NOTE: If you want a review of the Jays’ temporary 2021 home, Buffalo’s Sahlen Field, check out my blog post at stadiumdude.com/mlb/buffalo-beer-wings-sports/
High waist acid-washed jeans, leather bomber jackets, big hair, Zubaz pants, Milli Vanilli, SkyDome. These are things that were cool in 1989 that aren’t anymore.
When the Toronto Blue Jays moved out of the comically bad Exhibition Stadium into their new taxpayer funded, retractable-roof futuristic mallpark, local baseball fans lost their collective minds. Combined with having a likeable, winning team, Toronto drew, on average, 4 million fans a season for the next 4 years.
But less than three years later, Camden Yards opened and the rules about what made a good ballpark changed. By the end of the 1990’s, ultramodern SkyDome already felt dated; like strolling through Tomorrowland giggling about how we THOUGHT the future would look.
That said, I believe the park is maligned more than it deserves to be. With the roof open and a good crowd, it’s not a bad place to watch baseball. If the Jays are in contention, Toronto sport fans can bring it. And with all the retro parks that opened up, it stands out from the pack.
Exterior aesthetics 7/10; Interior & Concourse Aesthetics 7/10; Sightlines & seating 4/10; Amenities & entertainment 7/10; Flow 3/5; Celebrating history 2/5; Scoreboards 3/5; Grand entrance 2/5; Sense of place 7/10; WOW Factor 16/30. Total 56 points divided by 2 for 29.
This is one of the lower rated stadium scores, and only one of three lower than 30. It scores ahead of only the dump in Oakland and the atrocity in Tampa Bay.
- Even though it’s a fully enclosed facility, when the roof is open, you can see the CN Tower and some downtown skyscrapers from your seat, giving the dome a distinct sense of place
- The lower concourse is set up so one can walk around the entire lower bowl with one’s eye on the action
- The premium club level seats behind the plate have nice amenities
- The hotel attached to the stadium, much hyped at the time it opened, is still a neat feature. Other parks have seen hotels built where you catch a glimpse of the game, but none are part of the stadium itself.
- The centerfield social area, the WestJet Flight Deck, is a good place to hang out if you just have “get in” seats
- The 500 level is far from the field and ridiculously steep. I can’t believe more people haven’t tumbled to their doom given the steepness here. Pushed back by two levels of luxury suites, and two lower levels with minimal overhang, you are truly in nosebleed territory. Unless you’re in the first 8 rows or so, forget it.
- When the roof is closed, the place feels like an aquarium. While future retractable roof stadiums came with windows and large hangar-like doors that let it natural light, this one did not. When it’s shut, the outside world is shut out. Given Toronto baseball weather doesn’t really kick in until mid-to-late May, that could mean a lot of dreary closed roof games.
- It was the last of the multipurpose stadiums built. Sightlines weren’t built solely to accommodate baseball.
- In the 100 and 500 levels, the seats are small. If you’re wearing a jacket and you’re more than 150 pounds, you’re squeezed into the seats. Only Fenway feels more crammed. And because they’re so close together, most lack cupholders.
- While the place is clean, it feels more like a you’re in a science center than a ballpark
- If you’re seated in the upper deck, there are no escalators; you’re either waiting for an elevator (which they try to reserve for disabled or elderly fans) or you’re taking a long-ass hike up a gradually sloped ramp. It feels like it takes 15 minutes to ascend.
- While the park is downtown, it’s still a bit of a hike from the subway
- The Jumbotron, which when it was first put in was ridiculously huge compared to anything else out there, is now among the more modest MLB scoreboards
- It’s a turf field that looks fake
Nobody is mistaking this place for PNC Park, but I’ve seen some ballpark chasers rate it lower than Tropicana Field, and that’s ridiculous. It’s a flawed park with some merit.
When this place opened 30 years ago, McDonalds was a key vendor and the Hard Rock Café provided outfield dining. Those days are long gone, but the food remains somewhat underwhelming.
