At the beginning of August of this year, I took a quick trip to Tampa for the Blue Jays/Rays series. It was my first time at the home of the Rays, Tropicana Field. I carried a lot of baggage with me, as “The Trop” as its affectionately known, has a lacklustre reputation as one of the worst ballparks in all of Major League Baseball, if not the very worst. With that said, Tropicana Field was a lot better than I thought it would be.
Originally known as the “Florida Sun Coast Dome” and then the “ThunderDome” (the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning actually played here from 1993-1996), Tropicana Field was built in 1990 in an attempt to lure the White Sox away from Chicago. The White Sox were able to secure financing for a new stadium, so the people of Tampa/St. Petersburg had to wait eight long years before MLB granted them a franchise. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays, as they were then known, began play at Tropicana Field in 1998.
Tropicana Field isn’t actually located in Tampa itself – it’s located in nearby St. Petersburg, a 30 minute drive away, or much more during rush hour. Parking is free, however.
Tropicana Field is clearly visible from nearby highways I-175 and I-275, and stands out even moreso due to its tilted roof. It’s kind of ugly, to be honest. However, the tilted roof reduces the volume of air that needs to be cooled in the sweltering Florida heat, substantially lowering air conditioning costs.
The roof is supported by a system of cables and arches, with four support rings with lights and catwalks attached. The two inner catwalks are in play, meaning the ball is still live even if it caroms off one of them. If a ball hits one of the two outer catwalks, it is considered a home run. From my perspective in the seats looking up, it’s an absolute mess. I can now truly appreciate the difficulty that MLB players have in tracking flyballs against a ceiling that is roughly the same colour as the baseball.
It should go without saying that the playing surface is artificial turf, but what’s unique about the Trop is that it was the first stadium with artificial turf to have an all-dirt infield since the Cardinals’ Busch Stadium in 1976. The turf is the newest generation of artificial turf known as “FieldTurf” and it’s a uniform, pleasing shade of green.
In 2006, team ownership invested several million dollars in remodeling the ballpark. A new scoreboard, restaurant, and a large aquarium tank containing real live manta rays was installed beyond the centrefield fence. Part of the renovation included closing the upper deck, reducing the capacity for fans from 42,500 to 25,000.
I sat in the lower deck, in section 125 and it was readily apparent there was a significant design flaw. The seats in my section were positioned toward the centrefield fence, resulting in fans having to crane their necks to the right to see the pitcher and hitter – similar to that of AT&T Park.
As well, both visiting and home bullpens are located directly on the field in foul territory which I consider to be bush league, though it is just a personal preference. Additionally, there is a single row of seats available that are right on top of the visiting team’s bullpen. It fills with ballpark rats daily.
Prior to the 2014 season, the Rays renovated their concourse to provide fans a better view of the action on the field. Called “Rays 360,” the walkway wraps around the entire lower deck but doesn’t really provide fans with much of a view of the field, other than just a peek at the entrance to each section.
I sat in section 125 at The Trop, which is similar to sitting in section 129 or 130A at the SkyDome. I paid ~$45 US, which works out to ~$60 CAD. The Blue Jays sell the same tickets for $80 CAD. So there’s a bit of a discount on tickets in comparison, but not as much as I thought there would be. For a team like the Rays, who struggle to draw 10,000 fans to any of their games, I expected some creativity in pricing and discounts to encourage fans to come to the ballpark.
The announced attendance for the game I was at was 9,434 but I bet it was closer to 5,000-6,000. For a team in the thick of a wild card hunt, I thought the atmosphere would be electric. I was wrong. It’s placid, it’s subdued, it’s eerily quiet. There was a bit of a pop when one of the Rays would hit a home run, but that was about it.
It’s also very, very dark. I don’t have the best camera in the world, but it’s pretty good. When I was taking shots of ballplayers, it was difficult to get a sharp image of them because there simply wasn’t enough light in the ballpark. That is the first time I’ve encountered this particular problem at a bona fide major league stadium.
Some have compared the Trop to “arena baseball,” which is to say it feels like baseball being played inside of an area instead of a ballpark, but even arena baseball has some life to it. I would compare the atmosphere at Tropicana Field to shopping mall baseball. Picture a baseball game being played at the one shopping mall in your city/town whose glory days were more than 20 years ago. They turn off the lights to save on hydro and the only people that go to that mall are getting alterations at Stitch-It or are visiting the passport office. The manta ray tank is cool though.
Home Run Feature
While it pales in comparison to the Miami Marlins’ home run feature, Tropicana has one of its own. Over the right-field fence is a wall-mounted neon Tropicana logo. When a home run is hit, the orange lights up and the straw progressively gets brighter until orange juice shoots out the end. It’s a little something to keep the dirty-minded degenerate adults in the crowd engaged.
The Ted Williams Museum & Hitters Hall of Fame
The Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame features an array of different artifacts and pictures of the “Greatest hitter that ever lived.” These memorable displays range from Ted Williams’ days in the military through his professional playing career. The museum is dedicated to some of the greatest hitters of all time, including Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Sadaharu Oh, and many Negro League players.
But why is there a museum to a Boston Red Sox player in Tampa?
When it was established in 1994, the museum was located in Citrus Hills, Florida, a small community a little over an hour from the Tampa Bay area. The Citrus Hills location was selected as it was near Williams’s home in retirement and was the centerpiece of the Citrus Hills community.
With attendance dwindling due to its out-of-the-way location, the museum relocated to Tropicana Field in 2006. Today, the museum is part of the Rays game experience and admission is free on game days. Besides being a showcase for Williams and other great hitters in Major League history, the museum is also home to the Ted Williams Foundation.
