Toronto Blue Jays wowed by upgrades to Sahlen Field at new Buffalo 'home'

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- It took a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic; bans from playing in Canada, Pennsylvania and Maryland; millions of dollars; and lighting borrowed from the "Field of Dreams" for Buffalo to host its first big league baseball game in more than a century.

Sahlen Field will officially become the new home away from home for the Toronto Blue Jays when ace Hyun-Jin Ryu throws the first pitch Tuesday night against the Miami Marlins. It will be the first major league game in Buffalo since 1915, when the Buffalo Blues played in the Federal League.

The changes at Sahlen Field, the home ballpark of Toronto's Triple-A affiliate since 2013, are evident. The "Green Monster" color that adorned most of the ballpark is all but a distant memory, with most areas now decked out with Blue Jays logos, padded and painted in Jays blue, and repurposed for ballplayer and staff use.

"The biggest mouth-opening, jaw-dropping experience I had was seeing [the ballpark] from the highway. What they did to brand it and make it feel like the Toronto Blue Jays' home ... and it really is," general manager Ross Atkins said on a videoconferencing call ahead of Tuesday's game. "It's kind of jaw-dropping to see the difference. It is the best socially distanced space I've seen yet -- and now I've seen Toronto, Washington, Atlanta, Tampa, Boston."

The service level at Sahlen Field, which previously housed the home and visiting clubhouses and batting cages, was redone to bear a resemblance to the Jays' clubhouse in Toronto. Toronto even designated the third-base side as the official home dugout in homage to the team's setup at the Rogers Centre.

Both field clubhouses will be used by the Jays, as they were expanded to accommodate socially distanced lockers, adorned with chairs that made the 98-mile trip from Toronto. So did Charlie Montoyo's drums, office decor and family pictures -- which he was pleasantly surprised to find in his mint Buffalo office -- all in an attempt to make the minor league ballpark feel like home.

"My reaction was 'awesome!' That's the word I'm going to use, awesome, because I've been coming here for so many years and you see the difference and how pleased the players are and how happy they are with everything," Montoyo said. "I think they did a great job. ... Everybody is happy with this. An awesome job."

Visiting teams will use a massive tent in the right-field parking lot as the visitors clubhouse. The tent area, which is fully equipped as a clubhouse space with workout, locker room and office facilities, was built using a similar blueprint to the one MLB planned for the "Field of Dreams" game in Iowa. Visiting teams will also have access to office and clubhouse space in the suite area at Sahlen Field.

"Having seen Boston, I think, really helped us here," said Atkins, referring to the inspiration the team drew from the improvements at Fenway Park. "It helped us think about things a little bit differently. The ways that they were challenged are similar to the ways that we were going to be challenged here. The thoughtfulness around maximizing concourse space and creating big, open areas where we could, and branding it in a way where it felt completely different. I'm pretty sure that our players, when they came here, they didn't recognize it."

The Blue Jays are calling Buffalo their home after the Canadian federal government rejected a plan for the team to use the Rogers Centre in Toronto this pandemic-shortened 60-game season over fears of widening the spread of COVID-19. The Blue Jays reached out to the Orioles and the Pirates to use their facilities, but state governments in Pennsylvania and Maryland rejected the proposals.

Since there was no major league baseball infrastructure at Sahlen Park, the Blue Jays had to foot the bill to make massive improvements not only to the player and staff facilities but also to the field lighting and terrain. The grass behind home plate and when expanded to more than 20 feet out from the infield needed to be replaced. Other changes included dugout extensions and blacking out the bottom 15 feet of the scoreboard to protect the batter's eye.

Temporary lighting trucks will also be deployed during games to bring that up to MLB and broadcasting standards. Those trucks were supposed to be part of the additional lighting measures used by MLB for its now-canceled "Field of Dreams" game between the White Sox and the Cardinals in Iowa. The game, a tribute to the renowned 1989 movie by the same name, was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns.

"They've done a good job," Atkins said when discussing the lighting improvements. "The best test will be tonight, but we do feel good about it. We know that it's not going to be Rogers Centre, which has exceptional lighting, but we feel good about it. Our players were in it last night. They felt like it was a significant upgrade, and I'm excited to see how it plays tonight."

"We were all walking around and talking about how we could not recognize the place," first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. told ESPN. Guerrero slashed .343/.420/.593 with an OPS of 1.013 in 39 games over two short stints in Buffalo in 2018 and 2019.

Said rookie pitcher Nate Pearson: "It feels like I'm in a totally different stadium. Everything is neat, spacious. Everything is great. I know some of the guys that were skeptical about it were pumped up and ready to go."

The Jays' celebrated young trio of Guerrero, Cavan Biggio (.312, 6 HRs, 27 RBIs in 43 games at Buffalo), and Bo Bichette (.275, 8 HRs, 32 RBIs in 56 games) all played with the Bisons. Many other current Blue Jays also know Buffalo, having played in the minors or in rehab games.

"I was there with [Randal] Grichuk, [Lourdes] Gurriel and [Anthony] Alford taking BP [Monday], and we all marveled at the clubhouse size and the field conditions, even at all the changes in the colors," Guerrero said. "It looks nothing like the ballpark I played in a few years ago. Looks nothing like a minor league ballpark now. And it's just nice to have a home."