Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Visiting Old Friends

I mentioned that my other half and I took a vacation to Canada last week, and if you weren't paying attention, that was why I didn't write anything last week, and if you didn't care, then it didn't make a difference either way, but I was indeed in Canada, most notably in Toronto and Montreal, cities which either are or once were homes of Major League Baseball teams. I was fortunate enough to see both of these stadia on my trip, and even go so far as to see a game at the stadium that still has a team playing there. My trip to the Rogers Centre was motivated primarily by the opportunity to not only see a new stadium, but also to pay a visit to our old friends Jose Reyes and R.A. Dickey, who currently ply their trade for the Jays. Unfortunately, I'd missed Dickey's turn in the rotation by a day, but Jose Reyes was still in the lineup for the Jays this afternoon.

Rogers Centre is located in the midst of downtown Toronto, in the shadows of the CN Tower. When it opened, in 1989, it was looked upon as a modern marvel, the first stadium with a retractable roof, world's largest scoreboard, etc. Now, it's sort of a relic from a former era of monolithic multipurpose stadiums, one of the last in the Major Leagues to boast an Astroturf field, and currently the only MLB stadium outside of the United States.

It was a miserably humid day in Toronto, with rain in the forecast, and apparently any time there's rain in the forecast, they close the roof. That's all well and good, but the problem with the Rogers Centre is that there's no Air Conditioning inside (Being in Canada, it seems AC is not widely utilized since I suppose days like this are relatively rare). Thus, as you can see from the above photo, it not only appears as though we're sitting inside a cave, but it feels like you're sitting in a sauna that's been placed in an airplane hangar. Sound echoes off of all the walls and caroms all over the place; the crack of the bat can be heard clear as a bell in the farthest reaches of the ballpark.

The fans in Toronto are surprisingly passionate, both about their team and their country. Even when there's not a game in town, Torontonians are generally seen wearing some form of Blue Jays gear, and on game day, you could sneeze and hit a Jays fan, even if you're not in the relative vicinity of the stadium. Inside, both anthems were sung prior to the game. The last time I'd been to a multi-anthem game was the final game in Expos history at Shea Stadium, back in 2004. Here, the US anthem was sung first and greeted with polite applause. But as soon as "O Canada" was sung, the fans all sang along with the woman performing the anthems, and when the song was over, the stadium erupted in massive patriotic cheers. Also, the Jays mascot, a Blue Jay named "Ace" was prevalent throughout the game. Here, he's accompanied someone out to the mound to deliver the game ball, which was in a box. After they delivered the ball, Ace then took the box and placed it on the head of the poor slob who came out with him.

The game was fairly unmemorable. The Jays jumped out to an early lead on the Minnesota Twins and more or less cruised to a blowout 11-5 victory. Our old friend Jose Reyes was modestly involved. Here, he's batting in the 1st inning. In the 5th inning, Reyes, who may have sensed the mojo of the Mets fan in the building, Homered to left off of Binghamton alum Scott Diamond. Later, he would reach on a Fielder's Choice and score on a triple by Edwin Encarnacion. He was later seen in the dugout laughing and doing one of his patented secret handshakes with Jose Bautista. One thing of note would be that the Toronto fans do not serenade him with the "JO-SE, JOSEJOSEJOSE..." chant. It appears that this is reserved for Jose Bautista. Reyes, a newbie in Toronto, has not earned the same level of adoration.

R.A. Dickey does seem to get a bit of adoration in Toronto. Outside, I took note of a giant R.A. Dickey banner hanging from the side of the stadium. Dickey is also centrally featured in several Blue Jays advertisements and other such ephemera that is in and around the Toronto area. Here, he's holding court in the dugout, and I believe that's Mark Buehrle sitting next to him. Josh Thole is sweeping up behind them. The bald gentleman is a coach of some sort, I would have to assume. A good telephoto lens was about as close as I was going to get to R.A. on this day.

Some other odd Rogers Centre things: The Blue Jays have their own theme song, much in the vein of "Meet The Mets." However, unless you are either a) From Toronto or b) Have attended a Blue Jays game in Toronto, you probably didn't know this. The song is called "OK Blue Jays," and they play a shortened version of it during the 7th inning stretch before they sing "Take Me Out To The Ballgame." I was told that the full version of the song takes a number of shots at the Yankees, Red Sox and Billy Martin, to show you how old it is. The concession stands are typically overpriced, as most stadium food is, but maybe it's not, depending on what the exchange rate between the US and Canadian dollar is that day. You can get Poutine at Rogers Centre, if you look in the right place. However, the cake-taker was probably when the grounds crew came out to drag the infield. Since it's an Astroturf field, there's only those dopey "sliding boxes" around the bases, so the gimmick here is that they boast the "World's Fastest Grounds crew". At the end of the 5th inning, a bunch of guys in Orange shirts come dashing out from the Left Field corner, sweep up, change the bases, and then make a mad dash back from whence they came. Ace was out there as well, and at first it appeared they were chasing him off the field, but they eventually ran past him and shut the door in the fence, leaving Ace stuck on the field with no place to go. So, like any good bird, he scaled the wall and left the field.

