Thursday, June 04, 2009

Reality Check: Rogers Centre, 20 Years On

I will start this post by saying what most people already think: even now, 20 years after its much lauded opening, my relationship to the Rogers Centre is a lot like a couple married for 20 years: every year, I find more and more reasons to be irritated.

Truth be told, I can still vividly remember the first time I visited the place. It was July 1989 and, amazingly, my dad had managed to acquire tickets (which were incredibly hard to find back during the halcyon days of 48,000+ crowds every game from 1989 to 1994).

For a baseball crazy 12-year-old, it was a wonder to behold: good vantage points to the game, far superior ambience to the unpleasantness that was Exhibition Stadium and it felt, well, just better. Sure, it was cold, impersonal and chock-full of concrete, but after years of attending games at the Mistake-by-the-Lake – the coup de grâce being during a game in June 1988, when a young couple sitting two rows in front of my dad and I got pooped on by seagulls and, in a fit of anger, threw beer cups at them, beer still in the cups and drenching an old man in the process – it was a welcome, welcome relief. I’m sure many young men and women in their mid-20s to mid-30s feel the same way.

This being said, it’s never smart to trust your childhood memories.

Looking back on it, the Rogers Centre is, quite possibly, the kind of monument to Toronto that fits the place as well in 1989 as it does in 2009. Rogers Centre, like the City of Toronto itself, is a collection of competing interests and suffers from a mass scale inferiority complex. It is a soulless ode to the irritating, utilitarian ethic that plagues Toronto in almost every large-scale project this city undertakes.

As Bob McCown and Stephen Brunt discussed on Prime Time Sports on Wednesday night, Rogers Centre was borne out of a need to respond to political interests above all else. Toronto – a city that routinely declares itself as world-class, which automatically disqualifies it from actually being world-class – needed to make a statement to the world, at least in the cash-rich 1980s, that they were capable of competing with the urban big boys like Paris or New York City when it comes to large-scale projects. Being the first city on Earth to have a fully retractable roof was a golden selling point for Toronto – a city that was, to borrow a Simpsonian turn of phrase, "on the grow."

Of course, like all things in Canadian politics, a major project or sporting event -- cough Montreal, cough Olympics, cough -- is not about vision or a projection of the intrinsic values a community shares. Canadian politics is almost entirely about compromise, inclusion, cherry-picking certain groups' needs over others and balancing of specific and sometimes competing interests. This mindset can be positive in terms of local democracy, but is often hellish for developing unique symbols of Toronto's identity. It's hard to argue either way on this point, but this need to pile on an assortment of interests may have directed contributed to the outrageous costs of Rogers Centre (does anyone really believe a hotel and health club was sensible in a development-crazy city like Toronto?).

The Big Idea-driven stadium – think Camden Yards or Safeco Field – that appeal directly to deep-seeded signifiers and symbols in sports was never going to happen in Toronto. For the politicians of this beta-class city, it was always about what could appeal to the broadest community of interests and peoples possible. Don't care about baseball? Okay, sure, we’ll house the Argos here too! Don’t care about sports at all? Don’t worry, we’ve got the SkyTent so you can come watch Pink Floyd or the Backstreet Boys. Who cares if it has no soul or personality? As long as we can make it work for everyone, that will justify the cost.

But you can’t come down entirely on the politicians of this fair land. Naturally, Canadian corporations and various multinationals haven't stopped to keep this vision of hyper-pragmatism going. From Day One, Rogers Centre has been a corporate raider’s dream. Everything from the deeply short-sighted 10-year lease for corporate boxes (always the main money maker for any stadium or arena) to the Sickly Sweet Deal Rogers – once believed to be a godsend for the Jays and their stadium, now mostly tolerated as the quintessential "uninterested ownership" – managed to snag by buying the bankrupt SkyDome, it’s been a great deal for corporations. Of course, this is another aspect of Toronto many of us ponder with astonishment from time to time: the overwhelmingly pro-business, anti-investment conservatism that dominates our city's mindset. It’s quite telling that, as McCown and Brunt noted last night, that claims the Rogers Centre's gaudy, concrete façade was planned to be covered with more aesthetically pleasing panels was abandoned due to costs.

Thing is, and this may be hard to accept for some, is that Rogers Centre is exactly what we deserve.

I'm not going to come down on those loyal Jays fans that have suffered for years in front a sub-par product. I won't do that to Argos fans or those millions of people whom have seen concerts, trade shows and countless other events.

Yet it’s become harder and harder to ignore the reality that Toronto is a city that tends to gravitate toward the new and the trendy. You can see this in everything from our recent building projects like the Michael-Lee Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum to the condo building boom around the city’s southern edges. We’re a city that tends to follow the leader, whether that is ideas developed in Berlin or in Brisbane. We lack a signifying, unifying cultural meme that defines Toronto. We are constantly looking outside of ourselves to find meaning and identity – a trait that at one time might have been just cute and politically expedient, but is now just plain sad and frustrating to those of us looking for something more than just a “high-tech” building like Rogers Centre.

All the multi-coloured lights, HD screens and grilled Panini stations can’t change the fact we sacrificied vision in the name of political expediency. For that reason alone, we should keep Rogers Centre around for years to come.


sager said...

Good stuff as always, Hughsy. It's bang on, Toronto got the stadium it deserved, concrete and antiseptic.

That being said, it's the generation of fans who were 11, 12 years old when it's opened who have tried to give it some character in the face of long odds. There's a lot of positive developments in the overall atmosphere in and around The Cable Box.

Ultimately, though, the mistakes committed by the powers-that-be from as far back as the 1960s through the 1980s are a lot to overcome. It's our cross to bears as fans to make the best of it, and I believe we have.

Incidentally, a pox on Dan Shulman for spilling one secret about the place, that the 200-level infield is one of the best places to sit in the stadium. The sightlines are very good and since it's only about

Sportsdump said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sportsdump said...

"...we sacrificied vision in the name of political expediency..." a perfect observation. I expect a couple of new arenas which serve the OHL will feel those similar pains in no more than five years.

Anonymous said...

Great post. My dad built a baseball field in '91 (a real one, with dugouts and grass) and I just saw his handpainted sign today which reads "Skydome Schmydome". It used to hang above our clubhouse door. Truer words never spoken, this place (and new Comiskey) always were a piece of crap, and instantly obsolete when Camden Yards opened. You're right, as soon as the city stops worrying about everyone else, it might come up with something original and appealing. Why the hell do they blow a foghorn after home runs?