Have a baseball road trip coming up? Well, in a bid to help you with your upcoming journeys, Big League Stew has solicited the help of the locals. Over the next month or so, we'll be hitting up our usual guest blogger crew to feature 10 tips for enjoying each of the 30 ballparks like the locals do. Have a suggestion in addition to the ones listed here? Make sure to list it in the comments below.
Check your bad attendance jokes and facility insults at the door because if you do not take a game in at Tropicana Field while in the Tampa Bay area, it is your loss. I will freely admit that it does not rank in my top 10 of ballparks visited, but as a kid who spent most of his childhood in the cavernous Astrodome and has taken in a large majority of his games as an adult in the only remaining full-time domed stadium, Tropicana Field has grown on me.
Tropicana Field was birthed a full eight years before it hosted a major league baseball game. The original specs called for the stadium to become the first one to incorporate a sail rather than a roof, but the final design ended up with the slanted roof that both protects the stadium from hurricane wind damage and dramatically reduces the air conditioning bill. While the facility, or the promise of it, was used in attempts to court an expansion team as well as the Giants, Twins, White Sox, and Mariners, the facility hosted The Tampa Bay Lightning of the National Hockey League, the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena Football League, numerous monster truck races, home shows, and even equestrian events before the Rays ever showed up. The largest crowd ever to fill Tropicana Field happened in 1990 as 47,150 fans showed up to see a New Kids On The Block Concert.
Outside from its sparse crowds, it is most well known for the pinball machine it calls a roof. If you ask the average person how often balls in play hit the catwalks that support the teflon roof, the guess would be in the thousands. In reality, very few balls actually make contact with the support structure but narratives are always more entertaining and watching opposing fielders struggle to identify the white sphere as it dances amongst the 180 miles of cabling is just part of the home field advantage the Rays enjoy.
The first thing you must know about "The Trop" is it is not the easiest place to get to. Some get lost because they look for it in Tampa after hearing many national broadcasters mentioning the Rays playing in Tampa. The Buccaneers play in Tampa, the Lightning play in Tampa, but the Rays play in St. Petersburg.
Tropicana Field is located to the southwest of the greater Tampa Bay area which requires fans to traverse one of the three bridges that cross the water or use Us Highway 19. Legend has it that those bridges grow in length each trip a fan makes over them and that they are each at least 30 miles long at this point and take an hour to get across. US Highway 19 has a stoplight every quarter mile and the roads are filled with obstacle courses such as oversized cars going 15 miles below the speed limit in the left lane. On my most recent trip, it took me 70 minutes to complete the final 32 miles of my journey to the ballpark and that was with the toll roads. In short, save yourself plenty of time to get to the ballpark because while there may not always be big crowds at the game, there is never a shortage of people on the area roads trying to get somewhere.
Once you get to Tropicana Field, there are plenty of options available for you to enjoy your gameday experience if not the outcome on the playing field. Here are a few tips:
• Parking is plentiful: The stadium is nestled along the southern end of revitalized St. Petersburg. There are plenty of local parking options to supplement the surface lot parking available. You can park in downtown St. Pete and enjoy some of the local restaurants and take a trolley over to the Trop from a parking garage for at least half the cost of parking on site. In fact, most of the parking options off the main property are at least $5 cheaper than the surface lots. The gates do not open until 90 minutes before first pitch and there is nothing available on property before the game, so parking off-site and strolling over to places on 1st Avenue South or Central is the best plan if you arrive early and would like to pre-game. Ferg's Sports Bar has been there from Day 1 and is the preferred option of many fans.
• Six ways in, bring your own meal: There are six different gates that can be used for access into The Trop, but most fans tend to congregate at the main rotunda entrance. While the tile work in the rotunda is well done, if you just want to get in to catch as much of batting practice as possible, use another gate. Tropicana Field permits fans to bring in their own food with few restrictions. If you are looking to cut costs on your trip, this is a great way to do so.
• Enjoy some history: The Ted Williams Museum & Hitters Hall of Fame is located near Gate 1 and is a must-see for baseball historians as it has a fantastic collection of baseball memorabilia from throughout baseball history. If you would like to re-live the magical Game 162 moments from the 2011 season, there is a 162 Landing Area down the left-field line that reviews the history of that special night in baseball history. Red Sox fans tend to avoid that part of The Trop, for whatever reason.
