Malice and the Open Field

I always forget how awful Rogers Centre is until it’s too late.

It usually doesn’t happen until I’m inside, oftentimes staring at those five specks or dirt that are supposed to make a baseball diamond on the fake carpet. It helps if the roof is closed, making absolutely sure you see fake light and suck dead air for the next four hours or so.

This is what I do for baseball. For convenience and the Boston Red Sox. I have only been to Fenway Park once, in 2007, and it was an amazing experience. But Boston is not a day trip. Neither is New York or Baltimore.

I should just go to Cleveland or the park in Pittsburgh I still haven’t seen, when interleague play kicks in. But Toronto is right there and there are always seats. I have the necessary paperwork and live 10 minutes from a pair of international border crossings. And Canada beats out Ohio by a wide margin.

Ordering Blue Jays tickets is a breeze, and even crossing the border isn’t bad at the Rainbow Bridge on a Sunday morning. The drive doesn’t deter me, despite being a treacherous battle with construction, the QEW and a snug Gardiner Expressway. Traffic exists in big cities, at least the ones big enough to host Major League Baseball.

I don’t hate the Blue Jays and I certainly don’t hate Toronto. I love baseball and love road trips. Toronto is a great city. It is always a good idea to go there. Then I get inside, sit down, and realize what a mistake I’ve made.

The first Major League game I attended was in Toronto. I don’t remember the year, but we sat in the 500s on the third base side and watched the Yankees club the Jays. Given that information, the game could have taken place anytime over the last 20 years. I wish I could be more specific.

My first Red Sox game was also at Skydome, in 2004. Third base side and much, much closer for a Sunday game in May. Roy Halladay for Toronto, and Pedro Martinez for Boston on Halladay’s Cy Young bobblehead day.

This is a game worthy of memories. Manny Ramirez drove in Boston’s only run and each ace went seven innings, striking out six batters and allowing six hits. Carlos Delgado went deep off Pedro in the fourth and that was the difference.

That game, with its sunny skies and larger than life stars, is probably what keeps me coming back to the GTA. That’s the memory I keep until I sit down.

It’s not the seat width that bothers me, or the sensation of being stacked upon everyone else in your section. It’s the abundance of concrete and metal piping that does it. The concrete that hangs just overhead, often obstructing your view of a fly ball if you sit in the outfield. Catch the wrong angle and you feel trapped in a dingy construction project, clinging to rebar before the concrete pours in to finish the job.

They’ve done some work to the old Skydome over the years, but it’s tough to hide all that mess. There’s just too much reconstituted gravel, and Rogers Centre is a building with no smoke and very few mirrors. You can see the bowels of the stadium laid bare in left field, a gaping hole hinting at storage areas and endless dark corridors. A thin outfield wall divides the carpeted warning track of the playing field from more gray and black. Washed out colors and odd shadows and the fake green of a putt putt course.

This isn’t about Rogers Centre. Not really, anyway. This is about the bastardized way I consume baseball, hundreds of miles away from my favorite team and grasping onto any sense of closeness I can find. The packaging up north is never appealing, and Daniel Bard made sure the baseball we saw was quite putrid as well. Combine that with a light Boston lineup and you have a pretty miserable day at the ballpark lined up for Red Sox fans.

And before you say it, I know. The Red Sox have won two World Series titles in the last decade. They’ve been great, and I have no reason to complain about anything. I get it. This isn’t about the Red Sox and Blue Jays. This is about fan displacement, something any sports fan can relate to.

The not cheering wears on you. It may sound like complaining, but try it sometime. Try not to be happy when everyone else around you is. Focus on something else. Something worse. It’s miserable, and there is no winning when you’re a fan of the away team. Score a few runs, clap your hands and here come the insults.

2012 is a good time to be a sports fan. Put in a little effort and you can watch almost every game your team plays. Even in baseball, that 162-game marathon requiring every warm day on the calendar. Pay the man and every game is yours, minus those nasty blackouts.

That’s not to say that blackouts work. They do not. Toronto games can be viewed anywhere in the United States, while every single Indians game is blacked out in Western New York. I haven’t been to Cleveland for baseball in years. It is not the television rights that keep me going back to Toronto.

That’s really the point, I guess. Why do I keep going back to a building I hate to watch a team that tends to lose when I make the trip? The answer used to be simple: That was likely the only time I could see them play. In 2004, a middle class kid in high school that lives hundreds of miles away from Boston sees Red Sox games on Fox, ESPN and (in my case) YES Network for Yankees games. That’s it until the playoffs start.

Now, 23 and working a 9-5, I can watch hundreds of baseball games a year for $120 bucks and a good internet connection. I watch games on my phone while I’m at the gym. I plug in the Red Sox radio feed when I’m running errands or doing yard work or going for a swim. My baseball-watching habits have grown, shifting and mutating into a machine that offers me 15-minute game recaps just hours after the final pitch. Just in case.

That’s not to say this digital revolution rivals the real thing. It doesn’t come close. But neither does Rogers Centre, really. It’s on the fringe of modern as far as major league parks go, and maybe that’s being too polite. Its field is as ugly as the concrete ramps that lead you to the upper levels. It is baseball ripped from the outdoors and thrown into a warehouse located on prime Toronto real estate.

It is unsatisfying as a baseball venue. From a purely aesthetic standpoint I’d rather go to Coca Cola Field, pay $10 and have better sight-lines and worse baseball. Downtown Buffalo’s park lacks the grandeur of Major League Baseball and the fun of a road trip, but at least the grass is green and no one will dog you for sporting another team’s logo.

I’m not going to stop taking baseball road trips. I’m not even going to stop going to Rogers Centre, but I Sunday was a good moment to think about exactly why I go in the first place. If it’s for aesthetics and a nice lawn I can certainly go elsewhere. There are plenty of day-tripping possibilities and its’ been far too long since I’ve been to Fenway.

If I’m going for the camaraderie, well, there are cheaper ways to hang out with friends. I had a great time on Sunday, but that money could definitely have been better spent. And I can watch baseball anywhere these days, even if the smell of popcorn and old beer isn’t easily replicated in most settings.

The point is that things change. The baseball was once the reason for going. Any way at all to see the game was worth the effort. Now that’s different. We can watch in so many ways it makes you realize the discomfort you put up with to get it.

Sometimes it’s just not worth it. Especially when there are much better places to watch bat put to ball.