|The Trop lacks juice|
By Jeff Merron
Page 2 columnist
Editor's Note: This is the second report card in Page 2's summerlong series rating all 30 ballparks in Major League Baseball.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- One thing hits you immediately when you enter the Devil Rays' home ballpark: the air conditioning. You go from sticky and sweaty to cool and refreshed in an instant, and all you've done is enter Tropicana Field. Almost seems worth the price of a ticket right there.
But you expect more than that from a $200 million dome that opened in 1990 and underwent a $70 million renovation just five years ago. You ought to be able to expect a little buzz about baseball. You ought to be able to expect a particularly memorable experience. Unfortunately, all you get, really, is a good selection of food and a ballgame.
A few striking things about the particular game I saw: Lots of Braves fans. The Rays fans, the season-ticket holders directly behind home plate, are into the game, booing at the right times, heckling well. The fans I chatted with -- regulars and season-ticket holders -- were knowledgeable, passionate about baseball. But not about the Devil Rays.
My $10 "Upper Deck Reserved" seat on the highest level of the stadium and behind home plate, is the cheapest to be had if I wanted to move around the park freely. For $5, you can sit in "The Beach," a restricted area set up way behind the left-field bleachers. But once youšre in "The Beach," you can't get out. And if you're out, you can't get in.
Our final Trop Field rating is low, because it's one of the worst ballparks in th majors. Really a shame for an area with such a rich baseball tradition.
1. Seat comfort: Tight, but empty seats are bountiful so you've got plenty of room to stretch out. No cup holders in the upper deck seats, though they've got 'em down low. Points: 2
2. Quality of hot dogs: A far cry from the shriveled wienies that have been spinning around in your local 7-Eleven for the last 19 years. Good job, but nothing to write home about.3
4. Signature concession item: The Columbia Restaurant, offering Cuban fare, seems to be it. Boiled peanuts offer some Southern flair. And therešs the Cuesta-Rey Cigar Bar. 2
5. Beer: $7.50 for a large "Devil Rays Red," at the Budweiser Brewhouse. Also available: lots of imports and microbrews in bottles, priced at $6.50 for a 12-ounce bottle. Excellent selection, if you've got the deep pockets. 3
6. Bathrooms: Think busy airport -- moderately clean, not much of a wait at either the men's or women's rooms, which is a function, of course, of the paltry crowds. Worst feature: those faucets that stop running a half-second after you've pressed the button to get them going. Strangest men's room experience: seeing an ad above the urinal for ESPN the Magazine, which urges you to go to ESPN.com and type in the key word "bathroom" for a special subscription deal. Ran out of soap by the end of the game. 3
7. Scoreboard: The replay board in right-center is fine, though it could be bigger (and finer). MPH, ball-strike-out count easily visible. But once in a while the line score disappeared, taken over by video. Out of town scores prominently displayed. 3
8. Quality of public address system: Technically, the PA system is decent. Comprehensible, just the right volume level. But: mediocre choice of music -- can you get any more unimaginative than the J. Geils Band and the Pretenders singing "Middle of the Road?" P.A. announcer had as much enthusiasm as the guy who tells you when it's time to board your flight.2
9. Fun stuff to do besides the game: Therešs a small rock-climbing wall, and a small inflatable complex combining a bungee run, an obstacle course and a pitching target. (I didnšt see any MPH meter there, which seems to take away much of the fun.) That it's all inflatable stuff, the kind you'd find at the county fair, is lame. And there are few between-inning diversions, which is a minus considering this is a team and a venue that cries out for a seventh-inning stretch at every half-inning break. 1
11. Ticket price/availability: $10 for a fine nosebleed seat purchased at the ticket window 2 hours before the game. This put me up behind the press box. Much better view (and $5 cheaper) than outfield bleachers. Availability? You gotta believe that the Rays save a lot of trees (and money) with all the ducats that go unprinted. Two things to wonder about: a.) the Braves game I went to was deemed a "premium" game, with higher ticket prices than other games. I'm in favor of variable-priced seating; but, really, do the Rays play any "premium" games? And b.) On a Friday night against Atlanta, the Rays drew 30,000 empty seats. How 'bout lowering the price to $5 for a game-day, walk-up ducat, and filling some of those up? 4
12. Exterior architecture: Whoever designed this eyesore owes the D-Rays a huge refund. St. Pete is beautiful -- a great little town with a beautiful bay, beautiful beaches and a beautiful ballpark. Trouble is, the beautiful ballpark is Al Lang Field, spring-training home of the Devil Rays and regular-season home of the Single A St. Petersburg Devil Rays. 1
13. Interior Architecture: The Rotunda entrance is nice. It feeds into the wide "Center Field Street" walkway that features a large souvenir shop, a food court, and so on. But once you plunk your fanny down, there's little of visual interest, although most seats have excellent sightlines to on-field action. The catwalks that hang from the ceiling come into play more often than you'd expect, or hope. Not good. 3
14. Access: Even if you're a complete stranger to the area, there's no trouble finding this ballpark. It's visible for miles and it's just off the Interstate. Parking and pedestrian access are a breeze, but that says more about the crowd size than anything else. If you want to tour St. Pete, a trolley runs from town to the park starting an hour before game time and running until an hour after the game ends. Looked like a nice option. 4
15. Usher staff: Great. Nice. Very generous with advice, very cool about letting me move down when I took the trouble to ask. 5
16. Trading-up factor: My ticket got me festival seating without the crush of rabid fans. I sat comfortably in three or four other sections of the park (including the $25 seats behind home plate) without a hassle. Just avoid the bargain-basement "Beach" seats beyond the left-field bleachers if you want to move around. Abandon all hope, ye who enter there. You're not allowed out until after the eighth inning. And that rule is enforced. 5
17. Knowledge of local fans: As you'd expect from Tampa-St. Pete and their long, rich baseball history, the folks who show up seem to know their stuff. Some decent hecklers ("Hey, Vinny, you got some juice for me, I know you got some juice, baby!" "Vinny, you still suck!" Even this classic, directed at the entire Devil Rays squad: "You guys are bums!."˛) Lots of Braves fans. Appreciated good plays by both teams, jeered bad plays by Devil Rays. Javy Lopez was a fan fave, and they just hate Vinny Castilla, an ex-Ray. 4
18. Seventh-inning stretch: You can do a lot with the seventh-inning stretch. The D-Rays do almost nothing. The infield grounds crew made no effort to put on a show. Poor, canned version of "Take Me Out ..." 1
19. Pre-and-postgame bar-and-restaurant scene: You're not far from downtown St. Pete, which has plenty of good places to eat and hang out if you're there long before the game. Postgame, head to Ferg's Sports Bar and Grill, right next to the stadium parking lot. Plenty of action in an indoor-outdoor sports bar. That's about your only decent choice, it seems, unless you want to drive. 3
20. Wild-card: I dug the fans, and there are plusses to the low-key atmosphere. Very relaxing outing, and a pleasure to be able to take in multiple views of the game. But there's almost no local flavor -- you could be anywhere. With the exception of Veterans Stadium, The Trop is the least distinctive ballpark I've been to. Bonus Points: 2
TOTAL SCORE FOR TROPICANA: 56