Miami: baseball hell. I endured. I survived. I had been to the bottom; only better baseball days were ahead, I told myself as I set off for Tampa Bay. Not by bus, train, or plane. No; this time, I was driving. Well, I had to, if I wanted to make Tampa's matinee affair, across the fine state of Florida. And you know those lovely folks at Priceline I've mentioned time and time again? They've got you covered when it comes to rental cars, too. Bid your own price, like I did, and come away with four wheels for only $15 a day.
Because I was renting a car in Miami, and dropping it off in Tampa Bay, I had to grab my ride from Miami International Airport. And because SuperShuttle couldn't guarantee arrival at the airport before 8:30 a.m., I had no choice but to take a taxi. Which meant: billions!
My faith in the baseball Gods slightly shaken thanks to brutal Sun Life Stadium, I wondered what the next day would bring. And it got off to a great start. My taxi driver, right on time at 6:30 in the morning, was an older Indian gentlemen. We got to talking on our way, in Hindi no less, and even had Cuban coffee at a gas station. We exchanged life stories; about our families, and about our trips to the subcontinent. In the end, after I told Taxi Uncle (we Indian folk call all elders "Uncle") about my baseball road trip, about how I was on my grind, trying to open doors with my writing, he charged me only $30, instead of the $45 displayed on the metre. He even refused the tip I offered. "We have to stick together, our people," he said.
That wasn't the end of Taxi Uncle's hospitality. After asking him how to get to the highway from the Avis rental car office, he told he'd wait for me to grab my car, and then escort me to I-75, which would take me west across Florida, and north to Tampa Bay. And that's exactly what he did, waiting 15 minutes while I waited for my Toyota Corolla.
Thank you, Taxi Uncle. May many others have the pleasure to ride with you.
St. Petersburg Rays
It took about four and a half hours to get from Miami to St. Petersburg. While they are the Tampa Bay Rays, they don't actually play in Tampa. Who knew? Certainly not me. The drive, while uneventful, was a welcome change of pace, and the stretch leading to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, heading into St. Petersburg, was rather incredible. I was driving on water, with the "flag bridge" of Florida waiting ahead in the distance.
While I'd love to tell you how to get to Tropicana Field using public transportation, I can't. But I'm quite certain that you don't need the information, because if you're ever checking out the Rays, I think you'll be driving to the ballpark, too. I found a $5 parking spot in an unofficial lot, only a 10-minute walk away from the stadium. If you're in the tailgating business, official Tropicana Field parking lots charge between $10 and $25, depending on the game you're attending.
As much as I dump all over the SkyDome, and as much as I encourage, love, and pine for outdoor baseball, I'm a dome apologist. The SkyDome is home. And there's no place like home. I will defend the SkyDome, "the concrete coffin" as it was dubbed in an e-mail from baseball stranger Jay, until the end of time. Because, after having attended last year's World Baseball Classic matchup between Canada and the U.S. at the SkyDome, and A.J. Burnett's return to Toronto as a member of the hated New York Yankees, I know from experience that the Rogers Centre, our dome, our SkyDome, can once again be a fantastic, and raucous, place to watch baseball.
So, that being said, I was looking forward to Tropicana Field. I was looking forward to being back in familiar surroundings. You know, domed surroundings. Now that the Minnesota Twins have bid the Metrodome farewell, the Trop is the only non-retractable domed stadium in Major League Baseball. She stands alone. And you can't miss her, driving into St. Petersburg, what with her slanted white lid. While I've read that it was designed in such a way to reduce cooling costs, and serve as hurricane protection, all I know is that it adds character. It's gangster, in a way; the way we, myself and my brethren from north Scarborough, wear our baseball caps (with curved brims, of course).
Rays fans were braving the midday Tuesday heat upon my arrival. With ample parking surrounding the stadium, tailgating is definitely part of the Rays experience, so dress accordingly. Me, I was the only idiot in jeans. If tailgating isn't your cup of beer, and you're looking for a place to hang out before or after the game, I'll be honest, I can't really help you. But I was told by a few Rays fans that there isn't much in the surrounding area, and that downtown St. Petersburg, east of the stadium, is your best bet. Remember: dinner is served at 4:30 p.m.
