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Blue Jays Unveil the '8th Wonder of the World'

June 03, 1989|JIM HENNEMAN | The Baltimore Evening Sun

TORONTO — Two months late, but worth the wait.

That's the general, if not unanimous, opinion of what is being billed as the "Eighth Wonder of the World."

The Toronto SkyDome, already hailed as an architectural masterpiece, makes its baseball debut Monday night when the Blue Jays host the Milwaukee Brewers.

The gala inaugural celebration, an Olympic-style spectacle with prices to match (tickets from $125 to $250), is scheduled for tonight.

All eyes probably won't be on the roof--a retractable, four-section covering designed for comfort and convenience. The steel roof is big enough to cover eight acres, and the four panels weigh a combined 19 million pounds. The dome is the first of its kind, and the financial security of designers Rod Robbie and Michael Allen probably depends on how well it works.

The world's largest convertible is designed for an open-air setting in ideal weather and intimate surroundings when the top is closed because of rain or snow. When all of the computerized fine points are resolved, it is supposed to take only 20 minutes to open or close the dome.

But the only real concern is making sure the SkyDome is either completely open or completely closed. Anything in between would be a trifle embarrassing.

Not that an embarrassment would be something new to the Toronto baseball scene. Exhibition Stadium, which has been home to the Blue Jays since 1977, has fit that description nicely.

In this picturesque city's baseball history, the "Ex-Stadium" on the shores of Lake Ontario has served its purpose, if somewhat miraculously.

A disaster in the making almost from its inception, Exhibition Stadium has survived fires, storms, fog and sea gulls. It has been labeled the "Mistake By The Lake," and, more recently, "Excruciating Stadium." Those are the printable nicknames.

Originally built in 1897 for horse racing and the annual Canadian National Exhibition, it had only one grandstand. When that burned down in 1906, it was immediately replaced.

Another fire, in 1947, leveled the grandstand again. Officials went for the third strike and rebuilt it again. Only about half of those 20,679 seats were usable for baseball, and that's being generous.

The popularity of stock car races and the addition of football led to another grandstand on the opposite side--a benchmark move only because that's all they had for seats (chairs would take up too much room for football).

Finally, in 1973, smelling a possible baseball franchise (the San Francisco Giants almost moved to Toronto before the Blue Jays were hatched), officials agreed on a renovation that linked the two grandstands.

Total cost for the final stage was $17.8 million, less than one-fourth of what it will cost for just the roof over the SkyDome.

Toronto is considered a somewhat staid, conservative town. But when it came time to making a decision, and spending the money, on the SkyDome, there were plenty of heavy hitters.

Originally estimated to cost $150 million (in 1983), the actual cost may end up being one of the world's best-kept secrets, but $500 million is a nice round, and probably conservative, number.

Almost that much money can already be accounted for, and only $60 million is coming from public funds, equally divided between the province of Ontario and the municipality.

One thing is certain: The new stadium will have none of the inconveniences of the old one. Once the cleanup work is completed, the SkyDome should become the Taj Mahal of entertainment palaces.

"I'd like people to walk in and notice the personality of the building," said Robbie, who mortgaged his home to raise enough money to enter the design competition. "It's a fun place, a homey place."

It's difficult to imagine a building rising 31 stories as "homey," but despite the glitz and glamour, the SkyDome comes close.

The stadium, which will also house the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, seats fewer than 53,000 for baseball. And it has all the amenities--from public restaurants, bars and a hotel, all with views of the playing field, to luxurious club and sky boxes and a Sony JumboTron display screen that is three times larger (35 feet by 115 feet) than any other in the world.

"I hope people get a feeling of intimacy; that's important," Allen, the man responsible for the unique roof design, said. Delayed by a 17-week strike that curtailed construction, the SkyDome is still only a shell of the marvel it is intended to be, but the show must go on. "The doors are in, but not all of the doorknobs are in place," is the way Blue Jays spokesman Howie Starkman describes his team's palatial new home.

If the "Ex-Stadium" has served one useful purpose, it has been to prepare Toronto fans for the two most pressing problems with the SkyDome--parking and traffic.

"There are 17,000 underground parking spaces within a 10-minute walk of here," Starkman said, standing amid the workers outside the SkyDome. "The problem is nobody knows where they are."

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