As he ran out onto the Rogers Centre turf for the first time this season on Tuesday afternoon, George Springer stopped and pointed to foul territory alongside third base.
“There’s a stage on the field!” Springer said to no one in particular.
Don’t get too excited. It’s just a pregame TV set, and it’s not permanent. Presumably because Rogers couldn’t figure a way to brand and sell a new murderball feature on the sidelines: ‘Maybe you’ll get some in-game analysis, and maybe someone’s going to the infirmary. Stay tuned on Sportsnet.’
Springer then did one of those craning 360s you see in movies about baseball, taking in the totality of the stadium.
“I’m staring at it for the first time,” Springer said. “And it is awesome.”
Also, they play baseball there. The Blue Jays beat the Detroit Tigers 9-3 in their home opener.
As you may have heard about a hundred times in the past week, the Rogers Centre has been improved over the off-season. This was everyone’s first chance to see what $300-million buys you these days.
The fences are shorter, there are new bars in the nosebleeds and there’s enough LED signage in the outfield to land an alien spacecraft, a la Close Encounters. Whenever you’re feeling bad about the cost-to-result ratio of your deck reno, console yourself with that number. Maybe you did pay too much, but you didn’t pay the equivalent of four fighter jets.
The improvements have made the Toronto’s concrete baseball tomb less like an Albanian pillbox and more like Cleveland. This is the unusual instance where that is a good thing.
My favourite new addition is the Tap and Go – an automated liquor emporium in right field. You tap your credit card to enter a horseshoe-shaped bank of fridges, pick up booze and head back out onto the concourse. You can be swilling within seconds.
Since we were there for journalistic purposes, I said, “This doesn’t charge you if you don’t get anything, right?”
“No,” said the attendant. “It’s one dollar for entry.”
For that dollar, you have the opportunity to buy a $7 Coke, a $12 beer or 750 ml of a blended screw-top called ‘Diabolica’ for 70 bucks (“serves two,” according to the placard).
“Reminiscent of Black Forest cake,” says the LCBO website, where Diabolica goes for $15.95. I’m no sommelier, but I’m not sure a bottle of red wine is meant to have tasting notes of birthday party desserts at Chuck E. Cheese.
If $70 sounds a lot like to you, you also get a clear, plastic carafe which is not suitable for collecting. Nobody wants you chucking a wine bottle into the opposing bullpen. That’s different, too, and now so close to the fans spilling out of the Tap and Go that an eventual drunken outrage feels inevitable.
So with all that money headed out the door, you’d guess the roof is fixed, right? Wrong. The roof still only works when the ambient temperature is cresting 30 C and the moon is in transit with Venus or something.
“There’s a process for that. It won’t be open today,” Jays GM Ross Atkins before the game. “There’s a process to ensure that it is ready to go for the year. That process has begun.”
Has it? Is someone from group sales up there with a hand winch?
Generally speaking, when your team is retrofitting its ancient stadium into “one of the best places in baseball” – Atkins’s (exaggerated) words – that means the club is in shambles. A standing-only bar a million feet from home plate – this is how bad teams separate desperate fans from their cash.
But this is the rare time that everything appears to be coming together at once.
The stadium is better, or at least, less ugly, and that’s good because it isn’t your money.
The team is better, and that’s good for the same reason.
And baseball’s better, just in general.
It’s one thing to watch the new, quicker baseball on TV. It’s another to see it live. A sense of jeopardy attaches itself to each pitcher-hitter interaction as soon as the ball is received on the mound.
While Jays starter Alek Manoah fiddled with his cap, you found yourself doing the old, ‘C’mon, c’mooooon, hurry.’ This feeling will wear off, but for now it has the effect of imbuing early-season baseball with late-season urgency.
Two representative moments for the Jays’ 2023 season happened in quick succession shortly after the start.
In the second inning, new Toronto centre fielder Kevin Kiermaier pulled a home run back over the new suburban-backyard-sized fence in dead centre. That gave the Jays their first renovation-related highlight.
Three batters later, Detroit’s Nick Maton hit a three-run home run. That gave the Jays their third or fourth ‘Someone remembered to pack the starting pitching, right?’-related storyline of the year. People will tire of talking about one thing before they weary of the other.
It was a rough night for the Jays’ most-talked-about starter, though it could have been much rougher. Had Rogers not downsized that wall and Kiermaier not made that catch, Manoah might not have gotten out of the second inning.
Instead, he muscled his way into the fifth. As Manoah left, the Jays trailed by a run and the new outfield bars weren’t heaving quite as much.
Back-to-back Jays home runs in the bottom of that inning put everyone back in a celebratory mood. One can only imagine the joy at that old Toronto baseball haunt, the Tap and Go.
It got worse for the Tigers from there. Talk about a team that could use a renovation. Any sort.
One thing we can say about the new Rogers Centre is that it will be a bellwether for this Jays season. If the Jays are a going concern in May, all the gushing about the sleekness of the architectural lines in the new field-level cladding or whatever it is will be over.
But if Rogers is pushing a buy-one-get-one-free midweek plonk special at one of their ‘family-friendly’ outfield drinking pits, then, well, time to find a few more million before the trade deadline.