Blue Jays-Astros

Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman (2) tags out Toronto Blue Jays catcher Danny Jansen (9) at third base during the third inning at Sahlen Field on Sunday in Buffalo.

I keep a list of all the Major League Baseball ballparks I’ve visited as a fan over the years, thinking maybe someday I’ll get to all 30 teams.

So far, I’ve been to Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Toronto multiple times, but also both New York teams and Washington. Well, on Sunday I added a city I never expected to be ‘big league’ in baseball: Buffalo.

Restrictions at the Canadian border have not allowed the Toronto Blue Jays or NBA’s Toronto Raptors to play in their home city since the pandemic began. The NHL’s Canadian teams played in an all-Canada division this year to avoid teams traveling across the border all season.

Technically, this wasn’t the first Blue Jays game I’ve seen in Buffalo, as I covered a game last year, when they played at a fan-less Sahlen Field. But when the Jays announced they would play in Buffalo this summer after starting the season in Dunedin, Fla., I wanted to experience this once-in-a-lifetime sports oddity among the ticket-buying fans now allowed to attend games in increasingly larger numbers.

My girlfriend bought tickets to see Toronto play Houston for my birthday last month and we met up with some friends to make a nice day trip out of it. The Jays have divided Sahlen Field into fully seated vaccinated sections and physically distanced sections, where you don’t have to show proof of vaccination and sit in separated seating pods. We all have had our shots, so the vaccinated section was the place to be. It felt great to sit among a full crowd of fellow sports fans in that kind of setting for the first time in 15 months ... since I went to a Sabres game in March 2020.

For those who know Sahlen Field as the home of the Triple-A Bisons, it might be a little jarring to see the renovations from the last two years. So much signage is now blue, featuring Jays logos, and the open area beyond left-center field now holds bullpens for both teams. Though you won’t see much Bisons signage in the park, there are some reminders that you’re still in Buffalo. You could buy a beer from Tom Girot, better known as “Conehead,” the famous vendor familiar to Sabres and Bisons fans, like I did. You can sing along to the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” Having seen Vladimir Guerrero Jr. here as a minor league prospect just three years ago, fans can now see him as a blossoming MLB star, along with many other former Bisons.

This was a heavily Blue Jays-rooting crowd, with the overwhelming majority of fans either decked out in Toronto colors or neutral ones still supporting the home team. I’d imagine there will be more opposing fans as more regional teams or those with national followings (the Yankees and Red Sox are coming to Buffalo over the next two months) come to visit, but on most nights, this should still be a home field advantage for the Jays. There were a handful of Astros fans, but not many.

And like at other ballparks around the country, the Sahlen Field fans let the Astros know their displeasure about the sign-stealing cheating scandal uncovered last year.

Jose Altuve heard the boobirds the worst of all the Astros, being the leadoff hitter and the subject of rampant speculation about his role in the scandal. An announced crowd of 5,404 sounded much larger when Altuve stepped to the plate as ‘boos’ rained down on the diminutive second baseman. But Altuve made those boos seem ineffective by the fourth pitch from Toronto’s Steven Matz, which he blasted over the left field fence for a leadoff homer. Houston took the lead and never trailed, regardless of any jeers that came for Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman or anyone else.

After a year of watching empty gyms and ballparks, fans are back, at least here in America. The Blue Jays officially plan to be in Buffalo through a July 19-21 series with Boston, and we’ll see where things stand with the border by then. As much as I enjoyed watching a game here in Western New York, hopefully our Canadian neighbors have a better handle on the virus by then and hometown Blue Jays fans can enjoy their team. Until then, I imagine the Blue Jays are slowly gaining some fans across the border.

(Salamanca Press sports editor Sam Wilson may be contacted at swilson@oleantimesherald.com)

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