Another Place for Couch Potatoes


ONE episode of the Twilight Zone, the late 1950s TV series, was about a man who met a violent death. His life had not been exemplary. Yet he woke up to an experience that seemed at first idyllic. He couldn't miss a pool shot. Women succumbed to him. Whatever he wanted, he had. He thought he was in heaven. But as perfection - as he conceived it - confronted him on every side, and his every wish was instantly fulfilled, a sense of horror overtook him. Finally he realized: He was not in heaven, but in hell.

I thought of this as I read about the Skydome, the new sports complex in Toronto. The $500 million development is everything a commercial culture could desire. A dome glides silently into place to keep out bad weather. Artificial grass will assure the TV cameras a spotless video green. A luxury hotel, restaurant, and 300-foot bar all look out upon the field, sparing patrons the inconvenience of leaving their room or seat.

The press generally has been wide-eyed, as it tends to be toward things technological and new. But Rosemary Bransom, vice-president of the Toronto Blue Jays fan club, has doubts. Bransom helped lead an unsuccessful effort to put real grass on the new field. Now she has larger concerns.

``It's perfect to the point of being imperfect,'' she says of the stadium. ``It's great for big business and great for television. But is it going to be great for the sport of baseball?''

One can applaud the honesty of the new stadium. Never before has the marriage of big business and sports found such stark architectural expression. The world's largest video scoreboard shows commercials between innings. McDonald's runs the concession stands. Everything is planned, managed, and controlled.

What the corporate mind - in both its communist and capitalist manifestations - cannot comprehend is that the difficult and unexpected are the texture of our lives. We return from vacations telling of chance encounters and wrong turns. The days that went perfectly melt into a blur. The generation before mine often recalls with special affection the early days of marriage, the one-room apartment and salary of $25 a week.

The easier things get, the more people seek out difficulty, sometimes in bizarre ways. Baby boomers who were given everything grew up work-obsessed. They pump Nautilus machines for hours, yet have riding mowers in their garages. Stores like Brookstone and Banana Republic sell them symbols of the utility and adventure that life no longer requires.

So with sports. In such cities as Columbus, Ohio, and Green Bay, Wis., whole cultures have grown up around bad football weather. Tailgating, parkas, and hand warmers turn spectators into participants, who make the experience their own.

Baseball, with its subtlety and precision, is less amenable to bad weather rites. Still, shifting winds and threats of late-inning rain are part of the drama of the game. ``It takes away one of the opponents - the elements,'' Bransom says of the dome.

Yes, those elements can be blustery in early April and October. But the problem is not that real ballparks are obsolete. It is that baseball's owners have extended the season far too long.

Television announcers will rhapsodize over the new stadium, and it will be an obligatory tourist stop. But the real test will come when it approaches middle age and can't get by on looks alone. Old ballparks such as Tiger Stadium in Detroit and Chicago's Wrigley Field become more endearing with age. Through the grace of time, their quirky imperfection becomes their charm. They provide shelter from a relentless commercial culture, not submersion in it.

Thirty years from now, will people who saw their first game in Toronto have the kind of memories that kids in Boston have of Fenway? Bundled under their father's overcoat on a drizzly Saturday, despairing as the gusts turn a Jackie Jensen homer into a long fly out?

I doubt it. A stadium is like life. If it asks nothing of us, it leaves us empty, craving more. Communism produces threadbare boredom; corporations, a more opulent kind. But the end result is similar. ``They've given me another place to be a couch potato,'' Bransom says.

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