Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Open and shut case
When the Rogers Centre flips its lid this season, it will be showing off new and improved infrastructure designed to keep the roof moving as smoothly as the day the SkyDome opened, 28 years ago. The decision on when to open the most famous roof in Toronto, however, isn't always as well-received, Robert MacLeod reports
When the Rogers Centre opened as SkyDome in 1989, a quarter-century after the Houston Astros made indoor major-league baseball a thing, its retractable roof was a mechanical marvel that made playing in Toronto's unpredictable weather a far more pleasant experience for fans and players. Now, 28 seasons on, the dome is beginning to show its age.
"Opening the roof" is an annual sign that summer has arrived in Toronto, and through the season it typically emerges as a hot point of debate among fans as to whether the Blue Jays have a better chance of winning with the dome open or closed.
Today, the baseball club is in the midst of putting the finishing touches on a massive retrofit of the seventh-oldest stadium in the major leagues.
The work – concentrated mainly on sprucing up the roof and its infrastructure – cost roughly $10-million and was done to ensure that the sun can continue to shine in and, when necessary, the rain and cold be kept out, and debates can rage for 10 or 15 more seasons.
From the perspective of a narrow concrete walkway close to 86 metres above the playing surface at the Rogers Centre, the men playing baseball below appear no larger than stick figures as they go about batting practice.
This is serious nosebleed territory, better suited to the agility of a mountain goat. But it was not fazing Dave McCormick, the stadium's manager of engineering, as he strode about the maze of catwalks while providing a nervous visitor a bird's-eye tour of the iconic retractable roof.
Matthew Sherwood/For The Globe and Mail
"I always tell this to people: 'When you enter the stadium and you want to tell if we've even thinking of opening the roof, look at the left field foul pole, then look straight up and there's what we call the P3 door. If that door is open, we're probably thinking about it,' " McCormick said.
"It's a four-ton door and there is somebody always up there beside it when it is opened, for safety reasons."
It was anticipated that Friday night, as hot, humid weather descended on Toronto, and as the Blue Jays began a three-game weekend series against the Boston Red Sox, the roof would be open. It would mark the latest opening in a baseball season in the history of the stadium.
To those seated in the stadium, awaiting the start of the game, this has almost become an inconsequential moment, something that has occurred thousands of times.
To those such as McCormick and Kelly Keyes, vice-president of building services, the moment will be more profound. It will mark the culmination of a painstaking five-year, multimillion-dollar process that involved a massive upgrade to the infrastructure along which the roof travels.
In addition, a modernized computerized operating system to allow for one-touch opening and closing – no easy task when you're talking about an 11,000-ton ceiling – was also wired into place.
Keyes said that on a typical day for the past several months, close to 30 people were working full-time on the renovation. "It will be a proud moment when we are finally able to open," she said.
'Harder and harder to maintain'
Matthew Sherwood/For The Globe and Mail
Last season, the roof's opening and closing – it was open for 52 of Toronto's 81 regular-season games – was by no means a given.
"I always equate it to this: Not many people are still driving a car they had 20 years ago," McCormick said. "And it's getting harder and harder to maintain it [the roof] and keep it operational. A lot of the components and parts that control and drive this roof are no longer being manufactured."
For that reason, the decision was made to do a huge retrofit. "Basically what this project's about is getting this structure and the operating system back to a state where it can sustain for the next 15 to 20 years," McCormick said.
When it first opened, the facility was the world's only sports stadium to have a fully retractable motorized lid. At the push of a button, the roof would slide open, eventually exposing Toronto's skyscape. It is a view dominated by the CN Tower, standing like a giant sentry east of the stadium.
Slowing down with age
The roof, the top of which is roughly 31 storeys off the floor, is composed of four panels, three of which slide from south to north when the structure is opening. Panel No. 4 is affixed to the building's north end and never moves. The other panels slide on a system of steel tracks that are bolted into the concrete walls near the top of the Rogers Centre.
