At SkyDome, game's a sideshow

JOHN EISENBERG

July 11, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

TORONTO -- I was walking along a sidewalk outside SkyDome a couple of hours before the All-Star Game the other night, listening to a kid hawk $7 programs -- "think what it'll be worth in 20 years" -- and suddenly Johnny Mathis was singing to me.

This was quite a feat considering Johnny was nowhere near Toronto, but SkyDome is such an astonishment that I didn't blink. I have been to the place often enough (making me, what, a SkyVet?) to learn that the first rule is you never know what you might confront around the next bend, so, as the Boy Scouts warn, be prepared.

It turned out I was standing by a street cafe attached to the stadium -- not to be confused with the Hard Rock Cafe and two restaurants rising above the outfield, or the countless chol-a-holic fast-food centers -- and Johnny was doo-doo-dooing it on the stereo.

Just another moment in SkyDome life. I knew beforehand that the Toronto All-Star experience was going to be different, more a marvel of pop culture and architecture than baseball. Indeed, the day before, during a home run-hitting contest, a fan sitting in a bar sipping a beer had caught a ball -- surely an all-time sporting first.

The guy was just sitting down in one of the outfield drinkeries when Cecil Fielder walloped a 460-footer that kept going up and up and, yow-ee, flew right to the guy. He got his picture in all the papers. Science, and social science, marched on. Such is SkyDome life.

Anyway, not long after I left Johnny Mathis and went inside the dome, the roof disappeared. Someone pushed The Big Button at the end of batting practice and the sucker just rolled right off and a dome became a ballpark and everyone gazed up and oooh-ahhhhed as a cool, perfect Canadian evening gradually appeared. Then everyone stood and sang the unofficial anthem of the 1991 All-Star Game:

Take me out to the SkyDome

Take me out to the sphere

Buy me a Big Mac and fries, my friend

A seat at the Hard Rock by game's end

So let's watch, watch, watch

On the big screen

Noses 6 feet high!

So it's bang, zoom

There goes the roof

Of the old ball yard

OK, so they didn't really sing that. They should have. Baseball in SkyDome does still involve bats, balls and gloves, but it is not the baseball Babe Ruth played. It is baseball as Marshall McLuhan might have drawn it, with a 60-by-110-foot TV looming in center field, spinning its own tales. It is baseball gone to the mall, a festival of neon. I know they're going to put a Gap store out behind left field one of these years. (Bringing new meaning to the famed radio call, "He hits one into the gap!")

Maybe it's true the place is a little tacky, too pricey ($3 for a Big Mac) and cost far too much to build (at $583 million, twice the price of Camden Yards) but I can't help myself: I love it. I'm a baseball traditionalist -- pro-grass, pro-daylight, anti-dome, anti-DH -- and the Camden Yards design is perfect by me, but you've got no imagination if you can't make allowances for a place like this.

Rare is the stadium -- any building, actually -- that makes you step back and say, "My goodness." Mike Flanagan once said that watching the roof close during a game, bringing darkness where there'd been light, must be what it'll be like when the world comes to an end. Where else can you get that and a shot at a foul ball for the price of a bleacher seat?

The Toronto players complain a little that the fans don't cheer as much as they did at the old park here, but I can understand why. The fans are numb. They're maxed. They're all busy watching the giant television. They're tired from the seventh-inning-stretch light aerobics. They can't believe they just paid $25 to take their family to McDonald's.

Anyway, I was there when the Blue Jays eliminated the Orioles at the end of the 1989 season, and the din was shattering when Gregg Olson threw his wild pitch. The cheers were loud and long for the three Blue Jays who played Tuesday night, too.

Those were just about the only cheers, of course, for the game itself didn't offer much besides Cal Ripken's home run. (Was I the only one booing when Tony La Russa pinch hit for him in the seventh inning, denying everyone a Dibble-Ripken at-bat?) But then, with fresh, hot pitchers being thrown out there every inning now, the game has become patently dull. The average score is 3-2 since 1983.

Of course, the game doesn't even have a chance anymore when asked to compete with the sensory overload that the All-Star experience has become. Before a pitch was thrown in Toronto there were an old-timers game, a 460-foot homer, packs of cold-eyed autograph sharks everywhere, a make-your-own-baseball-card booth, presidents, stirring pre-game introductions, DiMaggio and Williams, something called FanFest, in which you paid $10 for the chance to get a Balor Moore autograph and swing in a batting cage. Yippee!

You wind up feeling a bit like a pingpong ball, experiencing the game at its purest and greediest. The joy of the players is palpable. Their shared thrill at being at the pinnacle of their profession is alluring. But everything around them is sponsored, stamped, given a price -- a setting as mercenary as a battery of divorce lawyers. ("Think how much it'll be worth in 20 years!")

Still, it doesn't ruin the gig. The game should be a good time, a terrific time, when it is played in Baltimore in 1993. Our roof won't roll back and Johnny Mathis won't sing to me, but we'll have a splendid new stadium and a genuine baseball celebration to witness. Do we really need Johnny Mathis, anyway?

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