May 30, 2004: Toronto, Ontario
There was a day when America’s pastime was ruled by an organization north of the border. This organization drew over 4 million fans for 3 consecutive seasons (1991 through 1993) and won back-to-back World Series Championships (1992 and 1993). The Toronto Blue Jays moved into Rogers Centre (formerly SkyDome) on June 5, 1989. It was the dawning of a new era in Major League Baseball. Rogers Centre was not only the first retractable roof ballpark in North America, but it was also the first ballpark with the intention of being an entertainment center. Rogers Centre was the home of a Hard Rock Cafe, an arcade and a hotel, amenities that drew fans of all ages. With the CN Tower next door, one of the world’s tallest buildings at 1,815 feet, any visitor to the Rogers Centre was sure to experience more than just a baseball game. After visiting Detroit’s Comerica Park, Mike, Zach and I were headed 240 miles north to Toronto, Ontario. It was a beautiful spring weekend. After arriving at our Sheraton Hotel, located in downtown Toronto, we headed out about town. Toronto is a very cosmopolitan city; its culture reflects that. There are numerous English style pubs, full of happy folks, some even dressed in kilts. We stopped by The Duke of Argyle for a late lunch; when we went back to our hotel, Zach made reservations at a local comedy club. To our surprise, it was Muslim Comedy Night. Many Muslims have settled in Toronto, so it was great to experience part of their culture. Laughter brings unity to its audience, no matter what culture they are from. Baseball can have a similar impact.
We were looking forward to visiting Rogers Centre for the 1:05 game. The Blue Jays were coming off back-to-back wins against the surprising Texas Rangers, who were developing the best infield in baseball, comprised of Hank Blalock (3B), Michael Young (SS), Alfonso Soriano (2B), and Mark Teixeira (1B). The 22,225 in attendance enjoyed the game under bright blue skies. Rogers Centre’s 21-million-pound roof was open, offering a great view of the CN Tower behind Right Field. The Blue Jays were my sleeper team going into the 2004 season, but injuries and subpar starting pitching put them under .500 and out of the playoff race. All-Star first baseman Carlos Delgado sat out the game, like many Blue Jay regulars. Journeymen Bobby Estalella and Dave Berg filled out the Toronto lineup. Luckily Vernon Wells, the Blue Jays’ emerging centerfielder, remained in the lineup for what turned out to be a pitchers’ duel between Ranger Kenny Rogers and Blue Jay Justin Miller. Texas catcher Rod Barajas was in the middle of two rallies to help the Rangers win 4-2. Overall, it was a great day at Rogers Centre, but with all the empty seats it was sad to see where baseball in Toronto had gone since the 1994 strike.
Baseball will never be the most popular sport in Canada, but from 1989 to 1994, baseball in Toronto was played in front of large crowds that brought a hockey mentality to the baseball diamond. Led by manager Cito Gaston and outfielder Joe Carter, the Blue Jays were a dominant force in the American League. Rogers Centre enabled the organization to spend more money on All-Stars like Roberto Alomar and David Cone while retaining homegrown stars such as John Olerud and Juan Guzman. Rogers Centre was more than a ballpark; it was the best ballpark in the world, until the players and owners decided to end the 1994 season and any chance the Blue Jays had at winning a third consecutive World Series title. Interest in the Blue Jays waned since the 1995 season began. After visiting Rogers Centre, I doubted if baseball in Toronto could be successful again. I figured they would be the next and last Major League Baseball franchise to leave the great white north for a burgeoning US city like Portland, Oregon, until Blue Jays owner Ted Rogers announced that SkyDome would be renamed Rogers Centre and $210 million would be budgeted for team payroll over the next three years. This announcement gave Blue Jays General Manager J.P. Riccardi the flexibility his predecessors had to build a championship-caliber team. These improvements to the team’s finances did not result in any playoff appearances. It took a new regime until 2015 to deliver Toronto’s first playoff appearance since their 1993 World Series run. In that 22-year period, the Rogers Centre moved down the ballpark rankings. Prior to the 2015 season, Blue Jays President Paul Beeston estimated the Rogers Centre could use $200400M (CAD) in renovations to modernize the ballpark that was once ahead of its time.