When the opening mechanism is engaged, a loud cannon-like sound reverberates throughout the facility. That is the brakes releasing on each of the panels, which are driven by 10-horsepower motors, 72 in total.
When the roof is opening, the two middle panels (Nos. 2 & 3) slide laterally and will eventually tuck underneath panel No. 4. After those two panels are parked, panel No. 1 starts to rotate on a circular rail around the stadium until it, too, comes to rest with the others like a stack of plates in a cupboard.
At the height of its power, the entire process would take about 20 minutes.
Last year, out of deference to the roof's age and the creaky state of the infrastructure, it took about 30 minutes. The fear was that one of the panels could get stuck if it operated at peak capacity.
That's a wrap
The panels are covered by a single-ply polyvinyl chloride membrane that over the years has sustained thousands of rips and tears, mostly caused by chunks of ice that fall from the façade of the CN Tower.
Each year, when the weather gets warmer and the baseball season is about to start, roofing professionals have to be hired to clamber around the structure on scaffolding, locate the tears and sew in patches.
From street level or in the seats, the roof looks fine. But get up close and the patches become visible. The sheer magnitude of the number is surprising.
"This year, we were doing very good, up until we had the ice storm a month or so back," Keyes said. "We got tons of little holes that had to be fixed, something like 140. Most of the rips were only the size of a toonie."
That membrane also needs to be replaced – it's at least five or six years past its "best-by" date, McCormick said.
Keyes said the club hopes to squeeze at least another year out of the covering until a decision is made on whether to install real grass on the playing surface, which would be another huge expense. The Blue Jays are awaiting a report from the University of Guelph on the feasibility of growing grass indoors.
The type of new roof membrane will depend on whether grass will be on the stadium floor.
That decision rests with Mark Shapiro, the club's president and chief executive officer, who said that installing real grass is just one of several infrastructure improvements that will have to be considered.
"The building's in remarkable shape for how old it is, for the climate we're in and for the challenges that exist for a unique engineering marvel such as it is," he said. "That being said, it is the age it is and at that age, systems start to reach their useful lifespan and infrastructure needs to be replaced and maintained at more intense levels."
Shapiro, who spent more than 20 seasons in the Cleveland Indians organization, said he has quickly embraced indoor baseball during the early months of the season. "I guess I probably have a unique perspective in that I have such an appreciation for it, having suffered through April and May games in Cleveland for so long without a roof," he said. "It's something that I both appreciate and welcome."
An open-and-shut decision
Although rumours have always abounded that the baseball team will open and close the roof depending on the whims of the players, McCormick insists that it isn't true.
"This building is truly a better building when it's open," he said. "The atmosphere is better, it's just better. And we really do try at all costs to be open. And if we didn't have so many issues, if we even got a dribble in this building, we'd probably push the envelope a little bit more. But we can't, we got to be able to close."
Matthew Sherwood/For The Globe and Mail
And it certainly doesn't come down to cost, as the hydro bill to open (or close) the roof is only about $10, according to McCormick.
"We'll sometimes hold off the opening [of the roof] for a couple of reasons," he said. "Typically in August, we'll hold the opening just to let the building cool down. Why open the roof at 3:30 or 4 o'clock when it's 30 degrees out. Let's wait until 6.
"We'll also hold because we're waiting for a weather system to kind of blow through. Sometimes there's some sort of an event taking place on the field they don't want it open for yet."
McCormick did allow that one time consideration was given to a player – pitcher Roy Halladay – on whether the roof should be open for a game.
It was in September of 2003 during Toronto's final game of the season when their ace was in the driver's seat to win the Cy Young Award as the American League's best pitcher.
The Blue Jays were playing the Indians, and Halladay was shooting for win No. 22. The team wanted to give him the best chance of success.
When Halladay was asked before the game for his preference – open or closed – McCormick said the pitcher responded that he didn't care.
Although the records indicate that the game-time temperature was a comfortable 23 Celsius, the roof remained shut and Halladay pitched a complete-game 5-4 victory.
He would go on to win the Cy Young.
