DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The 2013 campaign is shaping up to be a season of firsts for veteran left-hander Mark Buehrle.
It marks the first time he will pitch the majority of his games outside the United States. It's the first time in years that he has been slotted as a middle-of-the-rotation starter instead of a frontline guy.
It's also the first time Buehrle will be separated from his family for the majority of the year. That development stems from the fact that Ontario has a province-wide ban on pit bulls, which prohibits Buehrle's pet, Slater -- and as a result, Buehrle's wife and children -- from making the trip north of the border.
"We've been lucky, this is our first time having to go through this," Buehrle said prior to the Blue Jays' first official Spring Training workout for pitchers and catchers Wednesday at the Bobby Mattick Training Center.
"Kids are just getting into school this August, so we haven't had to go home for school, we've had them together. The last three years of this contract are going to be away and it's something we're going to deal with. It's going to be tough in the beginning and not seeing your kids, but people deal with it and we'll make it work."
The Buehrle family has been down this road before, just not to this extent. Miami-Dade County, where Buehrle played in 2012 with the Marlins, has a similar ban on pit bulls, but the solution was relatively simple, as the 33-year-old opted to live in a neighboring county instead.
That's simply not an option in Toronto. The closest place Buehrle's family could live with their pets is Buffalo, but that would require a daily commute of at least an hour and half.
The result is that Buehrle's family will be separated for a large portion of the summer. They're together in Florida for Spring Training, but when the season starts, Buehrle will head north, while his two children and four dogs -- three Vizslas and an American Staffordshire terrier -- will remain in the United States with his wife, Jamie.
"Being a responsible pet owner, you can't just dump your dog on somebody else or take a chance of breaking a law and taking him up there," Buehrle said. "We've had people say 'Oh, you can bring him up here and knowing you have money, no one is going take your dog because they know you're going to fight against it.'
"But the thing is, Slater (an American Staffordshire terrier) will have to sit in a cage until that court date gets there. It could be two weeks or it could be three months. People who don't own dogs are not going to understand that you're leaving your family, your kids, behind over a dog. We just feel that all the training we've done with our dogs, it's better they stay with my wife."
Buehrle has come under attack in some circles for his stance of not bringing his family to Canada, regardless of the laws set forth by the government. The native of Missouri wants to make one thing clear, though: He'd prefer this does not become a year-long topic of discussion and he doesn't want to complain about his predicament.
Buehrle's more than aware that there are plenty of people out there dealing with the same issue. A lot of those families don't have the option of owning a second home and keeping all of their animals in the household. That's why the 13-year veteran pitcher prefers to use his status in baseball to act as an advocate for animal rights.
With the help of his wife, the family has made it a point to showcase just how safe and loving pit bulls can be. They've attempted to break down various stereotypes with the hope that the breed will once again become legal to own in Ontario and around the world.
"They're real loyal to their owners," said Buehrle, whose pet Slater is in training to become a therapy dog. "Obviously everybody thinks they've got the locking jaws and they're strong and mean, but the way his temperament is, he's awesome with our kids. He's awesome when we have parties at our house, and kids run in and ask where Slater is. Every kid wants to go right to him.
"That's the shame. Just because the way he looks is kind of why we're going to be separated. I know people are scared of them and freaked out by them, but it's mostly the owners, not the dogs. If you're going to tie your dog up out back and treat it bad, it's going to treat you bad right back."
Buehrle will continue to do advocacy work when his schedule permits, but for now, he is attempting to turn the page and focus on the season. He is set to begin his 14th year in the big leagues and the fact that he has thrown at least 200 innings in 12 consecutive seasons comes as a breath of fresh air for an organization that used 12 starters in 2012.
Blue Jays manager John Gibbons already announced that Buehrle will be the club's No. 3 starter this season. That's lower than normal for the crafty veteran, but it also puts him in an ideal position of pitching between hard-throwing right-handers Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson.
The expectations surrounding this remade ballclub are high, but Buehrle doesn't want to get too carried away just yet. He was, after all, part of a Marlins team in 2012 that began the year with similar aspirations, only to see the season unravel in record speed.
"I think I've come to realize that making expectations or putting stuff where we're going to get to isn't a good thing because every year I feel like we have a good team," said Buehrle, who went 13-13 with a 3.82 ERA last season. "The last couple of years we haven't gotten to where we want to get to.
"Coming into a new team, on paper we look good, we have to stay healthy, obviously. I think that's with any team, we need to stay healthy and keep guys on the field, and I think if we do that, then I think we have a chance to get to the playoffs. From there, anything can happen."