Blue Jays fans will enjoy an exhibit dedicated to Canadian baseball, as well as a small section for pitchers named after Roy Halladay in an offshoot room of the museum.
While it certainly doesn’t compare to the corporate juggernaut that is the Blue Jays team store, the Rays team store has a wide variety of clothing, souvenirs, novelties, and knick-knacks. The original Tampa uniforms are well represented here (I don’t remember that much purple!), and there are more options for hats than you could dream of, including a wide selection of minor league affiliates. If you want, you can even buy a Tampa Bay Rays-branded fishing rod:
What I found to be disappointing – and I might be the only one – was the lack of Rays “turn back the clock” merchandise. Since 2002, the Tampa Bay Rays have hosted turn-back-the-clock nights, wearing the jerseys of the 1998-2000 Devil Rays, the 2001-2007 Rays, the 1960 Tampa Tarpons, the 1965 St. Pete Saints, the 1989 St. Pete Pelicans, and the 1919 Tampa Smokers. By 2012 they had run out of jerseys to wear, so the team’s graphic designers were put to work and made a faux 1970s throwback jersey. Inspired by the 1979 San Diego Padres, the jersey features bubbly lowercase letters, a pinwheel sunburst, and a 1979 city of St. Petersburg seal on the sleeve:
Upon entry to Tropicana, we were immediately siphoned into the stadium’s main bar, “The Outfielder.” They serve tall cans of beer for $10US (about the same as the SkyDome) but they offer specials as well: $4 cans of Bud and $6 select craft beers up until first pitch.
This season there is a promotion called “Ballpark and Rec” where fans can participate in recreational activities on an outdoor patio. Fans are encouraged to “get rec’d” on $6 spiked hard seltzers.
Apart from the bars, there’s an all you can eat/all you can drink section for $135US per ticket. There’s a party deck in left field, the highest/furthest away from the action seats available. They’re the cheapest seats at the park and seating is not assigned. I’m not really sure what makes it a party deck, but there are plenty of concessions behind the deck devoted to serving booze. There wasn’t a single soul on the party deck when I was there, which was a little sad.
There are no bars in the surrounding area of the ballpark, so the “Ballpark and Rec” area serves alcohol past the 7th inning and stays open an hour after the end of the game if you want to keep the party going.
The number of food and drink options at Tropicana Field is quite impressive! There are food halls on the first and third base sides of the lower level that offer pretty much anything you can think of. For those that don’t know, Tampa Bay is well known for the quality and sheer number of craft breweries. The drinks on offer reflect Tampa’s craft brewing culture, with an extensive beer list that would make thirsty Blue Jays fans envious.
For the kids, they can pick up a Rays All You Can Drink souvenir cup that is refillable at any one of the convenient Coca-Cola Refresh Stations located throughout the ballpark.
Because of lacklustre attendance, there has been a campaign to move the Rays to the Ybor City neighbourhood in downtown Tampa. The current St. Petersburg location is less than ideal: to put it in terms Blue Jays fans can relate to, imagine having the SkyDome in Pickering. Although it’s doable to make it to a ballgame, it’s less than ideal – especially during rush hour. Coupled with the fact the ballpark is one of the worst in baseball, it becomes a struggle to attract fans from the metropolitan Tampa area.
Ybor City is a vibrant neighbourhood in downtown Tampa, both a cultural and entertainment destination. The Tampa Bay Rays viewed Ybor City as a prime destination, announcing last year they were planning to build a stadium there and move in by 2023. While the plans and conceptual drawings were exciting, six months later the Rays announced the project was dead, citing lack of time to produce a complete proposal. Instead, the Rays are locked in to their lease at Tropicana Field until the end of 2027, with plans to split home games between Tampa and Montreal. If this plan indeed comes to fruition, it will surely be a disaster.
Apart from the second-rate stadium and inconvenient location, I’m not sure that baseball can work in Florida. The fans that were actually at the game watching the team in the thick of a playoff race were not exactly what you would call “passionate.” Is there enough of a base of baseball fans to draw on even with a new ballpark in the heart of Tampa? If we ever do find out, it could be a very costly experiment.
Rehabbing Blue Jays players
In nearby Dunedin, Florida, the Toronto Blue Jays have invested several millions of dollars to create a state-of-the-art training facility. The new Bobby Mattick Training Centre is meant to be a competitive advantage for the Blue Jays, and will provide consistency and continuity in the treatment and rehabilitation of injured players. Currently all Blue Jays players who are on the injured list receive treatment at the Bobby Mattick Centre. So when the Blue Jays come to Tampa to play the Rays, it’s a great opportunity for those rehabbing players to make the drive to St. Pete and reconnect with teammates and staff. On this occasion, John Axford, Luke Maile, and Ryan Tepera took a break from their rehab to come to the Trop and catch the game:
My main takeaway from Tropicana Field, as I kept repeating to myself, is this place isn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. I thought that Tampa baseball fans deserve better than this – but do they? The team has been competitive the last few years but the team consistently ranks among the worst in baseball for attendance. Oakland has a far worse stadium, in a much worse geographic location, but when the team is winning and in the hunt for a playoff, fans show up.
Tropicana Field is a fine place to watch a ballgame. But is it worth investing in something better to try to excite an apathetic fanbase? I don’t think so.
To see how Tropicana Field ranks among the rest of our ballpark reviews, check out our Ballpark Review Roundup page.
Featured image photo credit: Callum Hughson/mopupduty.com