TORONTO — When the coronavirus sent the world into lockdown in the spring of 2020, the area surrounding Rogers Centre in the heart of downtown Toronto became something of a desolate wasteland. The familiar sounds of the walk-up crowd on game day and scalpers shouting at the top of their lungs were replaced by socially distanced outdoor yoga groups, residents taking their daily walks with their pets, and the occasional tennis enthusiast working on their forehead against the brick wall adjacent to the stadium entrance.
If a tumbleweed had rolled through, no one would have noticed.
For 161 regular season and playoff games across two seasons, the Toronto Blue Jays left their nest and played without a true home after the Canadian government rejected the team’s request to play in Toronto during the pandemic, citing concerns over cross-border travel to and from the United States.
While every other Major League Baseball team remained in its home city, welcoming fans back into its stadiums at the start of this season, the only Canadian team in the majors stayed on the road, playing supposed home games first at the tiny TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Fla., and then at Sahlen Field, a retrofitted Class AAA ballpark in Buffalo, NY. In mid-July, the Jays finally received approval to return to Canada.
Baseball is a sport of statistics. From batting averages to home runs to on-base plus slugging percentage to wins above replacement, no sport communicates through numbers more than America’s Pastime. On Friday, as the long-dormant stadium in downtown Toronto finally sprang to life, there was only one number on everyone’s mind: 670.
It had been 670 days since the Blue Jays last played a game at Rogers Centre. The number seemed to be everywhere on Friday, from team staff members in shirts referencing it to the team’s social media account reminding fans just how long they have waited for this reunion.
Officially, a baseball game was played in Toronto between the Blue Jays and Kansas City Royals. But what happened inside the ballpark on Friday was something more. The pandemic has stripped most people of their day-to-day routines. As they inch their way back to their former way of living, some pieces of normalcy are picked up along the way. The ballpark was filled with many of those pieces on Friday.
Almost three hours before the first pitch, George Springer and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. took turns launching baseballs out of the park during batting practice. In between, they laughed and danced with Manager Charlie Montoyo, soaking in a return to Canada. Watching closely at field level was the team’s president and chief executive, Mark Shapiro, who greeted team employees and news media members, welcoming them back to the ballpark.
The Jays returned as a much different team. When they last played at Rogers Centre in 2019, fans were bidding an emotional farewell to first baseman Justin Smoak — playing his final game with Toronto — and the team was wrapping up a 67-95 season. They returned with Guerrero having come into his own as one of the most exciting stars in the game, a lineup leading the majors in home runs, and a team with the fourth-best run differential in the American League that gives them high hopes of improving on an underwhelming 51-48 record.
They’re also returning to a much different world. Under guidelines set by the province of Ontario in Stage 3 of its reopening plans for outdoor venues, the Jays are only allowed 15,000 fans per game (approximately 30 percent of the stadium’s 49,286-person capacity). The 500 level, generally reserved for the die-hards and the occasionally belligerent fans, remained closed. The cardboard cutout fans occupying certain sections on that level were only one of the reminders that normal remains a relative term.
Masks were required for all fans (although some pushed their luck by wearing them well below the intended level on their face). The WestJet Flight Deck, a center field standing room area for the rowdiest fans, was reduced to a maximum of six socially distanced people at a time.
The crowd, however, felt far larger than the listed attendance of 13,446. Fans formed long lines at every team store. Springer and Hyun-jin Ryu jerseys appeared to be the hot sellers (giving the sea of Guerrero Jr. jerseys some competition). The $25 price tag did not stop plenty of fans from ordering Canadian ballpark staples: poutine and beer.
Just as the team is reuniting with its home city, fans were reunited too. Groups of people were running into each other at every corner of the stadium. Some engaged in full-bear hugs. Others simply shook hands and stopped briefly to catch up.
After a pregame soundtrack which included “The Boys Are Back in Town” and Coldplay’s Chris Martin singing the chorus of “Homecoming,” the Blue Jays finally took the field with health care workers from Toronto General Hospital greeting them while waving team flags.
This ballpark has seen its fair share of iconic moments, from Joe Carter’s 1993 World Series walk-off home run to Jose Bautista’s emphatic bat-flip against the Texas Rangers in a division series game in 2015. Those moments rocked the stadium to its core. The ovation the Blue Jays received when they took the field on Friday couldn’t match that decibel level, but a sense of exhilaration and relief swept across the stadium. From the media section to the fans in the stands, there were very few dry eyes when a fan montage played on the large Jumbotron in center field. A release of emotion followed with the first of many “Let’s Go, Blue Jays” chants.
For the next few hours, it was just another typical baseball game on a brisk Friday evening at Rogers Centre, give or take a few standing ovations and “M.V.P.” chants for Guerrero Jr., who received the largest reception from the crowd all night.
The Jays officially returned home at 7:28 p.m. when Ross Stripling delivered a first-pitch strike to Whit Merrifield. A home run from Teoscar Hernandez in the second inning put the home team on the board. A two-run homer from Bo Bichette in the seventh inning gave Toronto a 6-2 lead. Third baseman Santiago Espinal recorded the final out in the 6-4 win with a barehanded catch, providing a perfect ending to a storybook return.
After one last standing ovation for the home team, the fans dispersed and made their way for the exits, with the first game of an 11-game homestand complete. Outside the stadium just minutes later, the sounds of cars honking and the rush of overlapping conversations among the departing crowd provided one last reminder that the stadium, which sat dormant for the past two years as a reminder of a life interrupted, was back in business.