By The Canadian Press
TORONTO — It’s been nearly 22 months since Toronto Blue Jays fans have been able to see Vladimir Guerrero Jr., tear the cover off a fastball down the middle at Rogers Centre.
They haven’t seen lefty ace Hyun-Jin Ryu or big free-agent signing George Springer live in a Blue Jays uniform at all.
After nearly two years as baseball nomads, however, the Blue Jays are finally coming home after getting approval to play in Toronto from the federal government on Friday.
The team said in a statement that it will begin playing home games at Rogers Centre again starting July 30 after receiving a so-called National Interest Exemption.
The exemption, confirmed by the federal immigration minister’s office, will allow players to cross the border without being subject to Canada’s COVID-19 travel restrictions.
“Following a careful review by public health officials at every level of government, a National Interest Exemption has been approved that will permit the Toronto Blue Jays to return to Toronto and play home games at the Rogers Centre,” Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said in a statement.
“This decision was made in conjunction with the Public Health Agency of Canada, with the approval of provincial and municipal public health officials.”
Mendicino said the plan includes pre- and post-arrival testing of everyone crossing the border, and additional testing four times a week for unvaccinated individuals.
“It also includes significant limitations on unvaccinated individuals, who will have to undergo a modified quarantine, not be permitted to go anywhere but the hotel and stadium and have no interaction with the general public,” he said.
Toronto is scheduled to start a three-game homestand against the Kansas City Royals on July 30. The Jays haven’t played at Rogers Centre since Sept. 29, 2019, an 8-3 win over Tampa Bay.
The team played its home games during the shortened 2020 season in Buffalo, N.Y., and started this season in Dunedin, Fla., before returning to Buffalo.
“First and foremost, the Blue Jays wish to thank Canadians for their unprecedented public health efforts and support for the team. Without you, Blue Jays baseball would not be coming home this summer,” the team’s statement said.
The team added it would reach out to 2021 and 2022 season ticket holders in the coming days, and additional ticket information and health and safety guidelines are coming soon.
“So grateful for the support and hospitality in Dunedin, and Buffalo but after over 650 days, we will finally be coming HOME,” Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro said on Twitter. “Cannot tell you how excited we are to play in front of our fans and in our city and our country.
“Get ready Toronto — we are coming back!”
The Blue Jays’ return is the latest step in professional sports returning to normal north of the border.
Ottawa gave the NHL a travel exemption for the final two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs and recently approved a plan that allowed CFL players and staff to return to Canada without undergoing a full 14-day quarantine.
Major League Soccer teams Toronto FC and CF Montreal are hosting games against U.S.-based opponents Saturday. While a quarantine exemption has not been granted to MLS, fully vaccinated athletes with work permits can enter the country without completing a 14-day quarantine.
The Blue Jays entered Friday night’s game in Buffalo against the Texas Rangers third in the American League East standings with a 45-42 record, and four-and-a-half games out of an American League wild-card spot.
While the team is fighting to emerge out of the middle of the pack, they are arguably one of the most entertaining teams in the league.
Guerrero is having a breakout season, and on Tuesday was named the MVP of the all-star game after his rocket home run helped lead he American League to a 5-2 win over the National League.
He forms a solid offensive core with Marcus Semien and Teoscar Hernandez — also all-stars — as well as Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio. It could be augmented further if Springer, beset in his debut Jays season by injuries, starts rounding into form.
Ryu and talented rookie Alek Manoah highlight a decent starting rotation that is often let down by a mediocre bullpen.
The big off-season signings of Ryu in December 2019 and Springer a year later, and the Blue Jays return to the post-season in 2020 after a three-year absence, were among the recent highlights Jays fans had to take in from afar.
If the Jays are going to make another playoff run this year, they will be doing it at home.