Legends On Deck

LOD at the Ballpark: Tropicana Field (St. Petersburg)

I have a confession to make.  I have been a Florida resident for quite a few years now and I have written extensively on the Tampa Bay Rays ballpark search, but I just attended my first game at Tropicana Field this past weekend.  While I found the topic of the Rays ballpark search fascinating, I now feel I have the authority to speak on the subject from a more comprehensive perspective.

At First Glance

On Sunday May 29, my six year old son and I attended the game between the Yankees and Rays at Tropicana Field.  My first impression was the commute from our home in the western suburbs of Orlando to St. Petersburg.  On the map, it says 93 miles door to door, but it took nearly two and a half hours (with one short gas station stop).  As we arrived at The Trop, we could get a glimpse of the stadium off the highway.  The age of the stadium was clear based on the look.  It was built in 1990, as a means of luring a team to the area.  The Tampa Bay Lightning would call it home for three seasons before moving to downtown Tampa.  And the Rays would finally occupy the building in their expansion year, 1998.

To be clear, it’s not that the stadium looks bad from the outside, but that it does not have the same aesthetic as most of the newer parks.  It looks like a typical dome.  One major convenience I noticed as we approached the stadium was that we could park in the main lot surrounding the stadium.   There was parking available outside the main lot, but I found it easiest to pull up as closely as possible.  This luxury isn’t typically available at ballparks in the downtown setting of major cities.  St. Petersburg is a little different, as it doesn’t have the same style skyscrapers and compact business district that larger cities have.

Inside The Trop

As we walked up to the main gate from the main parking lot, getting in the stadium was a breeze.  We went through security, but there were many lines available and staff working to get us through.  Our tickets were digital, so I easily scanned my phone and went in the main gate.  As we walked in my son was taken with the entertainment.  There was a guy on stilts and a guy standing on a giant ball rolling around the concourse.  Then we walked past the team store, plenty of concession stands and found our section, to preview our seats.  Our seats were in right field, foul territory,  The spot actually offered a great panoramic view of the whole field.

We made a quick decision to grab food before the game began.  The number of concession offerings were impressive.  We quickly zoned in on seafood, grabbing some grouper from the local chain, Crabby’s Beachside Bites.  We quickly learned that Tropicana Field is a cashless venue.  While I did bring cash to pay for parking, even the parking was card only.  One benefit of the cashless ballpark experience is that it likely cut down on the concession lines (no cash means no making change).

As the game began, we took in the sites and sounds of the ballpark.  My son was unaware before arrival that The Trop was an indoor stadium.  He believes baseball is an outdoor game, but he said he was willing to overlook it and enjoy the experience.  We both wondered how the outfielders are able to track down flyballs with the roof obstructing their view.  As expected, with the Yankees in town there would be droves of relocated New Yorkers there to see their team.  In that respect, the game seemed a lot like a neutral site game; as many Yankees fans as Rays fans.  It was first noticeable when half the stadium erupted over a Gleyber Torres homer.  Ji-Man Choi’s responding shot got just a slightly louder pop.

Lasting Impressions

According to the box score, there were over 25,000 fans in attendance.  They block off the far upper deck portion of the stadium for regular season games.  And the Rays would go on to win 4-2 and take the series.  My son and I had a great time at our seats watching the actions and exploring the ballpark.  We briefly stood in line to visit the sting ray tank, but abandoned the wait in order to watch more of the game.  As a bonus to us, kids ran the bases at the end of the game.

There were a lot of good small merchandise shops and one large store that offered a wide variety of gear.  Over the past year, there were all kinds of small, but valuable upgrades made to The Trop, including a nice little Rays museum highlighting their 24 year history as a franchise.  Yes, the concourses were tight, a common attribute of older stadiums.

My biggest takeaway from the experience is that Tropicana Field offered a much better baseball experience than I anticipated.  While there’s a number of reasons the Rays need to continue to pursue a new ballpark, playing five more seasons at The Trop is not really a problem.  There are also hotels, dining and entertainment within walking distance to the stadium.

Attending this game gave me a few other things to think about when it comes to a Rays ballpark search.  In many respects, centralizing the location would be ideal.  From my home southwest of Orlando, it’s a 72 mile drive to Amalie Arena (home of the Lightning) and a 75 mile drive to Raymond James Stadium (home of the Bucanneers).  Whereas it’s 93 miles to Tropicana Field.  When you consider you are also dealing with Tampa Bay area traffic, these additional 20 miles are nothing to scoff at.

Building a new ballpark in Tampa would indeed centralize the location of the team for the Tampa Bay area and also make it more accessible for those of us in other parts of the state.  That being said, I did actually find the current location in St. Petersburg to be pleasant. Downtown St. Pete is less congested and offers more of a beach-town feel.  It is easy to envision a cozy new ballpark right in the same neighborhood.  Whether it’s Tampa, St. Pete or even Orlando, Tropicana Field will be home for the next several seasons.  After my visit, I can honestly say it’s much better than often reported.

Brian Koss
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