JP Pelosi fondly recalls summertime baseball at the SkyDome, and wonders if this is the year Leafs Nation catches on.
That twenty years have passed since “Canada’s team” last won baseball’s World Series, seemingly bears little impact on a Maple Leafs fan base that’s waited forty-five years for another Stanley Cup title. It’s a town comfortable in its conservatism, and prideful of its order, so hockey’s rawness is its natural counterweight. Toronto might be the only North American city, after all, where a Sports Illustrated bikini shoot might draw a smaller crowd than a puck drop at the Air Canada Centre.
An article by Grantland’s Chris Jones recently lamented the state of baseball in Toronto, once a city enamored with its Blue Jays squad despite hard hockey roots. The writer reminisced the glorious back-to-back World Series years of ’92 and ’93—a stretch run of magic, he called it—and described an outing at the Jays’ Rogers Centre last year, where its cavernous interior was less than one-third full. Maybe the lack of interest can be attributed to the team’s routine fourth placing, and meek free agency spending, but it’s surely also the ballpark, which is clearly less appealing to some in this age of retrograding.
I like the SkyDome as a venue, in spite of its bland cement facade and replica turf. Built in 1989, the ‘Dome is at once an architectural relic, and hallmark of corporate stadium style: futuristic, exorbitant, big, round, and occasionally gloomy. It’s a space-age structure well-suited to a George Lucas set. But contrary to popular belief, the SkyDome has its own personality, despite lacking Fenway’s mystique, Wrigley’s confined friendliness, or the backdrop of San Francisco’s AT&T Park. It provides a comfortable, clean, and surprisingly atmospheric sports experience, in a region where summer fun is more fleeting than the The Big Hurt’s tenure in powder blue.
So what’s good about baseball at the SkyDome? Well, the stadium straddles the harborfront at the foot of the downtown core, making it an inviting summertime destination—particularly with the roof peeled back. One of the most popular routes to the park is the aptly titledSkywalk, an elevated pedestrian corridor that leads directly to the foot of the arena from the underground train station. Fans seem appreciative of the Skywalk, particularly during the first third of the season when pedestrians are still shaking dirty ice from their soles. While the stadium isn’t inspiring, Jays fans embrace an occasion. Outside, beneath the CN Tower’s long shadows, there are street painters, rowdy scalpers, kids with mitts racing ahead of their parents, and the tantalizing waft of smoked franks on the grill. As you head up to the northwest entrance, you’re greeted by a golden statue on the wall representing local supporters—a guy with binoculars, another corralling a beer and hot dog, and one giving the thumbs down. This is the character around the eyes of a mostly bland, emotionless face.
The roar of the crowd rattles the ears, as if the high walls and heavy cement contain all sound, and send it bouncing around the bleachers like a super ball. The anticipation is genuine. The fans are knowledgeable too, many scribbling on scoresheets, and yelling pitching advice toward the mound. Don’t forget, this is the place where The Babe smashed his first professional home run, which soared from Hanlan’s Point on Toronto Island and into the depths of Lake Ontario. There’s significant baseball history here.
The 2012 Bluejays, who still call the SkyDome home, have potential. American League batting champ, Jose “Joey Bats” Bautista (43 home runs in 2011), and young gun Brett Lawrie (who hit .293 and 9 home runs in 43 games) headline a young and versatile ball club, with both professional hitters, speed, flair, and a solid starting rotation anchored by ace, Ricky Romero. So could this be the year in which the perennial Davids finally topple the east coast Goliaths? With two wildcards up for grabs, anything is possible. But perhaps more importantly, one wonders if a winning record in the major’s toughest division might finally win over Toronto sports fans.
The Maple Leafs, who finished 35-37-10 and in 13th place in the NHL’s Eastern Conference this season, missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the seventh straight time, the longest drought currently in the National Hockey League. In a hopeless span between early February and early March they won just two games, pushing Leafs Nation to the brink, and to hearty boos during home games. The relationship between club and supporter has now grown so tenuous that the club’s General Manager was compelled to formally apologize. A gift basket wouldn’t have hurt either.
Meanwhile, the Jays opened the new season with series wins in Cleveland and Boston, and are stirring the game’s talking heads to re-evaluate the mighty American League East. It’s been a good start to the campaign, fan-wise. On Toronto’s opening night, 48,473 showed up in a losing effort to Boston. One night later, 26,251 were on hand to see the Jays beat the Sox 7-3—notFenway numbers, but encouraging. There’s renewed interest. A Toronto Star story this month, even bragged about a new type of hipster Jay fan emerging in Toronto, who, as one local fan noted, would commonly be the person in “tight jean-shorts rocking an old Jays t-shirt”. The Star writer explained: ‘Behind the bubbling optimism for the 2012 season, there is a surging fan base that has distinguished itself from other sports fans in the city.’ He contends that the new Jays supporter is young and irreverent, smart and sarcastic. Given that last year’s Jays were sixth worst in league attendance, these are positive signs.
Contrary to what you might think of chilly Toronto, a four o’clock start under a partly sunny sky is ideal for baseball. The roof opens, and the Saturday crowd, sometimes equal in number to visitors if the Sox or Yanks are in town, are quietly optimistic. And even if the Jays are pummeled by the worst team in baseball, shelling peanuts in the stands, sipping a beer, and hurling jibes down at the opposing pitcher, makes this place seem as good as any to watch nine innings. And maybe it’s time Toronto’s puck-devotees took notice.