You can get the standard ballpark fare, but frankly, a Toronto “street meat” hot dog outside the ballpark is bigger, better and cheaper. Inside the park, Muddy York Market in rightfield on the 100 level has a few good offerings including a BBQ chicken nachos and a Korean chicken sandwich. The Four One Six stand offers topped hot dogs or fries in some great flavors (“The Danforth” is the best, which is a taste of Greece), though you have to trek up to the 500-level. You can get some decent Streetcar tacos, a chicken and waffles offering, and a stand offering cookie dough in a cup. Being in Canada, there’s a Tim Horton’s. And the Montreal smoked meat sandwich on rye, while hardly the finest example of this delicacy, is still an amazing sandwich and gives me my fix if I can’t get to Open Avenue Kitchen in town.
My personal fave: Poutine, the French Canadian classic. It is available in a variety of flavors, including a “Dessert poutine” made of churros and caramel ice cream, but stick with the original of fries, cheese curds and gravy. I still find it hard to get in Chicago, and the Rogers Centre version, while not the best example of this by any means, at least scratches the itch.
I lived in Canada most of my adult life. Canadian macro beer is better than American macro beer. But that was before the craft beer scene got hot, dramatically changing the definition of “good beer”. Southern Ontario has a strong craft beer scene, but it’s sorely under-represented at the ballpark.
Toronto-based Mill St. is somewhat ubiquitous in the park (and pretty good, especially their West Coast IPA). And if you hunt, you can find a Sleeman’s (Ontario’s third largest brewer after Labatt and Molson). But for the most part, the selection is dominated with AmBev products. The popular Nova Scotia-brewed Keith’s IPA is a lighter-hopped ale that’s quite nice. You can get a Hoegaarden Belgian witbier if that’s your bag. And Goose Island has a presence. But as the only Canadian ball team, one would think that the local craft brew offerings would be more significant.
Toronto is a great city. Downtown Toronto bustles as the financial, cultural and entertainment hub of the entire country (I feel the hair raise on the backs of Montrealers and Vancouverites, but it’s true). Incredibly ethnically diverse, you’ll hear a litany of languages, see a mosaic of cultures, and have access to food from around the globe thanks to the city’s great restaurant scene. Rogers Centre sits on the southwestern edge of downtown, meaning the world is literally at your doorstep upon exiting the yard.
With many downtown condos having gone up in the past two decades, the area by the ballpark thrives on non-game nights as well. So you may need to pick your spots to ensure you’re in the right scene. This is one of the few places where not all nearby bars cater to the jersey-wearing sports fan after the game.
Canadians complain that a Jays game is expensive. All MLB games are expensive. But if you factor in the favorable US-CDN exchange, it’s actually slightly below league average. Just note that the legal secondary ticket market isn’t quite as robust, so selection and/or deals may not be as prominent as they are with other parks.
The park is just off the Gardner Expressway, and is connected to the Union Station subway/commuter rail/train station via the SkyWalk. You can’t really complain about the location. But traffic is terrible, parking is significantly more expensive than it used to be, and the 1 kilometer walk from park to subway can be slow after a well-attended game due to crowds.
Toronto weather is warmer than some northern American cities (Minneapolis, Milwaukee). It’s closest to Cleveland or Detroit (hardly an endorsement, but still better than the perception of it being perpetually arctic). The roof ensures games are played year-round, but it can get muggy inside if it’s shut on a warm rainy day. Note: weekend games are all day games so don’t forget the sunscreen.
Having been to a lot of Blue Jay games in this facility, I can attest to the schizophrenia of the vibe. If you’re at an early season game against, say, the Mariners with a closed roof and a sparse crowd, it’s borderline depressing. If the Jays are non-contenders, the crowd lives up to the quiet, polite Canadian stereotype. But get a meaningful game, and it can be as bonkers as any stadium in baseball. So how you judge the atmosphere depends largely on when you went, arguably more so than any other park in baseball.
