On the surface, it’s a sobering thought for certain generations of Blue Jays fans — the realization they’re unlikely to see their team play in a new stadium at any point in their lifetime.
When owner Rogers Communications is plunging some $300 million into a multi-year renovation to facelift the aging downtown dome, you take what you can get.
And for the first phase of that project, anyway, the Jays are determined to put some party back into the Toronto baseball scene.
At first look, there is the potential for a far more boisterous experience in the outfield portions of stadium, where the environment figures to be far more dynamic than in previous decades.
The transformation is well under way and was on display during a tour of one of the city’s biggest construction sites on Tuesday. Team officials says construction of the first phase is on course to be completed in time for the 2023 home opener on April 11.
The cornerstones of the winter renos — and surely areas that will be a hit with the younger component of the fan base — are four new outfield “neighbourhoods” designed as a place for ticket holders from anywhere in the stadium to gather.
The gathering spots are made for those to mix a libation with live action away from the more traditional stadium seating. Given the tired experience at the dome for years now, it certainly has the potential to elevate the fan experience.
Essentially, the Jays are taking out seats that were rarely sold anyway and creating, as their buzzword goes, “social spaces.”
Jays fans who have travelled to other venues across baseball are well aware of such offerings — think outfield bars in places like Seattle, San Francisco and Denver to name three outstanding offerings where similar areas are the place to be for a large component of the fan base.
Central to the redesign is spaces above each of the bullpens, now raised to bring them closer to the fans. Bar rails will be located throughout much of the outfield areas, giving fans the option to lean closer to the action in a standing-room setting popular across MLB.
As well, all the seats on the 500 level — originals from 1989, if you can believe it, and many of which were falling apart — will be replaced with seats an inch or so wider than the previous version.
Phase one of the renovation — the bigger infield and lower bowl project will take place next season — will reduce capacity by 3,000 seats, or 7%, and is doing so by jettisoning seating areas that were sold a handful of times in the season anyway.
There’s only so much that can be done with a building that is aging and wasn’t built as baseball specific in the first place. But given the limitations of the concrete behemoth — and the pipe dream of a new stadium on hold indefinitely — it’s an encouraging alternative.
First up on the baseball bar crawl is what has been branded the Corona Rooftop Patio out in right field, a 500-level bistro that on open roof days should get some sunshine and the CN Tower as a backdrop. Jays officials visited several big league parks, mining ideas, and this one looks like a winner for those whose game experience includes spending an inning or two at what is the closest thing you can get to a rooftop bar at a stadium.
Sticking in the 500 level but over in left field is Park Social, a more family-friendly open air space to hang out away from the seats.
The Catch Bar is perched above the visitors dugout on the 100 level and will be the Jays idea of a cocktail bar with what the team is billing as “trendy food bites.” Given what we’ve seen at other stadiums, it will also be a spot for fans to ride opposing relievers.
(Just ask Jays closer Jordan Romano about some of the classic chirping he’s had on the road in places like Fenway Park.)
And the fourth space, The Stop, will also be found on the 100 level behind the centre field batter’s eye. The team is calling it a neighbourhood bar (if your neighbourhood bar sold cans of beer north of $15, that is) but is another unique alternative.
Fancy names and modern branding are a welcome spruce up for the stadium that won’t put it among the elite of MLB venues but should make it significantly less pedestrian than it has been.
The neighbourhood concept/500 level reboot is just one part of the current construction, which will dramatically alter the outfield look.
Both bullpens will be raised and the 100 level seats will be brought forward to the new outfield walls, eliminating the gap that previously existed and bringing fans closer to the action.
The dimensions of those outfield walls have yet to be revealed — and won’t be until spring training begins next month. But team president Mark Shapiro has suggested that the configuration will be altered and unique to Toronto baseball.
“It won’t be a uniform fence all the way around, whether it be in height or angles,” Shapiro said in December at the Winter Meetings in San Diego. “This creates some interesting outcomes in balls in play.”
Shapiro said that the dimensions won’t create a situation that favours left- or right-handed hitters but will remain neutral with the new look.
As for the aesthetics, naturally, from Shapiro on down, the Jays are bullish on the changes, as well they should be given the former SkyDome’s status as one of the most tired venues in baseball.
A winning team and large crowds won’t hurt the vibe, of course. But we’ll leave that to general manager Ross Atkins and manager John Schneider.
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