Done waiting: Dunedin Jays finally return home
Tomorrow, for the first time in 33 months, the Dunedin Blue Jays will play in front of fans at their home ballpark. Like most teams in the Florida-based Low-A Southeast, Dunedin operates out of the Spring Training home of its parent club. They would normally begin their home schedule at
Tomorrow, for the first time in 33 months, the Dunedin Blue Jays will play in front of fans at their home ballpark.
Like most teams in the Florida-based Low-A Southeast, Dunedin operates out of the Spring Training home of its parent club. They would normally begin their home schedule at TD Ballpark soon after the Toronto Blue Jays head north for the regular season, but it's been a long time since things were normal in Dunedin.
Shelby Nelson, Toronto Blue Jays director of Florida operations, oversees Major League Spring Training at TD Ballpark as well as the subsequent Minor League season. When asked to summarize what the last three years have been like, he hardly knew where to begin.
"It’s definitely been a whirlwind," said Nelson. "Internally, we’ve said that we now feel like [the Dunedin Blue Jays] are a Minor League expansion team. Our fans haven’t seen our ballpark in such a long time."
TD Ballpark, originally known as Dunedin Stadium, opened in 1990. Following 2019 Spring Training the facility, and its surrounding player development complex, underwent a massive renovation project that included drastically increased capacity, the addition of a 360-degree boardwalk concourse and a bevy of new indoor and outdoor food and beverage options.
The length and scope of the renovations forced the Dunedin Blue Jays -- commonly known as the D-Jays -- to vacate TD Ballpark for the duration of the 2019 campaign. After evaluating several scenarios, the team chose Clearwater's Jack Russell Memorial Stadium as its temporary home. This ballpark, home of Philadelphia Phillies Spring Training from 1955 through 2003, is owned by the city of Clearwater and currently hosts St. Petersburg College and Clearwater High School baseball games.
"It's a 10-minute drive [from TD Ballpark to Jack Russell], just one left turn and you're there," said Nelson. "That enabled us to use our own, nicer locker rooms, then drive over for the game. ... We moved our grounds crew over there to maintain the grounds and provide more consistent field conditions. Also, our grounds crew didn’t have anything to do at our stadium because of the renovations. So we were engaged in the process, and it gave the season a homecooked feeling."
📍Jack Russell Memorial Stadium pic.twitter.com/yhYU7srhpP— Dunedin Blue Jays (@DunedinBlueJays) July 4, 2019
The 2019 D-Jays thrived under these unique conditions, posting the best record in the Florida State League. Their chance at the first outright league championship in franchise history was denied, however, as the threat presented by Hurricane Dorian resulted in the cancellation of the FSL playoffs. These would have been the final games in league history, as it turned out. Dunedin was one of eight FSL teams transferred to the new Low-A Southeast in 2021, moving down a level in the process.
TD Ballpark, greatly improved from both a fan experience and player development perspective, reopened for the Toronto Blue Jays' 2020 Grapefruit League campaign. COVID-19 put an early end to that endeavor, of course, and eventually resulted in the cancellation of the entirety of the Minor League Baseball season. The 2021 Minor League season kicked off on May 4, but the D-Jays were, once again, unable to play at home. This time around, the Toronto Blue Jays were utilizing the facility for regular season games due to the closure of the United States-Canada border.
The first Dunedin regular-season game in @MLB HISTORY!— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) April 8, 2021
PLAY BALL! ⚾️ pic.twitter.com/1ssIyhsFY2
"For all of our staff, including many people who came down from Toronto, it was a long four or five months," said Nelson. "Dealing with social distancing, working on the best ways to keep everyone safe. It was a real eye-opener for all of us, to see our little stadium, just renovated, become a Major League ballpark. We got a lot of press, playing games that mean something. There was a great learning curve, but it enabled our staff and the staff from Toronto to become one and work together."
With the Toronto Blue Jays playing at TD Ballpark, the D-Jays staged their May home games at a pair of other Low-A Southeast facilities: Clearwater's BayCare Ballpark and Tampa's George Steinbrenner Field. They posted a 4-8 record in the dozen "home" games played at these alternate locations.
Time for the first “home” game of 2021! pic.twitter.com/uFNYvJtJgJ— Dunedin Blue Jays (@DunedinBlueJays) May 11, 2021
Now that Toronto has relocated to Buffalo's Sahlen Field, where they played home games in 2020, the D-Jays can finally -- finally! -- play in Dunedin. Tomorrow, following two transitional games in which fans were not admitted, TD Ballpark will welcome Minor League Baseball fans. Nelson refers to this as the ballpark's "third opener of the year," following Toronto's Spring Training and regular season home debuts.
"Our players and coaches, they can't wait to feel like they have their own stadium," said Nelson. "One of our coaches, Matt Young, he's been a coach here for three years and has yet to be part of a game in Dunedin.
"We're excited to see our old fans come back and we're excited to be a part of Minor League Baseball again," he continued. "It means a return to normalcy, having the Dunedin Blue Jays play here."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.