Spring hot spot: St. Petersburg
Rays hoping for new downtown ballpark
Posted: Tuesday March 11, 2008 2:31PM; Updated: Tuesday March 11, 2008 5:32PM
This spring, SI.com senior writer John Donovan is touring the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues to cover baseball's biggest newsmakers. Today he reports from Rays camp in St. Petersburg, Fla. Next stop: Arizona.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- On the list of hideously ugly big-league ballparks, Tropicana Field in Tampa ranks right near the top. The Trop is the antithesis of what a modern ballpark should be. On the outside, it is an odd-looking dome in an indistinct and largely undeveloped area of downtown. Inside, it is blanketed by artificial turf under a damning roof. It is completely unexciting.
But down here, a mile or so away on the waterfront, with the sun shining on a cool March morning, the prospects of a new ballpark and good baseball in St. Pete seem very real. Here at Progress Energy Park, the 86-year-old home of Al Lang Field, where the Tampa Bay Rays hang out for spring training, the dream of watching a big-league team in a unique and exciting new big-league stadium lives.
Oh, yeah, it's still a pipe dream. So much has to happen just right for this idea to become reality.
But the Rays are reaching for it. What do they have to lose?
Welcome to St. Pete
The Rays, or Devil Rays as they were known until this season, have been the butt of major-league jokes for their entire history. Since their incarnation in 1998, they have finished in last place in the American League East every season but one (they beat out the Blue Jays for fourth place in 2004, the only season they won 70 games) and have never had a winning season.
All along, they've played their home games at the domed stadium now known as Tropicana Field. The whole time, too, they've played their spring exhibition games just down the street at Al Lang Field, named for a former mayor of St. Pete. (Next spring, though, they're moving their training camp to newly renovated digs in Port Charlotte, part of a plan to broaden their base from the Tampa Bay region.)
Right now, there is nothing special about this spring training stadium. It's a gray concrete half-bowl, built in 1922 and rebuilt in '77, with a concrete overhang and a capacity of about 6,400 people, which is rarely reached in the spring. Most of the seating consists of aluminum benches with backs. There are grass berms down the lines.
Yet there is a lot of history associated with this old park on the waterfront. The Yankees were here for more than a decade, starting in the mid-'20s, and this was the Cardinals' spring home for most of 50 years.
Now, up in the right field stands, you can peer out past a marina packed with sailboats, into the bay, and get a glimpse of the Rays' future. If you're up high enough and you look down in right field, you'll see a painted image of a home plate and the date 2012 painted there.
That's what the Rays are dreaming about.
A new start
The main reason the Rays have failed to win the hearts of folks in Central Florida is the same one that explains the Marlins' similar fate in South Florida, says Michael Kalt, the Rays' point man for the new stadium. "Part of the reason that baseball hasn't been very successful here in Florida ... really comes down to the venues [do] nothing to highlight that feeling that this is baseball, in Florida," he says. "I mean, they stuck us in a UFO and [the Marlins] in a football stadium."
What the Rays are reaching for in their bid for a new stadium is a feeling of Florida: open-air, on the water, palm trees swaying in the background.
To get there from the stuffiness of the Trop, though, is going to take a lot of doing. Late last year, the Rays came up with a radical plan to do it, and they're going to be pushing it to the people of St. Pete all season. In November, the city will hold a referendum on the matter. Then we'll find out whether this particular dream is doable or not.