Forever The Devil Rays
I'm going to be straight with you: I'm not fond of the Tampa Bay Rays. And that's not their fault. Really, it's got nothing to do with them, and more to do with Toronto's Blue Jays haters. Because it's become fashionable for those folks -- usually Toronto Maple Leafs fans, I must admit -- to come at me with: "Well, the Rays did it [in 2008] so Jays fans need to stop complaining." By "it," the haters mean qualify for the World Series, of course. Because, heading into 2008, we all knew the Tampa Bay Rays, a franchise that had never in their history won more than 70 games in a season, were going to win 95 games, and the AL East, on the backs of a starting rotation consisting of: 26-year-old James Shields, 25-year-old Andy Sonnanstine, and 24-year-olds Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson, and Scott Kazmir. Who didn't see that coming?
The 2008 Rays; they were in my thoughts as I paid for my $13 upper deck, outfield ticket. And after checking out the day's starting lineups, posted on the wall of The Trop next to the box office (a nice touch), I headed inside the ballpark, and its air-conditioned confines.
My first order of business: the Rays Tank; Tropicana Field's main attraction in centre field, where you can fulfill your life-long dream of touching actual, live Cownose Rays. I didn't touch them, though. I watched. In fact, I stared at those rays, swimming around their little tank, and -- again, I'll be honest -- wished ill upon the baseball team named in their honour. I cursed the Rays, and their winning ways; cursed them for making the American League East an even tougher division for the Blue Jays to play in, and win. I liked the Tampa Bay Devil Rays much better when they were a given to finish at the bottom of the standings.
I know what you're thinking: that's rather petty of me. I agree. I admit it. And, running with that theme, I've certainly enjoyed Tampa's recent nosedive in the standings, and their recent infighting. I like to think recent events have everything to do with my visit to The Trop, and my conversation with those Cownose Rays. I shared with them my hopes and dreams that the Rays would return to their rightful place in the division. You know: last, or second-last, place; the good old days. When Tampa would duke it out, year after year, with the Baltimore Orioles. Baltimore is lonely, Tampa Bay. Very lonely.
She's Got Soul
For some reason, I always imagined Tropicana Field to be a soulless baseball stadium. That's the way she comes across on television. So, with my expectations all but on the floor, I couldn't help but be impressed by St. Petersburg's dome.
The main concourse is spacious, with benches and tables to eat between the concessions stands and sections. And it's colourful: the floor painted blue; the walls yellow, and green. In the Left Field Street area, the walls are painted to resemble brick, and that made me think: "They're trying. They're trying to get that old-school baseball vibe into the building." It's a bit on the tacky side, sure, but I appreciated the effort.
I stopped at the Center Field Street Brewhouse for a beer before the game. Located in the main concourse, in -- obviously -- centre field, it's the spot for a pre-game beverage or meal. Standard pub fare is available and while microbrews unfortunately are not, you'll live. I grabbed a 16 oz. of Presidente, the Dominican Republic's finest, for $9.
What else? Oh, yes, the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame, also on Center Field Street. I was a little curious as to why a Ted Williams Museum would be in The Trop and, after some research, learned that the original museum went bankrupt back in 2006. So: props to the Tampa Bay organization for stepping up and adopting the museum, and giving it a new home.
It's rather substantial, and celebrates the incredible career of Williams, including his military service to his country, and many other baseball legends. You'll find displays for all the greats: Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Roberto Clemente, Yogi Berra, Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson, and George Brett, to name a few. Toronto icon Roberto Alomar's got his own display, too, and I spent a few minutes by it, reminiscing. See you in Cooperstown next summer, Robbie.
The Tampa organization is still relatively young, born in 1998, and the decision to bring the museum to The Trop was a fantastic one, because there's nothing like a little baseball history to spruce up the place. Admission is free.
