blue Jays' COVID odyssey is finally over. Now safe at home, they look like World Series contenders

Baseball teams love to make motivational shirts for themselves — splashed with some pithy reference to a clubhouse joke or public quip. The Toronto Blue Jays, for instance, wore one last year that said “Nobody gives a s*#@” (that last word rhymes with “hit”).

It was president Mark Shapiro’s idea. An acknowledgement that in the crowded American League East in the competitive world of baseball, the Blue Jays’ disadvantageous circumstances were, if anything, a source of delight and not sympathy to their opponents.

“So let’s just play,” as manager Charlie Montoyo said recently.

Last year, the Blue Jays played: in Dunedin, Florida, for the first two months of the season to a 27-25 record; in Buffalo, New York, at a 24-23 pace; and finally back in Toronto starting on July 20, after which they went 40-23 overall, including 25-11 at Rogers Centre.

The whole time, they knew their competition didn’t care that they had been nomadic for nearly two years. On Sept 29, 2019, the Blue Jays played their last game at home in a season that saw them finish 67-95 for fourth place in the AL East. A bad record, but the future looked bright with a promising, pedigreed young core in Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio.

When baseball first emerged from the initial pandemic shutdown in 2020, the Jays held their so-called “summer camp” at Rogers Centre, with the team staying sequestered at an attached hotel. But coronavirus restrictions at the Canadian border made it impossible for teams to travel back and forth.

“Honestly, in my mind I didn't think that there was a chance we weren't gonna be able to play in Toronto,” Biggio recalled.

Toronto Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. reacts after flying out during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the Detroit Tigers, Thursday, March 31, 2022, in Dunedin, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

But that’s exactly what happened. They opened with 13 games on the road while the organization scrambled to find a temporary home before settling on a souped-up Sahlen Field in Buffalo, normally home to their Triple-A affiliate. That year they eked into an expanded postseason field only to be swept in the first round.

And when the rest of the sport returned to something more like normalcy for a 162-game season in 2021, the Blue Jays remained unmoored. Their talent had matured into contenders, but so had their competition. Across three home stadiums, in front of hostile crowds and limited capacity, the Blue Jays played like one of the most exciting teams all the way down to the wire. On the last day of the regular season, they won their 91st game but watched their playoff hopes slip away as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox jockeyed ahead of them into the wild card. They’d improved by 24 games between 2019 and ‘21, but the result was the same: fourth place in the AL East and an empty October. They had come up one game short.

And over the course of a long winter, you’d have to think at some point they wondered: If the Blue Jays had been able to play half their games at home, like every other major league baseball team, could they have won one more game?

“Yes,” says Montoyo. “That I can say for a fact. It’s not right for me to say we would’ve won the division or something, ’cause nobody knows that. One game? For sure.”

“I think without a doubt we would have won one more game,” says Bichette.

“It's tough to say ‘what ifs,’ but I think going to show what we did when we were there — the energy that the fans brought us playing there — yeah, I would say so,” says catcher Danny Jansen.

“It’s hard to speculate. You don't want to do that,” Biggio says. “You’ll drive yourself crazy. But we were definitely put at a little bit of disadvantage, to say that much.”

It wasn’t just that they were living out of suitcases for six months — although that created a tedious slog of laundry and only ever half unpacking. The facilities were subpar; but the organization went to incredible lengths to make them serviceable. Both Dunedin and Buffalo had “horrible pitching parks,” according to pitching coach Pete Walker; but at least their opponents had to contend with the same environment.

It was the unfriendly atmosphere that made the Blue Jays' long odyssey home feel particularly arduous.

“We didn't have fans cheering for us for a year and a half — more than that,” Biggio says.

When the Blue Jays played their “home” opener in Dunedin last April, 1,348 people who may or may not have been Jays fans showed up to watch. Even the COVID-limited capacities elsewhere around baseball attracted 10 times as many spectators. And when crowds did come, it wasn’t to cheer on the Blue Jays.

“I used to be with the Rays,” says Montoyo, “and [they had] a better home-field advantage being in Dunedin than at the Trop.”

“And then in Buffalo, it was home-field advantage for the Yankees. Even Boston.”

Toronto Blue Jays right fielder Cavan Biggio catches a fly ball hit by Detroit Tigers' Isaac Paredes during the second inning of a spring training baseball game, Thursday, March 31, 2022, in Dunedin, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Toronto Blue Jays right fielder Cavan Biggio catches a fly ball hit by Detroit Tigers' Isaac Paredes during the second inning of a spring training game on March 31 in Dunedin, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The Rays, Yankees, Red Sox: all AL East rivals who finished ahead of the Blue Jays and got to play in the postseason.

“I’m getting heckled playing right field,” Biggio says. “I'm like, oh my gosh, I get heckled on the road all the time. Now I gotta get used to it for a home game.”

When the team did finally make it back to Toronto for the final months of the season, COVID restrictions limited the crowds to 15,000 at first, with that number doubling for the final homestand of the season. Even then, it was just a little more than half of the Rogers Centre capacity.

“It felt like a full stadium, how much we needed it,” Bichette says.

Biggio, Bichette and Guerrero Jr. all debuted in 2019. Just a few years before, the Blue Jays had the AL’s best attendance two straight years after they made it to the ALCS in consecutive seasons. For the first season that the trio of second generation All-Stars manned the infield at the cavernous Rogers Centre, attendance dropped to the middle of the pack.

“When I was drafted by the Blue Jays is when [Jose] Bautista and all them were playing,” Bichette says. “And so that was what everybody kind of envisioned in the org, getting to the Blue Jays and playing in front of a crowd like that.”

In 2022, they almost certainly will.

Guerrero caused a stir in spring training when he told reporters that the 91-win basically barnstorming 2021 Blue Jays season had just been the trailer.

“I think they’re now going to see the movie,” he said.

The Blue Jays lost the Cy Young award-winning Robbie Ray and the MVP-finalist Marcus Semien to free agency this winter. And yet they can reasonably expect to be even better after adding a Platinum Glove at third base in Matt Chapman, the breakout pitcher from a 107-win San Francisco Giants team in Kevin Gausman and enigmatic All-Star starter Yusei Kikuchi. One of last offseaon’s star auditions, George Springer, figures to be more of a factor if he can stay on the field this summer. The core of the lineup is still young, hungry and powerful.

And even their long-awaited home-field advantage will get an extra boost this season as teams traveling to Canada have to leave their unvaccinated players behind.

It all amounts to a team that projects to be the third-best in baseball this season, according to Fangraphs, sitting atop the AL East, cruising into an expanded postseason, finishing the season with 92 wins. One more than last season.

“We almost feel like we have some unfinished business from last year,” Biggio says.