Welcome to Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks, a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.
LATER KNOWN AS: Rogers Centre
HOME TEAM: Toronto Blue Jays
VISITED: July 30, 1993
CHRONOLOGY: 9th of 34
RANKING: 24th of 34
I saw the future and its name was SkyDome. As Jason intimated earlier today following his coincidentally timed trip north this week, its future was short-lived, but while it represented tomorrow today, it seemed like something else.
It was! It had a roof that was retractable! A real one! It could open and close in under thirty minutes! Olympic Stadium supposedly had something similar, but it never seemed to work. Olympic Stadium was yesterday from the get-go. SkyDome was tomorrow, even if tomorrow didn’t last terribly long.
SkyDome was the first out-of-town ballpark I truly sought out on its own perceived merits. The first time I left New York for a ballgame was to see Fenway Park, but that was more of a lark for a lark’s sake. The Vet was to see the Mets relatively close to home. The Big O was the same, if not as close. The others prior to 1993 just kind of happened. SkyDome and Toronto, though, was a planned vacation, the first one Stephanie and I ever took. We’d been living together (first in sin, then in matrimony) for three years and, save for a brief honeymoon, never went anywhere. I never particularly wanted to go anywhere, but we had vacation time and, well, we decided to take it literally.
Why Toronto? Because of SkyDome obviously. Why SkyDome among all the stadia we had yet to visit? Because it was gorgeous and modern and thrilling on TV. It had that roof, which was revolutionary. It had a hotel above the center field fence and a Hard Rock Cafe built in and the world’s largest McDonald’s on the premises. It had the Blue Jays, who were unstoppable. The phrase “large market team” wasn’t prevalent in baseball then, but the Blue Jays defined it. They entertained a metropolitan area of 4 million and they drew 50,500 of them every day and night they played. They played great. They won their division almost every year. They had won the World Series the October before. They picked up whoever they needed to establish and maintain their dynasty. New to the team in ’93 were Dave Stewart and Paul Molitor. They needed a star, they’d get a star.
The Big Bad Blue Jays and SkyDome, the stadium of tomorrow today. Why wouldn’t you make Toronto your vacation destination?
Attraction that the Blue Jays were, they were sold out for every game in advance. But I’d been tipped off that ticket-scalping was legal and prolific in Toronto. So we’d go there and we’d take our chances. After an afternoon devoted to wandering the campus of the University of Toronto (because we like to buy college t-shirts wherever we go) and taking a load off our feet at the McLaughlin Planetarium (where I heard a local man say, completely without irony, “eh?”), we were fairly stoked for the Jays. Everywhere you looked, you saw pennants commemorating the 1992 championship and signs exhorting the 1993 edition. We were staying within walking distance of the Dome and saw a lot of downtown. To this day, two dozen ballparks later, I’ve never seen a city that was as excited about its entrant in our National Pastime than Toronto, Ontario, Canada was for its Blue Jays.
Two tickets on the street outside SkyDome cost us 50 bucks Canadian. Of course it was Canadian, but in my handful of trips across the border, I’ve never gotten over my amazement that they use money that doesn’t look like money. A $25 ticket for a baseball game in those days was a bit steep, but it was Canadian. How much could it have really cost? A bootleg Blue Jays cap (a bit of an affectation, looking back on it) was $5 Canadian, as was the official program. One of these transactions required change, with one street vendor asking another if he had a loonie. I knew that a loonie was a dollar coin, but it still cracked me up.
Our $50 pair of seats was in SkyDome’s upper deck, or “SkyDeck,” which sounds so much cooler than upper deck. Very futuristic, very tomorrow. Thing is while we climbed to said Deck, I wasn’t being whisked along by a PeopleMover or a GlideWalk or something else that smushed TwoWords together in a futuristic construction. There were just stairs. Outside the doors to the seating bowl, there was just a hallway. It was no more modern out there than Madison Square Garden. With a threat of rain, the retractable roof was closed. We were inside an arena, basically. A vast, carpeted baseball arena adorned by the largest JumboTron in North America.
Where’s the future in that?
The upper deck by any name is the upper deck. Steep prices for a steep climb. Tourists without tickets can’t be choosers, so what we wound up buying for our funny money were pretty lousy seats, but we weren’t alone. Remember, the Jays were hot stuff. The place was jammed that Friday night. Toronto entered the action a game ahead of the surprising second-place Yankees; believe it or not, there was a time when not only were the Blue Jays a powerhouse, but the Yankees were an upstart — 1993 was that time. The Tigers were the opposition. Michigan was next door to Ontario. This was actually a geographic rivalry (one that’s been diminished since by questionable divisional alignment), so we were joined by a generous sprinkling of Tigers fans as well as Blue Jays fans.
Blue Jays fans were quiet. Tigers fans were clueless. OK, one Tigers fan in particular was clueless. I learned of his cluelessness when Detroit’s nine-hitter (not the pitcher…talk about an entirely clueless league) Chris Gomez stepped up for the first time in the top of the third. SkyDome’s enormous scoreboard trumpeted Gomez’s minuscule batting average: .182. Gomez proceeded to strike out.
