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As Rays Pursue New Ballpark, Experience Counts

Tampa Bay RaysWith progress finally on the horizon for a new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark, team management must figure out what they expect from a potential new facility. This is an area where experience counts — and why the team is counting on Melanie Lenz to direct the project.

Lenz, the team’s vice president for strategy and development has been with the Rays since November 2006, hired by Michael Kalt from the New York City Economic Development Corporation. She didn’t have a background in sports facilities per se, but she’s learned plenty along the way — first on the development of the team’s current spring home, Charlotte Sports Park, and a first attempt to place a new Rays ballpark in downtown St. Petersburg, at the current Al Lang Field site.

Charlotte Sport Park was by all measures a success, as the $27 million project updated the former Texas Rangers spring home into a modern spring-training facility. Most Rays spring-training games are virtual sellouts, and every home match is definitely an event, with fans arriving early to scout out the best spots on the outfield deck.  From the Tampa Tribune:

Grass berms provide a place for fans to lounge in the sun, an alternative to plastic seats for three hours, and make for a fun scramble after foul balls. There is a children’s play area and a luxury suite level.

A wooden boardwalk, which runs between the two foul poles, gives fans almost 360-degree access to the field. The boardwalk has places to stop and chat during the game and a tiki bar. The route around the outfield also places fans right above the bullpen.

“It’s about fan focus,” Lenz said. “It’s about that intimate fan experience.”

That intimacy could have been achieved at the Al Lang Field project: Lenz and the team were pitching a smaller facility more in line with Target Field and PNC Park capacities. But the unique mast-and-sail design (shown below) never took off, and the project eventually died.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays proposal

But its guiding spirit did not, and Lenz has some definite ideas for what she wants to see in a new ballpark, per the Tribune:

At the same time, the team is already exploring design options for the new ballpark, including a transparent roof that would allow the team to play on a grass field even with a fixed roof.

Populous designed Forsyth Barr Stadium in New Zealand for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. The firm calls it the first permanently covered stadium with natural grass. The Rays have asked for a detailed report on the quality of the field and costs of maintaining it, Lenz said.

The final design is likely to signal a move away from the baseball-only ballparks that have been the norm since the opening in 1992 of the retro Orioles Park at Camden Yards, which helped put HOK — now Populous — on the map.

Now, building a new MLB ballpark is a long and involved process. So don’t expect an announcement tomorrow or the next day about where things are at: patience is required.

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