Longtime spring-training aficionados may be able to recognize Charlotte County Sports Park as the former spring home of the Texas Rangers, remodeled to serve as the spring home of the Tampa Bay Rays and the regular-season home of the Charlotte Stone Crabs. Maybe.
Opened: 1988; renovated in 2009
Cost: $5 million original construction; $27 million renovations
Owner: Charlotte County
Dimensions: 338L, 402C, 338R
Previous Tenants: Texas Rangers spring training, 1988-2001; Charlotte Rangers (High Class A: Florida State League), 1988-2001; Charlotte County Redfish (independent; South Coast League), 2007
Address/Directions: 2300 El Jobean Rd., Port Charlotte. El Jobean Road runs east-west through Port Charlotte. From I-75: take the King’s Highway exit from either direction. Go west on King’s Highway for approximately one mile and hang a right on Veterans Boulevard. (Ignore any Google Maps directions; they are wrong.) Veterans eventually changes into El Jobean Road. The ballpark is past Hwy. 41 and will be on your left.
To say Charlotte County Sports Park has received an extreme makeover is an understatement, with the Rays, Charlotte County and Populous taking what had been a basic facility and turned it into a nice, comfortable spring-training venue. True, it’s not groundbreaking and it certainly lacks the historic ambiance of the Rays’ former spring home, Al Lang Field, but it’s perfectly nice and provides the laid-back feel you want in a Florida spring facility.
The complex is located at 2300 El Jobean Drive in Port Charlotte, across from the Charlotte County Fairgrounds. It’s a rural setting, to be sure; there’s nothing but a Harley-Davidson dealership within walking distance. So if you go, you’re going to drive, and you’re going to park on the dirt parking lot next to the ballpark.
The ballpark is closest to the parking lot. There are two main entrance: one behind home plate, and one on the third-base side. A second level contains suites, but this isn’t a ballpark built for the rich and famous; it’s built for the common man, with a new wraparound concourse, group seating deck in right field and Tiki bar in left field. The Rays have already sold out every fixed seat for spring training, with only berm/SRO seating left for most games.
If you go, you will definitely want to sit on the first-base side and in the back of the grandstand behind home plate if you want to avoid the sun.
Concessions are located in the back of the grandstand, with spring-only points of sale on the concourse.
For anyone looking to renovate a ballpark, Charlotte Sports Park should be high on the list of models, as Populous focused on what worked in the old ballpark and built from there. The basic ballpark footprint didn’t change; the grandstand was recycled, stripped down to the concrete girders and base. A new canopy and seating were installed in the grandstand, while the suites and press box were renovated. In back of the concourse, new concessions were installed on both sides of a wide walkway. A wraparound concourse runs from each end of the grandstand, with a natural swamp area existing beyond the left-field concourse; an existing utility building was cleverly built into the concourse in the right-field corner.
The wraparound concourse is where the ballpark truly shines. Between the foul poles there are concessions, a Tiki Bar, yards and yards of bar rails, a huge picnic area and lots of room to gawk at the Rays and visiting players in the corner bullpens. There are plenty of fans who sit in their seats the entire game, but there are many more who love to wander the ballpark and see the action from different vantage points. There’s nothing better than buying a Yuengling Bock and planting yourself in front of a bar rail, surrounded by good friends and watching the game.
Charlotte Sports Park also needed to work as a year-round training facility: the summer sees the Charlotte Stone Crabs (High Class A; Florida State League) as the main occupant, with extended spring training and the Gulf Coast League Rays playing there as well. The Stone Crabs, co-owned by Ripken Baseball, had a strong 2009 season at the box office, and we’re expecting the same this season. Unlike larger spring-training facilities like Steinbrenner Field, a typical FSL crowd won’t feel lost at Charlotte Sports Park. The Rays and Populous wisely kept the capacity on the small size; as a result, there’s plenty of demand both for spring training and the regular season.
The rest of the complex is as open or closed as the Rays want on a given day. The layout is the same as when the Rangers trained there; the layout worked then, and so the practice fields were relatively untouched.
Of course, all of this could have been accomplished with a new facility: indeed, we’re guessing a new plan from Populous would have been similar to what exists now. But the fact a practically new facility could be done for less than half the cost of a new facility is certainly a plus for Charlotte County taxpayers — and baseball fans.