The clueless Tigers fan next to me was apoplectic. “Aw geez, Sparky!” he implored Detroit manager Sparky Anderson with absolute astonishment. “How can ya use this guy? Who is this guy? He’s batting .182! He’s no good!”
I had never heard of Chris Gomez, but I figured out who we was pretty quickly. He was an unproven youngster hitting at the bottom of the lineup. Unproven youngsters hitting at the bottom of lineups often bat .182. This was 1993. I had just spent four months watching a stream of unproven youngsters float across the bottom of Met lineups bearing .182 batting averages. Half our team would be Chris Gomez by the end of the year. You wanna get mad at Rob Deer or Mickey Tettleton or other underachieving Tigers the way I might have at Bobby Bonilla or Vince Coleman? Help yourself. But don’t take it out on Chris Gomez during his sixth game ever. Aw geez!
And how can you not know who your starting shortstop is unless it’s his debut? What kind of fan are you, Tigers fan? I’ll tell you what kind of fan you are…
We were rooting for the Blue Jays since they were who we were there to see — we hopped hard on the John Olerud bandwagon as he continued to flirt with .400 — but every at-bat the rest of the night for Chris Gomez, I cheered wildly under my bootleg Blue Jays cap for Chris Gomez.
LET’S GO CHRIS!
GO GO GOMEZ!
After my new favorite American League player Chris Gomez collected the third of what would be four hits on the night — a night when he literally more than doubled his batting average — I kind of nudged the Tigers fan. “You know who Chris Gomez is now, huh?”
Much Midwestern happiness radiated from my neighbor from the south as he nodded and laughed at his rush to judgment. And during his periodic visits to Shea as a Padre or Pirate, I always gave Chris Gomez a round of polite Toronto applause for the rest of his career.
Blue Jays fans were indeed polite. Or withdrawn. In the early days of WFAN, they did loads of remotes from wherever a game was going on. One night, Howie Rose brought on the station’s stringer from Toronto for a Blue Jay update. While the reporter talked, there was absolute silence in the background. The Jays were playing, but nobody was cheering. Nobody was booing either. “It sounds like a library there,” Howie said of old Exhibition Stadium. Yup, the reporter said, in so many words. “Sure does, eh?”
The crowd was muted in its enthusiasm, but enthusiastic in its demeanor. They were pro-Jay without being anti-Tiger. They recognized Olerud’s unlikely quest for .400. They were appropriately fond of their all-world second baseman Robbie Alomar, who lived in SkyDome’s hotel, where we couldn’t hope to get a room. They liked reacquiring their old shortstop Tony Fernandez far more than we ever liked having him when he started 1993 with us. There were a lot of people — 50,511 — and a lot of good vibes, just not a lot of noise.
Blue Jays fans were into the seventh-inning stretch, however. They had their own thing for that, with their bird mascot and their proto-Party Patrol trotting onto the field, all smiles, and leading us in a round of the team song:
“Okay! Blue Jays! Let’s play ball!”
Cute. They were a powerhouse team, they played in the world of tomorrow, but it was a cute franchise. It was cute four years earlier when they took Mookie Wilson off our ungrateful hands and chanted Moo-KEE! for him instead of mooing. It was wrong, but it was cute. Their song was cute. Their bird was cute. Their money was cute. Even the clueless Tiger fan was kind of cute in his ignorance of Chris Gomez. I’d always think of Chris Gomez as kind of cute, too.
Enough with the cuteness, we decided after the song. We got up to inspect a little more of SkyDome. We tried to get into the Hard Rock, but it was too crowded. We were asked to leave our names on a clipboard and hope to be called in half-an-hour. I don’t do that in real life, I’m not gonna do it at a ballpark. Although we were in one of our periodic disavowals from fast food, I insisted on a visit to the World’s Largest McDonald’s. It had to be futuristic, I said. SkyDome has a roof that opens and closes in less than half an hour. It has a massive DiamondVision. The McDonald’s has to be something incredible.
It wasn’t. It was McDonald’s, nothing more. It had pizza and hot dogs, yes, but it was just McDonald’s with acres of seats and tables. It also had little to do with the Blue Jays. You couldn’t go there and then return to the game. Also, it didn’t stay open throughout the game. If we were going to experience the most amazing McDonald’s ever, we would have to say Okay, Blue Jays, see ya later after the stretch. And we did.
We sat in the rather desolate McDonald’s, we ate our Canadian pizza, we counted our loonies and the next day the Blue Jays went out and got Rickey Henderson. That’s what a large market team does at the trade deadline. The roof was open that Saturday, but we had other things to see in Toronto, including the Hockey Hall of Fame, which was surprisingly modern. It was probably more modern than SkyDome.
Neither of us was much of a hockey fan, but it was a great building with incredible treasures, including the Stanley Cup. SkyDome, meanwhile, would get one more World Series trophy that October and it’s been mostly downhill for the Blue Jays ever since. SkyDome has another name and it’s lost its tomorrow-ish luster. The “eh?” planetarium is closed, too. If you want to contemplate the heavens in downtown Toronto, you can go to a Jays game and hope the roof is open, or you can just stand outside. That, apparently, is what most locals choose to do these days.