At the risk of armchair psychology, I attribute this variability in crowd mood to the Canadian psyche. Canadians pride themselves in being more polite and more civil than their American counterparts. Thus, when a game really doesn’t matter, fans will resort to their default stoicism. But just beneath that façade of civility lies a fiercely patriotic person who wants nothing more than for their tribe to stick it to the tribe from the South. And under the right circumstance, that can turn rabid (like in Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS when the stadium was on the precipice of a riot). So for all those who feel like the vibe at Rogers Centre was a little dull, you’re probably right based on the game you saw. But it can be awesome.
It also depends if the roof is open or shut. When shut, the place (searching for the right word…) sucks. But when open, and you can see some of the skyline and feel a little of that elusive summer warmth, it holds up. Of all the retractable roof stadiums, this one undergoes the biggest personality change whether the lid is open or closed.
Bottom line: a Jays game can be imminently meh. But it can be really good. Given these wild swings, it felt right to give it middle-of-the-pack Vibe score.
I do give a bonus point for the cheesy “OK Blue Jays” song that precedes “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the seventh inning. The light calisthenics that accompany the song was originally courtesy of a flimsy idea by “ParticipACTION”, a federal government sponsored non-profit dedicated to advancing the fitness of Canadians. Why they thought asking baseball fans to do some half-assed stretches after 3 hot dogs would be a good way to promote fitness, I’ll never know. But it’s unique, and it endures some 35+ years later.
Also of note is a busking drummer, Rick Donaldson. Rick has been setting up his kit playing for tips at Blue Jays game since Lloyd Moseby patrolled centerfield. Assuming it’s not pouring rain or freezing cold, he’ll be out there. He’s really good, so mosey on by with the crowd after the game, linger for a listen, and drop a looney or two into his case.
OTHER THINGS TO DO
Three fun Toronto restaurants:
- Poutini’s House of Poutine (King West. Indulge in Canada’s de facto national dish)
- Carousel Bakery for the peameal on a bun (in St Lawrence Market, just a mile or so east of the stadium. Enjoy what I consider to be Toronto’s regional sandwich: Canadian bacon with onions and honey mustard on a Kaiser.)
- Swiss Chalet (several locations, one just south of the ballpark on Queens’s Quay. This Canadian institution serves rotisserie chicken and fries. The dipping sauce is borderline addictive.)
- NOTE: Toronto is one of North America’s best eating cities. Foodies may scoff at my above list as it hardly represents the diversity and complexity of the city’s food scene. If you’re not into “simple foods”, do a little research on TorontoLife.com, find a cuisine type, and go challenge your tastebuds.
Three places to imbibe before the game:
- Real Sports Bar & Grille (Downtown. Closer to the arena than the dome, this amazing but slightly pricy sports bar has TV’s and taps galore)
- The Pint Public House (Just north of the ballpark. 40 beer on tap and 40 wing sauces.)
- Loose Moose (Just east on the ballpark, this classic Toronto tap and grill has been serving Jays fans since the move to the Dome in 1989)
One bar in the area worth hitting:
Rebel House. A few subway stops north in the tony Rosedale neighborhood lies this quintessential Canadian gastropub that has been serving local beer and upscale pub fare since before the term gastropub was coined.
Three craft breweries in the area worthy of your time:
- Steam Whistle Brewery (Ballpark. Hit the Roundhouse on your way out. Limited beer styles, but a fun stop.)
- Amsterdam BrewHouse (An OG on the Toronto craft beer scene now with their taphouse just south of the ballpark by the lake. Some of their newer IPAs are “Dam” good.)
- Left Field Brewery (Leslieville. A brewery that runs the entire beer spectrum.)
Three fun tourist attractions in the area:
- Hockey Hall of Fame (the most urban of the four major sport halls)
- CN Tower (pony up for the Edgewalk unless you’re a coward)
- Niagara Falls (only an hour away in good traffic; the town is a kitschy tourist trap, but take the Maid of the Mist and be awed)
Rogers Centre is a flawed ballpark. It was built 3 years too soon and didn’t turn out to be “The Future of Stadiums” as we thought at the time. But it’s different than anything else out there. And it’ll take you to one of North America’s greatest cities. Try to time it when the Jays are relevant, and you’ll have a good time. If not, well, “Sorry, eh.”