WHAT HAPPENS BENEATH THE ROOF
Blue Jays overall record: 1,162-965 (regular season), 11-13 (playoffs)
Blue Jays overall record playing with the roof open: 629-539; the Jays have never had a playoff game with the roof open
Blue Jays overall record playing with the roof closed: 463-380 (regular season); 11-13 (playoffs)
(Over the past 27 seasons, entering 2016; numbers do not include games during which the roof was closed during the course of play.)
Although it has a roof that can be closed, there have been six official game delays at the stadium, all related to the weather.
1. June 7, 1989. In just the third baseball game played at what was then known as SkyDome, the Blue Jays game against the Milwaukee Brewers started with the roof open. It started to drizzle in the top of the fifth inning and the process to close the roof was started. But there was a glitch in the procedure and the 20-minute process took 40. Play continued until the bottom of the sixth, when the drizzle turned into a downpour, and the game was held up for six minutes until the roof finally clamped shut.
2. Aug. 27, 1990. This time it was giant swarms of gnats that interrupted a game between the Blue Jays and the Brewers. The game-time temperature was almost 27C and the roof was open and zillions of the insects, drawn by the bright lights, began to infiltrate the stadium. By the fifth inning, with the bugs causing players to run for cover, umpire Don Denkinger had little choice but to order a delay, which lasted 35 minutes while the roof was closed and the air conditioning turned up. "I've seen games called by rain, wind and snow, but never bugs," Denkinger said afterward.
3. Aug. 10, 1991. A heavy rain forced a 14-minute delay after the third inning in Toronto's game against the Boston Red Sox while stadium officials scurried to close the roof after an unanticipated deluge.
4. June 21, 1994. Toronto's game against the Texas Rangers was stopped for seven minutes with two out in the eighth when showers fell before the roof could be closed. In fact, the rain stopped before the roof was closed.
5. June 18, 1997. Rain, bugs – now fog. In a game between Toronto and the Atlanta Braves, a heavy fog rolling in from Lake Ontario began to sweep into the stadium. By the third inning, it became dense, and, with Shawn Green at bat in the bottom of the fourth for Toronto, the game was stopped for 14 minutes to allow the roof to close and clear the air.
6. July 24, 2003. The longest rain delay in the stadium's history – 26 minutes – occurred on this night when the Blue Jays were playing the Chicago White Sox. The bad weather moved in during the top of the sixth inning as the roof was in the process of being closed to force the delay.
There has been one postponement, but it had nothing to do with the weather. On April 12, 2001, the Blue Jays were scheduled to play the Kansas City Royals, but the game was called off after large pieces of metal siding, along with insulation, began to fall onto the field. The incident, which occurred when two of the three panels collided while the roof was being opened, happened before the game started. It was rescheduled for April 30.
The earliest in the season the roof has been open occurred on April 16, 2002, when Toronto played the Boston Red Sox. The game-time temperature was 27C.
Until this year, the latest point into a season in which the roof was opened was May 26, 2003, when Toronto played the Chicago White Sox. The game-time temperature was 17C.
The coolest it has been for the roof's first opening of a season was 11C on May 7, 1994, when the Blue Jays played the Brewers. The club reported that it received twice as many complaints from paying customers about the roof being open than it did two weeks earlier when the roof remained shut on a sunny day.
IT WAS FUNNY AT THE TIME
Several years ago, former Toronto reliever Scott Downs was returning to play in Toronto as a member of the Los Angeles Angels. The Rogers Centre was still mostly empty midafternoon with a 7:07 p.m. start time to the game when Downs and several other of his Angel teammates arrived at the stadium. Downs somehow sweet-talked his way past security to gain entry to a catwalk that traverses the roof at its highest point.
Matthew Sherwood/For The Globe and Mail
He led several Angels out onto the catwalk, where they then started to drop baseballs down below where other players were standing and made attempts to try to catch them. Although it seemed funny at the time, it was anything but to the building's operational staff, including McCormick, who would only say that procedural changes for who could get up into the rafters after that were tightened up significantly.