TORONTO – When the coronavirus shut down the world in the spring of 2020, the area around the Rogers Center in the heart of downtown Toronto became a desolate wasteland. The familiar noises of the game day walk-up crowd and screaming scalpers have been replaced by socially distant outdoor yoga groups, residents taking their daily walks with their pets, and the occasional tennis enthusiast batting their foreheads against the brick wall next to the stadium entrance .

If a tumbleweed had rolled through, no one would have noticed.

For 161 regular season and playoff games over two seasons, the Toronto Blue Jays left their nest and cited without a real home after the Canadian government denied the team’s request to play in Toronto during the pandemic Concerns About Crossing Border Travel To and From The United States.

While all the other Major League Baseball teams stayed in their hometown and welcomed the fans back to their stadiums earlier this season, the majors’ only Canadian team stayed on the streets, initially playing supposed home games at the tiny TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Florida, and then at Sahlen Field, a retrofitted Class AAA ballpark in Buffalo, NY. In mid-July, the Jays were finally given permission to return to Canada.

Baseball is a sport of statistics. From batting averages to home runs to on-base and slugging percentages to wins over replacements, no sport communicates through numbers more than America’s pastime. On Friday, when the long-dormant stadium in downtown Toronto finally came to life, only one number was on everyone’s lips: 670.

It has been 670 days since the Blue Jays last played a game at the Rogers Center. The number seemed to be everywhere on Friday, from teammates in shirts referencing it to the team’s social media account reminding fans how long they waited for this reunion.

Officially, a baseball game between the Blue Jays and the Kansas City Royals was played in Toronto. But what happened at the ballpark on Friday was more than that. The pandemic has stolen most of the people’s daily lives. On the way back to their old way of life, some pieces of normality are picked up. The ballpark was filled with many of these pieces on Friday.

Almost three hours before the first pitch, George Springer and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. took turns tossing baseball out of the park during batting practice. In between they laughed and danced with manager Charlie Montoyo and soaked up the return to Canada. At the field level, the team’s President and Chief Executive, Mark Shapiro, kept a close eye on the team and members of the news media and welcomed them back to the stadium.

The Jays returned as a very different team. The last time they played at the Rogers Center in 2019, fans emotionally said goodbye to first baseman Justin Smoak – he played his last game with Toronto – and the team ended a 67-95 season. They returned with Guerrero, who established himself as one of the most exciting stars in the game, a line-up that leads the majors on home runs, and a team with the fourth best run differential in the American League that gives them high hopes for improvement on an overwhelming 51-48 record.

You also return to a completely different world. According to the guidelines the Province of Ontario set in Phase 3 of its reopening plans for outdoor venues, the Jays are only allowed to have 15,000 fans per game (about 30 percent of the stadium’s 49,286-person capacity). The 500 level, generally reserved for the die-hard and the occasional belligerent fanatic, remained closed. The cardboard cut-outs that occupy certain sections at this level were just one of the reminders that normal remains a relative term.

Masks were compulsory for all fans (although some tried their luck by wearing them well below the intended level on their faces). The WestJet Flight Deck, a midfield standing area for the loudest fans, has been reduced to a maximum of six socially distant people at a time.

However, the crowd felt far larger than the listed attendance of 13,446. Fans formed long lines in each team store. Springer and Hyun-jin Ryu jerseys appeared to be the top sellers (which gave the sea of ​​Guerrero Jr. jerseys some competition). The $ 25 price tag didn’t stop many fans from ordering Canadian classics: poutine and beer.

Just as the team reunited with their hometown, the fans were reunited too. Groups of people ran into each other at every corner of the stadium. Some got engaged with hugs. Others just shook hands and paused to catch up.

After a pre-game soundtrack that included “The Boys Are Back in Town,” and Coldplay’s Chris Martin sang the chorus of “Homecoming,” the Blue Jays finally took to the field while medical staff from Toronto General Hospital greeted them as they passed Waving team flags.

This ballpark has seen many iconic moments, from Joe Carter’s walk-off home run of the 1993 World Series to Jose Bautista’s emphatic bat-flip against the Texas Rangers in a Division Series game in 2015. Those moments took the stadium right through Mark shaken. The ovation the Blue Jays received on Friday when they entered the field failed to reach that decibel level, but a sense of amusement and relief swept through the stadium. From the media area to the fans in the stands, only a few eyes remained dry during a fan assembly on the large jumbotron in the midfield. With the first of many “Let’s Go, Blue Jays” chants a liberation from emotions followed.

For the next several hours it was just another typical baseball game on a brisk Friday night at the Rogers Center, give or take a few standing ovations and “MVP” chants for Guerrero Jr., who got the biggest reception from the crowd all night.

The Jays officially returned home at 7:28 pm when Ross Stripling delivered a first blow to Whit Merrifield. A home run by Teoscar Hernandez in the second inning put the home team on the map. A double homer from Bo Bichette in the seventh inning gave Toronto a 6-2 lead. The third baseman Santiago Espinal scored the final in a 6-4 win with a bare-handed catch and was the perfect end to a picture-perfect return.

After a final standing ovation for the home team, the fans dispersed and made their way to the exit, with the first game of an 11-game home stand. Outside the stadium, just a few minutes later, the honking of the cars and the clashing conversations of the departing crowd reminded one last time that the stadium, which had slumbered as a reminder of an interrupted life for the past two years, was back in operation.