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A Cubs fan’s view of Tropicana Field

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The Trop is... interesting.

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida — If Jerry Reinsdorf had gotten his way 30 years ago, the Cubs might have been playing the Tampa Bay White Sox instead of the Tampa Bay Rays this week.

The Florida Suncoast Dome, as it was called when built, had been constructed in anticipation of luring a big-league team to the Tampa Bay area. The White Sox nearly departed Chicago for St. Pete, but when the Illinois legislature, at the last minute, agreed to fund a new stadium for the White Sox, the folks in Tampa Bay were left teamless, at least at that time back in the late 1980s.

In 1992, the Giants were supposedly going to be sold to a Tampa Bay group and moved to this stadium, but that deal, too, fell through.

The dome was home to an Arena Football League team and even the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning and renamed the “Thunderdome” during that time. Eventually MLB expanded and added the then-Devil Rays (and Diamondbacks) in 1998 and the dome, renamed Tropicana Field after naming rights were sold, finally had a baseball tenant.

But the place is nearly 30 years old, and despite lots of layers of paint and reconfiguration, feels it. Many of the upper-level seats are tarped over, reducing the official capacity to 42,768, not that the Rays need that many seats these days. The biggest crowd they’ve drawn in 2017 is 31,042, Opening Day vs. the Yankees. They’ve drawn over 40,000 for a regular-season game just once since 2006, a 2016 game vs. the Giants, a game where tickets were reduced to $5 and much of the proceeds went to benefit families of the victims of the mass shooting in Orlando.

The feeling I got while walking through the concourses, in addition to a tired 1980s-feel, was of suburban shopping mall. Nowhere is that more evident than in the food courts, which definitely feel shopping-mallish. Food choices were somewhat pedestrian, though the burger I had was pretty good and the cost ($11, included fries) was pretty reasonable.

During batting practice as I was walking around the outfield seats, I heard some of the Rays gameday employees blowing whistles. It didn’t take long to realize they were doing this every time a baseball headed toward fans in the seats out there. In center field (photo 10) there’s a tank filled with live rays that you can touch (don’t worry, it’s safe).

Photo 21 shows the Cubs bullpen, with Pedro Strop throwing, on the field down the left-field line. It was interesting to watch Cubs relievers interact with each other during the game and to see who was warming up. Gosh, if only Wrigley Field had something like that.

You’ll notice quite a number of photos above of the angled roof. This is an interesting architectural feature designed both to help reduce cooling costs (and trust me, I appreciated being in 72-degree comfort while it was 90 degrees with stifling humidity outdoors) and to help protect against hurricanes. The latter was done admirably during Hurricane Irma’s trek across Florida; though the Rays did have to move one series (against the Yankees) out of the Trop, it did not appear to suffer any visible damage. Nor, in fact, did most of St. Petersburg, at least the area I’ve been in. I’ve seen a few downed tree branches, but that’s about it. There’s no visible damage on the exterior of any buildings I’ve seen, and the hotel where I’m staying lost power for a couple of days, but that was about it.

Then there’s the transportation issue and location. Here’s where the Trop is located:

As you can see, the bulk of the population of this area and its largest city (Tampa) are to the east of Tampa Bay itself. There are four bridges connecting that part of the area with St. Petersburg and they’re busy with rush-hour traffic most evenings when games would be taking place. There doesn’t appear to be much public transportation, if any, in the area around the Trop. It’s no wonder the locals don’t go to games. The franchise either needs a new stadium built in Tampa, or they’re going to wind up leaving the area, perhaps to Montreal.

This is the only domed stadium in the major leagues with a fixed roof; the other roofed ballparks (Toronto, Houston, Seattle, Arizona, Milwaukee and Miami) all have retractable roofs. In addition, the Trop is one of two remaining parks (Rogers Centre in Toronto is the other) with artificial turf, and until 2015 it was the only one that had a full-dirt infield rather than the base dirt cutouts they had in Toronto until then (Toronto now also has a full-dirt infield). I liked that better; it makes the park feel more baseball-like, even with the fake grass. The park, in fact, got a new turf field before this season began.

Gameday employees were helpful, plentiful and friendly and the bag/magnetometer check was easy and quick and run efficiently. Sightlines were generally good, if a bit farther from the field than at most of the newer “retro” parks. This isn’t a bad ballpark, but it just isn’t really a good one, either. The Rays do the best they can with a stadium that was built in, and for, a different baseball era.

One place I didn’t get to is the Ted Williams Museum/Hitters Hall of Fame, which is located inside the stadium. If I can get over there tonight, I’ll post something on that tomorrow.