There's more: do you enjoy a good cigar? Tropicana Field is your spot. Stop by the Cuesta-Rey Bar, where you can puff on a cigar, and watch the game on television from a most-comfortable leather seat. A couple of innings in there, and your face will look like a used catcher's mitt.
I'll be brief: a large will cost you $8, a small $5, and I searched for a microbrew in vain. If you're in St. Petersburg on a Friday with nothing to do, head to the ballpark, because it's $4 Dos Equis night. Sure, it's not the greatest beer, but I won't lie, it's a promotion that would get me to the ballpark on a Friday night more often than not. And if Dos Equis is good enough for the Most Interesting Man in the World, it's good enough for me.
The View From My Seats
I sat all over the place at Tropicana Field. I started in the upper deck, 3rd base side, in foul territory. From there, I sauntered over to the Tampa Bay Times Party Deck in left field, where I spent a couple of innings in the bleachers. Then: right field. I was close to the roof, the white roof, which I quickly grew fond of. Thanks to the white lid, The Trop doesn't seem as dark as the SkyDome, when it's closed. And while everyone complains about the catwalks, they didn't bother me. (That's my "Hey, I don't live here, so it doesn't bother me," attitude.)
By the 6th inning, I'd found a seat in the lower bowl, in right field. And while the upper bowl was hardly full, there was a solid contingent of Rays fans downstairs, enjoying getaway day. All in all: no complaints when it comes to sightlines. And while I thought The Trop's turf looked old and worn-down, the ballpark's got all-dirt basepaths, something the SkyDome desperately needs; I'm not a fan of the dirt cutouts. Oh, the perils of our multi-purpose SkyDome.
The cowbell is -- let's not kid ourselves -- a cheap gimmick. Everyone's got one, and they can be pretty damn annoying. Before I visited the Rays, I hated the cowbell. But I left Tropicana Field a changed man. I believe in "More Cowbell!" I'm easily satisfied, and want such a gimmick in Toronto.
Did you know Tampa's cowbell obsession was inspired by a Saturday Night Live sketch? I didn't, until I asked a Rays fan how the hell the tradition began. He told me to Google the famous skit, featuring Christopher Walken, and said that during the 2008 playoffs, the thousands of cowbells made The Trop almost deafening.
The Trop looks a little strange from the outside, and is a little bland on the inside, but she's home. Unfortunately, not for much longer. And that's not surprising, to me at least, when taking into account the ballparks I've visited on my journey. The Rays are actively looking for a new ballpark, and recent developments have the organization saying they want out of St. Petersburg; that it's not viable for the Rays to play in the city any longer.
While the Rays have enjoyed success on the field the last two and a half years, it hasn't translated into more bums in the seats. Even in their magical 2008 season, the Rays finished 26th in attendance, averaging only 22,259 fans a game. In 2009, they averaged 23,147, good for 23rd in baseball. This season, with Tampa off to an incredible start, and known as one of baseball's best teams, and employing a certifiable star in Evan Longoria at third base, they still rank 24th in attendance, averaging only 21,963 fans a game. Attendance is down, believe it or not. And it shouldn't be. Shame on you, St. Petersburg. And you too, Tampa.
Money is, and always will be an issue for the Rays. They're a small market team, spending only $70 million and change on payroll. Carl Crawford, their all-star left fielder and all-world leadoff hitter, and Blue Jays killer to boot, will be a free agent this winter. And he's as good as gone. Sarah Palin has a better chance at the White House than Crawford has of staying in Tampa. And that's unfortunate, because the Rays were a terrible baseball team for a long, long, long time, and if they can't afford to keep their own talent, they might have to do business the way their Florida counterparts in Miami do.
Obviously, Florida is a baseball state. I've no doubt the Rays want to stay in the area, and can succeed in the area, but I can't blame them for thinking about leaving St. Petersburg. A stadium in downtown Tampa would make more sense. Although, back in 2008, pictures of a proposed open-air ballpark in downtown St. Petersburg took my breath away.
The future of baseball in Tampa is in a state of flux. But I'll always look fondly back to my visit to Tropicana Field. In another life, that dome would have been home.