Former NFL player Mitch Berger can sympathize with Toronto Blue Jays - InfoNews

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Former NFL player Mitch Berger can sympathize with Toronto Blue Jays

New Orleans Saints kicker John Carney (3) is congratulated by holder Mitch Berger, centre, and Jerry Fontenot, right, after kicking the game-winning field goal in the final seconds of the game Sunday, Nov. 2, 2003, in Tampa, Fla. Mitch Berger can feel the Toronto Blue Jays' pain. The Blue Jays are playing most of their 30 home games this season in Buffalo, N.Y., after the Canadian government rejected their plan to use Rogers Centre. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Scott Martin
August 19, 2020 - 2:38 PM

Mitch Berger can feel the Toronto Blue Jays' pain.

The Blue Jays are playing most of their 30 home games this season in Buffalo, N.Y., after the Canadian government rejected their plan to use Rogers Centre. Ottawa cited the cross-border travel by American-based teams as too risky amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Toronto completed its road series against the Baltimore Orioles with a 5-2 win Wednesday before returning to Sahlen Field for a doubleheader Thursday with the Philadelphia Phillies, without fans in the stands.

Berger, 48, a native of Kamloops, B.C., knows all too well what it feels like to be uprooted. He was a punter with the New Orleans Saints in 2005 when the team was forced to play all of its games on the road following Hurricane Katrina.

"Athletes are creatures of habit," Berger said in a telephone interview. "Whenever you're not able to get into your regular routine or your regular zone, it definitely presents more problems and more challenges.

"We were displaced from our homes and we either stayed in hotels or condos we rented. It just ended up being a mess."

The Saints' first home game against the New York Giants was played at Giants Stadium. The remainder of "home" contests were split between the Alamodome in San Antonio and Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.

The nomadic existence didn't agree with the Saints. After posting an 8-8 record in '04, they went 3-13 in '05 to finish fourth in NFC South.

After the season, Sean Payton replaced Jim Haslett and head coach and quarterback Drew Brees signed with New Orleans as a free agent. The two were instrumental in the Saints winning their first Super Bowl title in the 2009 season.

Berger said a silver lining, though, was that Saints players received roughly US$100,000 extra from the NFL for their troubles. And not only did that include playing in different stadiums each week but taking a bus daily to various practice fields.

"We didn't have a facility to practise at," he said. "I remember I ended getting hurt (groin injury) because we were on wet fields that weren't our regular fields.

"The one thing about San Antonio was at least we played four games there and those at least felt like home games because we got to stay with our families and have some home fans. But for the others they flew us all the way to Louisiana and we still got home fans but we were still travelling for our home games."

Fortunately for Berger — who was with 11 NFL teams over a 16-year pro career — he was single at the time. He said players with families shouldered added burdens.

"When our situation happened, we were the only team that had to deal with it," Berger said. "It's not like we had a month or so to get our affairs in order, we had to it on the fly and a lot of guys had families, houses that were under water, a lot of issues like that which they had to deal with.

"But with COVID, all of these (baseball) players are dealing with a lot of stuff, it's just that the Blue Jays are dealing with a little bit more than everybody else."

Berger, who was twice an All-Pro and won a Super Bowl with Pittsburgh in 2008, said the Blue Jays could use their situation to their advantage.

"I think that's what you do, you use it as a rallying cry," he said. "To complain and make excuses does no good so they might as well take the upside of it and that's being with each other, getting to know each other better, being closer.

"Every team I played on in any sport, the closer you were, the more you cared about your teammates, the more you knew about your teammates, the harder you played for them. I think they can take the opportunity to become that much closer over this . . . they have the opportunity to unite more as a team."

Berger said it's an approach the Saints tried taking.

"Our coaches tried to do that and as players we spent a heck of a lot more time off the field together," he said. "I know in baseball they use their road trips as a time to unite . . . but depending on the kind of guy and his personality, it might be hard being homesick and away from his children.

"Maybe they've got a child that's sick or struggling in school. Thank God for something like FaceTime to help keep guys connected to their families, but nothing replaces being there in person."

But Berger said the Blue Jays' plight this year could also benefit the club down the road.

"Their base could be that much closer and tighter and that could pay dividends in the end," he said.

While both Hurricane Katrina and the COVID-19 pandemic have created havoc, Berger said there's no comparing the impact the novel coronavirus has had on both sports and the world.

"The thing is with Katrina, not everyone had to deal with it," Berger said. "It's not like COVID has only uprooted the Blue Jays and forced them to play all of their games on the road and everybody else is fine.

"Like I said, it's just that the Blue Jays are dealing with a little bit more than everybody else."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 19, 2020.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2020
The Canadian Press

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