Jays’ renos show stadium entertainment has come a long way


I’ve never forgiven Mark Shapiro for moving the baseball press box from behind home plate — where it belongs — to way out in left field, with an obstructed view of anything happening directly below and no view at all of the corner.

The Blue Jays president just had to turn our press box into another preferred ticket gallery for the haut polloi.

So I’m predisposed to disliking further fidgets with the Rogers Centre.

Except it’s no beloved Wrigley Field, right? It’s a 34-year-old ballpark, once upon a time groundbreaking with its fully retractable roof — oh, how everybody oohed and aahed first time the carapace slid closed — but these days raggedy antiquated rather than fashionably retro, almost obsolete, definitely tatty around the edges. Domes are so passé, if deemed essential for Toronto weather. And the Rogers Family Compact wouldn’t pony up for a replacement yard anyway. New Yankee Stadium cost $2.3 billion (U.S.) to build.

Remember that, when Rogers bought the Jays for $137 million in 2000, the stadium was basically a $25-million throw-in, and we won’t even revisit the tortuous history of the facility’s previous ownership, which included the proprietor provincial government unloading it at a fire sale price.

But what we get, circa 2023, is a $300-million “fan-facing” facelift for the frumpish field of dreams. As cosmetic surgery goes, at least some of its sagging features have been esthetically rejuvenated, Botox-ed and its flabby bits — way too much concrete, like being in a cement wind tunnel — tummy-tucked.

On Tuesday, a ta-da! preview was provided for local baseball correspondents of the makeover — “focused on modernizing the fan experience” — which is supposed to be ready for opening day although it’s still all churning concrete mixers, welders’ sparks and temporary guardrails. Obediently we donned our hard hats, reflector vests and work boots to traipse along behind Marnie Starkman and Anuk Karunaratne, executive vice-presidents, business operations, for the big reveal. It was more like a big just-imagine, actually, with artistic renderings propped up where the flounces and embellishments will go.

Over here — and this really is a welcome conversion — are the new elevated bullpens, flush with fan seating extended to the outfield wall and visible, with a drink rail from which to observe, if that’s how you roll. to your liking. Two-storey ’pens, so relievers can still sit atop the upper level, if they choose, and walls that are angled differently. The intent of the makeover, we were told, is to turn the outfield concourse into more of a “social district,” with several open-air niches and viewing perches all around, dispelling the sense of concreted claustrophobia.

The hitter’s backdrop in centre field, mandated by Major League Baseball and typically draped in black, is now an extension of the concourse, still cloaked on the field side but open on the outside and home to The Stop, described as a neighbourhood bar to grab a drink before first pitch. It is named The Stop as a nod to history because, way back in the SkyDome specs, a transit stop had been planned for that location.

The Catch Bar — mezzanine level, above the visitors’ bullpen — offers a sleek and contemporary atmosphere with a different view of the ballpark, with “cocktails and trendy food bites” on the menu. Park Social — 500 level, left field — is a more casual open-air space, a park within a park aimed at families, with games, milkshakes and a candy bar. The coolest addition, as much as I hate corporate shout-outs, is the Corona Rooftop Patio — 500 level, right field — the highest roosting spot in the park, with the CN Tower in the background, open to sun and stars.

Accommodating these features entailed ripping out four bays of seating, which means losing seven per cent of capacity, about 3,000 seats. There are renovations as well to the WestJet Flight Deck and the 200-level terrace, available to all ticketed patrons when not reserved by a group. Further transformation, including on-field and player area upgrades — a 5,000-square-foot weight room, a new players’ family room — will come next year. But for this season, all 500-level seats are being replaced with ones a smidge wider.

I dunno about the new hospitality bells and whistles, which don’t have much to do with baseball; more about the “baseball experience.” I’m content with hot dogs and pretzels and beer, and endlessly amused by the traditional entertainment only offered in minor-league ballparks these days, like the “Wings, Cheese & Carrot Race” at cosy Sahlen Field in Buffalo and the condiment races — mustard, ketchup, relish — staged elsewhere. Doubtless I lack sophistication.

Here’s a boilerplate quote from Shapiro, contained in the press bumpf. “We are committed to building a sustainable championship organization for years to come, and this renovation to Rogers Centre will give new and lifelong Blue Jays fans a ballpark where they can proudly cheer on their team.”

Over signature cocktails and brioche pretzel bites.

Gimme back my press box of yore.

Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno


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