Northern Exposure (or Lack Thereof)

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Unlike the two parks we covered yesterday, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Miller Park and the Rogers Centre, home of the Toronto Blue Jays these two facilities keep their roofs open for more than half their teams’ home games.

Outside of that, and the relative proximity between Toronto and Milwaukee, similarities between the two stadiums are minimal. Conceived by different design firms for different purposes during two completely different eras of architectural influences (both inside and outside the sport), they represent perhaps the best (Miller) and worst (Rogers) that retractable roofs have to offer.

Miller Park opened in 2001, replacing nearby County Stadium, an open-air venue which housed Milwaukee -- both Braves and Brewers -- baseball for the previous 48 years.

The new park, designed by the team of NBBJ of Seattle and HKS of Dallas, has a stadium footprint that follows the shape of the baseball diamond, with the two sides of the roof sitting atop each baseline. Each side of the roof arches high above the stadium, the space between filled with glass that allows sunlight into the stadium, supporting the growth of the natural grass field below.

Miller Park is designed to evoke stadiums of yesteryear and sits firmly in the retro-stadium movement, starting with the high-arching roof that cuts an iconic profile matching that of its counterpart at the nearby Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by Santiago Calatrava.

The compact, 41,900-seat stadium has the requisite brick and limestone façade and asymmetrical outfield to suggest it’s a vintage park of the previous century.  The park is also loaded with quirky features, like a multi-story slide beyond the left field wall that Bernie Brewer slides down following Brewer home runs, while a 6th Inning Sausage Race keeps fans happy and cheerful regardless of the score.

It’s clearly worked, as one would have to assume that fans see the park as a massive upgrade over its predecessor given that the small-market stadium appears in the top-10 in attendance every year and was voted Best Stadium in MLB this year in an ESPN poll. This despite a negligible boost in their record between the first 11 after and the last 11 before their move (.474 before vs. .475 after); but even that appears to be trending upwards for a Brewers squad that finished five of the last six years with a winning percentage of .490 or better after nearly a decade and a half of futility.

Perhaps the only aspect of the park that should worry the Brewers going forward is recurring engineering problems with its unorthodox roof, which culminated in 13 million dollar overhaul in 2006, only five years after the stadium opened.

The Rogers Centre is the oldest of the six retractable stadiums in MLB, having opened in 1989 (as the SkyDome), and represents a fundamentally different approach to a retractable facility than its bi-functioning brethren.

What makes the Rogers Centre -- designed by relatively unknown architect Rod Robbie -- distinct is that the roof was built with the intention for it to be closed with the option of opening, instead of opened with the option of closing. Because of this, and the need for flexibility to allow for a variety of events throughout the harsh Toronto winter to be hosted by the arena, the field at the Rogers Centre is synthetic FieldTurf that can easily be removed if necessary. 

That roof, which was designed in four parts, helps create an atmosphere which is decidedly modern but certainly not contemporary, as the entire structure serves as an unsettling throwback to the big, multi-purpose stadiums of a generation ago. Part of the reason for the identity crisis is that the “multi-purpose” aspect of the park goes far beyond any other stadium in North America. The crown jewel is the iconic 348-room hotel -- with its 70 rooms overlooking the playing field -- that forms the northern edge of the building, and houses numerous restaurants as well as a health club with the world’s largest indoor track. 

Likely because of its focus on a variety of different uses, as opposed to the laser-guided focus found in nearly every other park in the league, Rogers Center is not just not the best place to watch a baseball game, its considered by many to be the worst in either league (according to a study by Nate Silver).  From seats in the fifth deck where one literally can’t see the outfield to its lack of a dirt infield, which are all fit inside its cavernous footprint; this 1980s stadium is very much a relic of its decade.  

Further burying the ballpark has been the disappointing play of its main residents, who have not made the playoffs since winning it all in 1993, despite finishing above .500 since opening the park. Whether the lack of playoff appearance are the reason for the low attendance figures or not is up to debate, but what isn’t is that the low attendance figures have likely kept the Jays on the outside looking in when it comes to being able to compete with the big ticket teams in the AL East.

Which most troubling for the Blue Jays (and especially their fans) is that, with the rise of the Rays and O’s, they may end up pushing their record into downright ugly territory. Given their already erratic attendance figures, having to slough through a division with four potential playoff teams, a major drop off in on-the-field performance could lead to a revenue death spiral that could may force Canada’s remaining baseball team to seriously reconsider the sustainability of such an arrangement. 

But, even when taking into account that is a dreadful space to watch a baseball game -- no matter how bad the team playing is -- the idea of the Rogers Centre and its ability to host so many functions both in-season and off is laudable. The fact that the other retractable stadiums in baseball are not more used in the offseason is surprising.  While they are not the ultimate white elephants their NFL counterparts have become, as their relatively short season leave them empty on most days of the year, one would think the investment in a retractable roof would embolden franchises to be more aggressive when scheduling their stadiums.

Matthew Brown is an architect who writes about stadia and sport venues past and present on his own blog and Twitter.

Infographics by Nick Bond

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