• Enjoy other seats before enjoying your own:There are three specially-marked seats out in right field that represent three signature moments in Tampa Bay baseball history. The first one is a gold seat in section 148 marks the landing spot of the first home run in franchise history, which was struck by Tampa native Wade Boggs. The other gold seat is two sections over in 144 that marks the spot where Boggs's 3,000th hit landed. The final seat is a white seat in Section 140 that marks the spot where Dan Johnson's magical game-tying home run in Game 162 in 2011 cleared the fence and struck a fan in the family jewels.
• Be a kid again: In 2006, Tropicana Field debuted its Rays Tank in right field. Before and during the game, fans can lineup for a chance to visit the tank and pet a few of the 20 or so cownose rays that occupy the 10,000 gallon tank. If you want to feed the rays, it only costs you a $5 donation to the Florida Aquarium (which should also be part of your road trip). After that, pay a visit to the interactive games below the left and right field stands where you can play Major League Baseball 2K13 with fans, purchase a custom made jersey, a custom Louisville Slugger, and even get your swing analyzed by a Rays Baseball Camp Coach.
• Do your part: The first thing that will stand out to you when you watch a game at Tropicana Field is that the game is a production. Even in a blowout, the Rays will find a way to entertain you whether it is a dancing groundskeeper, a dancing feline DJ, bringing the ushers onto the field to dance a conga line, or the Pepsi product mascot races. On Friday nights, win or lose, there is a postgame dance party on the field with a guest DJ. If you would like to win a sure bet with friends, pay attention to the Carvel cap shuffle on the scoreboard. A source tells me that in 2013, the helmet to the left of the one where the ball starts has won every time in 2013. The stadium staff actively encourage fan participation in the game, and some fans take that seriously as they attempt to break up foul balls hit into the stands.
• Bite the bullet: If you decide not to take advantage of the open food policy at the gate, you have plenty of concession options inside. There are four distinct food court areas in center field, right field, and along each baseline. Tropicana Field lacks a true local cuisine, but Outback is based in the area so they have a presence inside. If you have a huge appetite, you can go to the Brewhouse in center field and do the Rays Fan vs Food Challenge. All you have to do to win is consume a two-pound burger that comes with four slices of cheese, 16 slices of bacon, on a bun along with a pound of french fries. If the challenge gets the best of you, one of Florida's finest medical facilities is only a few blocks away.
There are some nicer food options in the exclusive areas of the park such as the Whitney Bank Club and the Hancock Bank Club so scoring tickets in those sections come with access to better food options that include a pasta bar as well as a sandwich bar. If you are someone who enjoys gluten-free foods, you can head over to the Gluten Free Favorites spot in center field. New in recent years is the bottomless cup of soda or popcorn that allows you to consume as much as you want of each for $10 per cup or bucket. There are a few craft brew stands scattered throughout the stadium as well as a few taps in The Brewhouse; search for the Jai Alai Pale Ale from Cigar City beers and you will not be disappointed. Speaking of cigars, you can venture upstairs and find the Cuesta Ray Cigar Bar that honors the region's rich history in the cigar industry and sample their offerings on the back deck.
• Best seats in the house: I have sat in just about every section of the stadium from the leather recliners behind home plate to the very top row of the 300 sections. For my money, the best seats in the house are on the 200 level. The sections have limited seats and have televisions hanging from overhead allowing you to see instant replay before anyone else in the stadium does and the lines to the restrooms and concession tend to be shorter than the other levels.
Like many aging things in Florida, Tropicana Field has undergone a series of expensive facelifts in recent years. In the dark days of the previous ownership, there were rumors of fans losing shoes as they stuck to the floor and everyone was under the watchful eye of a penny-pinching owner who disenfranchised fans and local support like it was going out of style. The new ownership has done everything it can with the facility to improve both the eye appeal and the atmosphere to entice fans to come and support the "Nine" (which almost became the team name in 2007). If it has been awhile since you have visited baseball's eighth-oldest stadium, you should give it another try. What it lacks in modern amenities and aesthetics, it makes up for with the fact that games are never delayed by weather and it is always a very pleasant 72 degrees at first pitch.
What are your favorites tips for a trip to The Trop?
Previous parks: Citi Field, Marlins Park, Great American Ball Park, Petco Park,Comerica Park, Progressive Park, AT&T Park, Rogers Centre, Wrigley Field, O.Co Coliseum, Yankee Stadium, Coors Field, Minute Maid Park, Fenway Park, PNC Park,U.S. Cellular Field, Safeco Field, Target Field, Rangers Ballpark, Camden Yards,Turner Field, Nationals Park, Kauffman Stadium