Toronto Blue Jays fans are getting a new, high-powered lineup this season – and the Rogers Centre is giving them a new vantage point to watch the games.
Windows Restaurant, one of the featured attractions when the stadium first opened in 1989, is now windowless. As part of the club's efforts to put a new shine on its aging sports facility, the long-dormant restaurant has undergone a $2-million renovation. It now offers an unencumbered view of the baseball field, and a place for patrons to walk in during a game, grab drinks and food, and watch the action.
"It's probably the biggest physical change that people will notice that we've ever done here," said Kelly Keyes, vice-president of building services at Rogers Centre.
The timing is no coincidence. In a series of bold moves, the Jays have established themselves as instant World Series contenders by trading for established stars Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and R.A. Dickey.
The prospect of Toronto finally having a winning team is sending fan expectations through the roof, and the team's owners know it. But while other Major League Baseball teams have been building so-called "retro ballparks" and tweaking their parks to echo the smaller, quirkier buildings of baseball's history, the Jays are taking the windows out of Windows.
"Everything builds off the team that's on the field," Stephen Brooks, Rogers Centre's senior vice-president of business operations, said. "That's the engine that makes the place go. And we certainly appreciate what the fans have said and say about the fan experience. And we're trying to address those things as we go."
But the Rogers Centre has its unique challenges. First, it's one of just two stadiums in the 30-team MLB loop that continues to have artificial turf. The Jays say they would love to install grass, which would be more attractive and more forgiving to play on. But they are constrained as long as they share the stadium with the Toronto Argonauts.
The Argos play out of Rogers Centre on a leasing arrangement with the Blue Jays, but Jays president Paul Beeston has told the CFL team that it has roughly five years to find a new home. "It's tough to co-exist. It's tough for them, too," Mr. Beeston said in a discussion with The Globe and Mail's editorial board earlier this year.
Since the Rogers Centre is a multipurpose facility, the baseball team has to contend with other unusual demands. Last Saturday, the stadium hosted a Supercross motorcycle event; some 3,500 cubic yards of dirt were dumped inside the facility and then fashioned into a rolling race course.
While the dirt was removed by dump trucks after the event, a street sweeper had to be brought in to loosen the left-over gunk that had been mashed into the concrete floor that covers some 180,000 square feet. That took about six hours.
"There's dust everywhere," Ms. Keyes said. "It gets on top of all the TV monitors, on top of all the signage. Right now we're washing the bowl lights up on the roof. We basically have to dust the entire building."
The stadium's architecture is also difficult to alter. To make changes the team looked to Windows, the 1,000-seat restaurant which was the place to see and be seen in the early 1990s, when the Blue Jays were enjoying unprecedented popularity. Nestled back of centre field off the building's 200 level, it offered excellent views of the playing field; patrons could enjoy a more formal dining atmosphere while seated at linen-covered tables. But the restaurant, like the team, fell on hard times after the Jays won the World Series for the last time in 1993. It has been shuttered since the early 2000s.
Other improvements being made this season include local beer – brew from Steamwhistle Brewing, right across the street from the stadium, will be sold at games this season as the Blue Jays finally start to offer locally brewed craft beer. This has been standard fare at most other MLB ballparks for years.
For die-hard fans like Herm Dyck, a 79-year-old Mississauga native who has yet to miss a Blue Jays home opener, the stadium's challenges are part of its charm. An avowed baseball "purist" who believes that baseball should be played outdoors on natural grass, Mr. Dyck said he nevertheless likes what the baseball team is doing to spruce up Rogers Centre. And, he adds, the stadium's retractable roof still has its benefits. "For one thing, they don't every have to cancel a game," Mr. Dyck said. "And while the place might not be state of the art anymore, it is sure a lot better than sitting in a windstorm, rainstorm or snowstorm."
In any case, the Blue Jays hope fans will come out this year in large numbers. While the club is vague about its attendance hopes for 2013, Mr. Beeston has said the Jays could surpass three million this year. To achieve this, the team would have to average more than 37,000 fans over 81 home games – a big step up from the average of 22,446 last season.
Tuesday night should be a step in the right direction, as the home opener sold out – more than 50,000 tickets – in less than a day.