April 8, 2005: St. Petersburg, Florida
For the second leg of our Sun Belt Ballpark Tour, Mike and I drove 240 miles northwest along Florida’s Alligator Alley to St. Petersburg, home of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The Devil Rays make their home in Tropicana Field, built in 1990 to attract a Major League franchise to Florida’s west coast. Three teams, the Chicago White Sox, Seattle Mariners, and San Francisco Giants leveraged a possible move to St. Petersburg against their respective cities to obtain a new stadium deal. These moves left St. Petersburg still without a Major League Baseball team. Tropicana Field, then known as the Suncoast Dome, was used for concerts, Arena Football, and hockey; the Tampa Bay Lightning set an NHL playoff attendance record while playing in the Dome. The success of these events, along with the tradition of minor league and spring training baseball in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, was enough to establish the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as an expansion franchise. They would take the field for the 1998 season. Since their inception, the Devil Rays (now Rays) have struggled to find an identity. Their best season was 2008, when they won the American League Pennant, but lost to the Phillies in the World Series. This was a historical event for a franchise that once popped champagne to celebrate their fourth-place finish in 2004. This losing culture permeates the fans; only 10,223 fans were present for the 7:15 game that Mike and I attended between the Devil Rays and the Oakland Athletics. The lack of fans gave Mike and I the opportunity to take in the game from numerous angles. Having a domed ballpark in sunny Florida may sound odd, but a dome is necessary to guard against the afternoon thunder showers that are customary on Florida’s left coast. Some would say a new ballpark would solve this problem, but the Devil Rays do not have enough fan support to warrant a new ballpark that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. In my opinion, the next three seasons will determine the Devil Rays’ future. Over the years, they have drafted some of the best prospects in baseball and developed a front-office of superstars in the Sabermetric era.
I was excited to see the young Devil Rays in action. They had one of the most exciting players in the game, outfielder Carl Crawford. Crawford led the American League in stolen bases (2003 and 2004) and triples (2004). His ability to generate runs was something the Devil Rays built around; however, after nine successful seasons in Tampa, Crawford left the franchise as a free agent. His career has never been the same. The cover of the Devil Rays Magazine asked the question, “The Best Young Nucleus in Baseball?” In addition to Crawford, the Devil Rays had Aubrey Huff OF/1B/DH, Rocco Baldelli CF, B.J. Upton SS, Delmon Young OF, Jorge Cantu 2B, Scott Kazmir SP, Wade Townsend SP, Jeff Niemann SP and Seth McClung RP to build around. No other team in baseball had the number of potential All-Stars at the time. Lou Piniella was brought in to bring these players along to reach their potential. Sweet Lou brought credibility to the Devil Rays organization upon his arrival from Seattle, but the lack of success during Piniella’s three seasons ended in his release.
I was happy to witness a Devil Rays win, as they defeated the A’s 3-2 in 10 innings. Devil Ray 2B Jorge Cantu hit his third home run of the young season and closer Danys Baez wiggled out of a 9th-inning bases loaded jam to keep the score tied at 2. Centerfield speedster Joey Gathright led the bottom of the 10th off with a rousing triple, later scoring the winning run on Nick Green’s RBI single. Experiencing a Devil Rays win was terrific, but seeing the Tropicana Field roof turn orange to signifying the win was even better.
I enjoyed my time in St. Petersburg. Mike and I had time to visit the St. Petersburg Pier, which offers some great dining options. I was looking forward to having lunch at the Columbia Restaurant; it offers an authentic Cuban sandwich like no other. Mike and I also visited Ferg’s Sports Bar, located outside Tropicana Field. It was a bar for all ages with kids playing air hockey, retirees sipping white wine, and college kids playing pool. In my opinion, Ferg’s symbolizes the St. Petersburg area; it’s a place where people of all ages come to have a good time. It is an area that has a distinct New York influence as many New Yorkers have retired to the area. After spending time there, I wish the Devil Rays and their fans nothing but the best as they continue to find their way to success on and off the field.