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Tropicana Field / Tampa Bay Rays

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Let's get this right out of the way: Tropicana Field is not the worst facility in the major leagues. The Metrodome clearly is. By far. Now, having said that, it's also clear that Tropicana Field is the second-worst facility in the majors. In many ways it's directly comparable to the Metrodome, as both hated domes exist for very good reasons: weather. Some protection from the elements is needed in Minnesota in April and late September, and outdoor baseball in Florida during those hot summer months can be unbearable. And when both facilities were designed, a dome was considered state of the art.

FAST FACTS

Year Opened: 1990
Capacity: 45,000
Dimensions: 315L, 370LC, 410LC, 404C, 404RC, 370RC, 322R
Playing Surface: AstroTurf (1998-1999), FieldTurf (2000-present)
Website: mlb.com
Phone: 888/326-7297
League: American League
Parking: A sea of 7,000 free parking spots surrounds the ballpark.
Address/Directions: One Tropicana Drive, St. Petersburg. Tropicana Field is right on I-275, the main freeway running through Tampa and St. Petersburg, so it’s hard to miss. Exit 22 goes right to the Tropicana Field parking lots; just follow the signs.

Let's get this right out of the way: Tropicana Field is not the worst facility in the major leagues. The Metrodome clearly is. By far.

Now, having said that, it's also clear that Tropicana Field is the second-worst facility in the majors. In many ways it's directly comparable to the Metrodome, as both hated domes exist for very good reasons: weather. Some protection from the elements is needed in Minnesota in April and late September, and outdoor baseball in Florida during those hot summer months can be unbearable. And when both facilities were designed, a dome was considered state of the art.

Even though Tampa Bay is the youngest team in the American League, Tropicana Field is not a newer facility: it originally opened in 1990, less than a year after the unveiling of the first retractable-roof ballpark, SkyDome. We take retractable roofs for granted, but back then they were still considered unproven technology, and St. Petersburg took the safe path in commissioning a fiberglass roof, especially when there was no guarantee of landing a major-league team. The roof was considered an engineering marvel of source, and today it’s still one of the largest cable-supported domes in the world -- Atlanta’s Georgia Dome is larger. Tropicana Field -- then called Florida Suncoast Dome -- was built on spec, as St. Petersburg city leaders pushed for its construction to land a major-league baseball team. It did work, but it took several years, as the Chicago White Sox leveraged St. Petersburg to win public funding for U.S. Cellular Field, while an agreement to bring in the San Francisco Giants dissipated at the last second when local owners kept the team for the Bay. As a result, the first two major tenants of Tropicana Field were National Hockey League and Arena Football League teams.

Enter the expansion Devil Rays, whose short, brutish existence in the American League have been marked by consistently losing records and a front office seemingly bent on alienating the few fans committed to the team. If there was a way for Vince Naimoli and crew to irritate the local baseball community, they managed to do so. Despite bringing in some talented people over the years -- Lou Piniella on the field and Mike Veeck in the front office -- the Rays never gained traction among Tampa-St. Pete residents. Fairly or unfairly, Tropicana Field was held as a symbol of the much-despised Naimoli regime.

You can imagine the joy when new ownership swept into town after the 2005 season and announced sweeping changes into how the team was run and how fans will be treated. With new ownership comes a new commitment to the fan experience at Tropicana Field, as Stuart Sternberg and crew committed $10 million in facility upgrades for the 2006 season. A trip to the World Series in 2008 certainly brightened the outlook of local sports fans perpetually supporting a loser.

Although you may hate domes -- and lord know we do -- you may not be as repulsed by the Tropicana Field as you expect, but that will depend on how you view something like Center Field Street and the Grand Rotunda. The Grand Rotunda was designed as a homage to baseball history, incorporating the same dimensions (80 feet wide, five stories high) and based on the original blueprints for the legendary rotunda at Ebbets Field. Nice theory, but it doesn’t really work – it’s impossible to conjure up the ghosts of Dem Bums in coastal Florida. Center Field Street is essentially a mall between the ballpark and the parking lots featuring services (banking, travel), outdoor activities, entertainment, and concessions.

When a large crowd is on hand -- say, when the Yankees are in town, or the team is in the midst of a pennant run -- the place can be festive. When a small crowd is on hand -- say, when the Royals are in town on a Wednesday night – the place is boring.

And we will give the new Rays ownership a lot of credit for making changes to Tropicana Field since taking control of the team. A sorely needed new sound system was installed, and the whole ballpark received a good washing -- seats, aisles, floors, concourses and all. Suites were upgraded. The bathrooms were renovated, and the many public areas received new paint.

But some things remain the same, including the playing field. If you go, look up at the catwalks, part of the support system for the fiberglass roof. It’s not uncommon for a ball to end up clanging off a support or a light, leading to some of the most detailed ground rules in the majors. Basically, a ball hitting a catwalk or a light in foul territory will be judged first by where it hits (a ball hitting in foul territory is immediately a strike; play goes on for a ball that hits in fair territory) and then by where it lands. If it lands foul, it’s a strike; if it lands fair, it’s in play. If it stays on the catwalk it’s a ground-rule double. However, a ball hitting either of the lower two catwalks, lights or suspended objects in fair territory is a home run.

For the future of baseball to thrive in Tampa-St. Pete, some sort of retractable-roof ballpark with climate control (like Chase Field) is needed: 90 degree temperatures coupled with high humidity and a late-afternoon rainstorm led to the building of a dome in the first place, and those elements are still present as the Rays look to their future. In the meantime, Tropicana Field will do.

CONCESSIONS
You won’t need to fight the crowds to reach food and drink at Tropicana Field, as there are almost 300 points of sale in the ballpark. And, generally, the concession offerings are pretty decent, with a local favorites on the menu. A local outpost of the popular Columbia Restaurant chain offers Cuban fare, and Tropicana Field is the only major-league ballpark offering boiled peanuts. You can find these in the Taste of Tampa Bay area in Center Field Street.

There are also four restaurants and bars within Tropicana Field. The most politically incorrect of them is Cuesta-Rey Cigar Bar, located in center field. Although the cigar craze has diminished, the bar is a definite selling point for the Rays, especially in cigar-happy Tampa. This is most definitely not just a smoking lounge -- in fact, pipes and cigarettes are expressly prohibited -- but a clubby cigar lounge complete with leather seats and big-screen TVs for watching the game.

Those enjoying cigars will probably enjoy the Budweiser Brew House, offering microbrewed specialties.

Also located in center field: the Batter’s Eye Restaurant, located behind the batter’s eye. A special window tinting presents a black background to batters while allowing fans eating at the restaurant to view the game.

In left field you’ll find the Beach at Tropicana Field, a place designed for those who prefer to casually hang around and watch a game: the area has its own concessions and an outdoor patio.

Finally, the Checkers Bullpen Café, located next to the Devil Rays’ bullpen in right field, offers the fine cuisine you’ve come to expect from the Checkers Drive-In chain. It does seem a little odd to go indoors to eat food meant to be eaten outdoors in a car, but then again everything at Tropicana Field is a little odd.