With the game out of reach and the conditions inside the dome getting sweatier by the minute, my other half and I decided it best to leave after the 7th inning and, like any good Tourist in Toronto, went right next door to the CN Tower, where we got a nice view of the roof of the Rogers Centre from 447 Metres up in the air. And, thus, was my first visit to the Rogers Centre, my first Baseball game outside the United States, and my first game in a dome.

Later in the week, we were in Montreal. I was aware that Olympic Stadium, former home of the Expos, was still around, the tower that hangs over it was an observatory of some sort (noted for being the world's highest inclined tower). The problems that have plagued Olympic Stadium through its checkered life span are well-noted, and it currently sits in some sort of demented limbo, with no real tenant and no particular good use, and is in constant need of maintenance of one kind or another. I would have thought, it being a bit of a tourist attraction, with the tower and nearby Montreal Biodome, that they might have put a little more effort into its upkeep. However, I was mistaken. Olympic Stadium was built for the 1976 Olympics and it looks very much as though very little has changed since then.

Olympic Stadium is situated (if you choose to go by Métro), by the Pie-IX station, which actually leads directly into the Stadium without actually having to go outside. I found this rather touching ad in the corridor leading to Olympic Stadium, honoring Gary Carter, who, since becoming the first Hall of Famer in Expos history, has become a much-beloved figure in Montreal, perhaps even moreso than he is among Mets fans. Montreal also named a street after Carter near Jarry Park, where the Expos used to play. I was, at one point, nearby Rue Gary-Carter, however I was not able to actually find my way onto the street itself. I also heard that there was a Park being named after him, but whether or not that happened, I am not sure.

Then, there's the entrance itself. The corridor that leads from the Pie-IX station to the stadium is sort of creepy, in that "where the hell does this thing lead?" sense. You know where it's headed, but you're not quite sure, and you also know that you can't actually get into where it's going, so you're not quite sure if you're going to have to turn back or not. Eventually, there is an exit which leads outside to Boulevard Pierre de Coubertin.

But, since the stadium itself isn't actually open (and lord only knows what's inside), I can only show you what it looked like from the outside. It looks, more or less, like some demented Zeppelin-like contraption that crashed into the side of a mountain. Perhaps it's more like a frisbee or the Starship Enterprise. I'm not sure. I know it wasn't exactly aesthetically pretty from the inside, and it's not much better from the outside.

Here it is, folks. In all its glory. Former home of the Montreal Expos, place where Darryl Strawberry once hit a ball off the roof and a site that hasn't played host to a Major League Baseball game since September 29, 2004. The tower was built to hold up what was supposed to be a retractable roof, but the roof never worked and eventually kept failing, leading to a continuation of fiascoes over what state the park should remain in. For one season, 1998, the stadium was actually open-air. But by that time, a once-vibrant Baseball community had evaporated, and the Expos languished in Baseball Hell for multiple years before finally vacating Montreal for good after 2004 in one of Baseball's more unacknowledged tragedies.

 The roof is permanent now, supposedly, and here's a view of it from inside the tower. The promenade (or Ésplanade, as it's called) around the stadium appears to be mostly closed off, and there were several construction workers working on top and around of the Stadium, although for what purpose I'm not quite sure. The stadium was built to look futuristic for its time, and I suppose for 1976 it did, but in 2013, it looks every bit like you've just stepped into a time warp. A time warp where just about everything is in French. Just about all of the signage inside the tower is in French, including the buildings you're looking at from the observatory. Downstairs, at the bottom of the tower, there is a little gift shop that sells Magnets and other such tchochkes of Olympic Stadium, as well as shirts and whatnot for the 1976 Olympics. But...No Expos stuff. Where's the Expos stuff? There's also a small exhibit of "The World's Great Towers." And then there's an entrance into a large hall with large swimming pools, that was full of construction dust. Nonetheless, the doors were quite open, revealing what apparently must have been the Swimming venue from the 1976 Olympics. It's now a gym of some sort, but the pool is being renovated. Regardless, any such signage that would indicate this is non-existent, in French or otherwise. Fascinating.
And back outside once again. Au Revoir, Les Expos. You had the honor of playing in what's probably the oddest-looking Major League venue in history. And now, you're gone, and the souvenir shop doesn't even remember you. In fact, most of Montreal in general seems to have forgotten about the Expos, which is a shame. There's a few stores around the city that have Expos shirts or hats, but you've got to search for them a little bit. I can't quite figure why that is. I would have thought, perhaps, that it's out of shame over their team leaving, but in Quebec City, there are plenty of items related to the Quebec Nordiques, and they also moved away 20 years ago.

So, there you have it, the Baseball-related portion of my Canadian Vacation. If only it were 10 years ago, I might have been able to catch two games on my trip, but no. No more Expos. Just the Blue Jays and an empty stadium.

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