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 5/10; Interior & Concourse Aesthetics 8/10; Sightlines & seating 4/10; Amenities & entertainment 6/10; Flow 3/5; Celebrating history 2/5; Scoreboards 4/5; Grand entrance 2/5; Sense of place 8/10; WOW Factor 18/30. Total 60 points divided by 2 for 30.
This is one of the lower rated stadium 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 have a sense of place. You can see the CN Tower and some downtown skyscrapers from your seat.
- 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 new video boards are sharp. The centerfield scoreboard, which used to be state-of-the-art, still isn’t the biggest, but has an incredible picture.
- The centerfield social area, the WestJet Flight Deck, is a good place to hang out if you just have “get in” seats
- The gargoyle-like statues on the exterior are odd but interesting
- 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.
- The exterior features a lot of exposed concrete. While it’s certainly different than the multitude of red brick retroparks built since then, it’s not necessarily better. It’s actually pretty ugly.
- It was the last of the multipurpose stadiums built. Sightlines weren’t built solely to accommodate baseball. While this will be fixed with renovations, until then, this score stands.
- 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. To get up, you’re either waiting for an elevator (which they try to reserve for disabled or elderly fans) or 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 current turf is by far and away the best that the Jays have ever had. But it’s still turf.
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 completely underwhelming.
There are a lot of places to get a Schneider’s hot dog, but frankly, a Toronto “street meat” hot dog outside the ballpark is bigger, better and cheaper. Many of the unique delicacies that had been introduced throughout the years have been discontinued and replaced with with standard stadium fare. I’m not sure if this is streamlining due to the post-COVID labor shortages, or designed to help with throughput (lines seemed to move OK), but selection feels much more limited than with other parks. There’s a jerk chicken nachos dish in the rightfield market area. And Mary Brown’s, a Canadian chicken chain, serves up a variety of fried-chicken vittles from their leftfield stand. But otherwise, it feels like you’re in a Hanna-Barbera wraparound background of sameness.
My personal fave: Poutine, the French Canadian classic of fries, cheese curds and gravy. I still find good poutine hard to get in the Midwest, 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, and it’s been sorely under-represented at the ballpark until recently.
AB InBev is the partner sponsor. As such, Budweiser and Bud Light dominate, the popular Nova Scotia-brewed Keith’s IPA (a lighter-hopped ale that’s quite nice) is widely available, and you can find Goose Island, Modelo and Michelob. And unlike other parks that have cut back big time on beer vendors, you can still get a brew without leaving your seats.
But more than ever, you can now tap into the local scene. Toronto-based Mill St. is somewhat ubiquitous in the park, and their just-for-the-ballpark Blue Wave brew is a delicious cross between a light lager and a hazy IPA. You can also get stuff from other Ontario breweries including Muskoka Brewery, Cowbell, and Amsterdam; Quebec-based Archibald; Calgary’s Banded Peak; and Vancouver’s Stanley Park brewing.
While the improved selection doesn’t elevate it to the upper echelon of beer parks, us beer nerds duly appreciate the upgrades.
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). You hear a litany of languages, see a mosaic of cultures, and eat food from around the globe thanks to the city’s diversity. 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, 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 Royals 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. (For instance, 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.
The cheesy “OK Blue Jays” song that precedes “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the seventh inning raises the score by one. 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:
- 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.)
- Avenue Open Kitchen (Downtown. A few blocks north of the ballpark lays this nondescript diner. The reason for coming is to get the best Montreal smoked meat sandwich in downtown Toronto. Not quite as good as the best in Montreal, this not-quite-pastrami/not-quite-corned-beef delicacy is a must.)
- Smoke’s Poutinerie, St Louis Bar and Grill, or Swiss Chalet. These are three Canadian chains, each with a location close-ish to the ballpark, all of whom worthy if you can’t get it where you live. Smoke’s offers over 20 different poutine options and may be the best drunk/hangover food on the planet. St. Louis has a full menu, but is known for their yummy wings and dill dipping sauce. And Swiss Chalet is a Canadian institution that serves rotisserie chicken and fries whose 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:
- RS (Downtown. Closer to the arena than the dome, this amazing but slightly pricy “sports bar and grille” has TV’s and taps galore)
- The Pint Public House (Just north of the ballpark. 40 beer on tap and 40 wing sauces.)
- Bar Hop King Street (Great place to sample from a large variety of local brewers).
- Bonus shout out two old-timers that have been open for more than 30 years in this city of constant change. The Loose Moose is a classic Toronto tap and grill is just a few blocks east of the stadium. And C’est What, Toronto’s first “craft beer bar”, still slings suds in the St. Lawrence Market area.
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. For the true craft lover, you may find “worthier options” further afoot like Bellwoods or Godspeed, but “The Roundhouse” is just steps from the stadium, and is a fun stop. If you prefer more hops but want to stay close to the dome, there’s also the Amsterdam Brewhouse, an old stand-by on the Toronto craft beer scene.)
- Left Field Brewery (Leslieville. A brewery that runs the entire beer spectrum with a baseball theme.)
- The Aleyards (Junction. Not one brewery, but a bunch within walking distance of each other. Rainhard is your starting point. Beside it are Junction Craft Brewery (also a must), Shacklands and Caribru. Once done in the Aleyards, you could mosey over to High Park Brewery and Lost Craft Brewery, or take a 20 minute walk over to Indie Alehouse. From the Alehouse, another 20-minute walk gets you to Halo Brewing. And if you’re still standing, a 15-minute walk from Halo gets you to the amazing Henderson Brewing.)
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.”