Tropicana Field: All dome and gloom
Baseball enthusiasts enjoy discussing the venues of their pastime far more than the fans of other sports.
That's why Sports Weekly is launching a new series "In the Ballpark" that will run throughout the season and feature a different major league stadium every week, as we count down from the worst of the 30 parks to the best.
Joe Mock from BaseballParks.com will be the official tour guide, following the format he uses for the in-depth reviews that appear on his website, which is affiliated with USA TODAY Sports Digital Properties.
Over the last 15 years, Mock has been reviewing and photographing ballparks. He has visited 200 of the current 203 ballparks in use for the major leagues, spring training and the affiliated minors. He is the author of "Joe Mock's Ballpark Guide" and numerous articles.
Each review will detail:
The stadium's location.
Overview of its exterior features.
Breakdown of the architectural elements inside the park.
Key amenities for the fans.
Future outlook for the park.
We start the series with No. 30 – yes, that's the last place park, Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Highly respected sports economist Andrew Zimbalist doesn't think much of Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays — and he is far from alone.
"The Trop is a bad facility in a bad location," he recently told the Tampa Bay Times. "The team performed over the last five years as well as any team, (yet) it still has the lowest attendance in baseball."
Despite severe payroll constraints, the Rays have remained in contention in the highly competitive American League East. Where, then, are the fans?
Blame the stadium. To put it mildly, the aesthetics of Tropicana Field leave much to be desired, landing the domed facility in last place in our countdown of the 30 major league parks.
How did it come to be this way? In the 1980s, Florida had no major league team to call its own, though numerous teams held spring training there. St. Petersburg wanted to land a franchise and decided to build a stadium to attract one.
The plan almost worked, as the Chicago White Sox, Seattle Mariners and San Francisco Giants all considered moving. But all three ended up in new stadiums in their current markets.
St. Pete's Suncoast Dome (as it was known at the time) sat as a "$200 million warning against counting one's chickens before they hatch," Gary Gillette and Eric Enders noted in Big League Ballparks, The Complete Illustrated History.
Finally, the expansion Devil Rays arrived in 1998, and along with the team the stadium received its new name and $70 million in renovations. The outlook for baseball on the Gulf Coast looked rosy and stable, especially since the franchise agreed to a 30-year lease.
The team's futility on the field matched the gloomy stadium interior. Attendance figures were so poor that the team eventually covered most of the uppermost seats to reduce the seating capacity. Even when the team became competitive starting in 2008, crowds were small. The Rays' desire for a new ballpark grew stronger and stronger and continues.
INSIDE TROPICANA FIELD: SITE
Ten blocks from the spring training ballpark once known as Al Lang Field, the domed stadium was constructed on the site of an old coal gasification plant, at the intersection of Interstates 275 and 175. Downtown Tampa, the area's largest concentration of population, is more than 20 miles away, however.
A slanted dome sits atop nondescript walls. The roof is illuminated with orange lights after a Rays victory.
Once inside, you can't help but notice the drab ceiling that is supported by rings of catwalks that, unfortunately, are often struck by batted balls. The entry rotunda is nice, and renovations over the years have created improved eating areas and upscale club areas. The bullpen locations also have drawn criticism, because of how close they are to the field down the foul lines. The covered seats in the upper deck are a constant reminder that the Rays can't fill the place.
Eating options have improved steadily over the years, and above the team store there's now a cigar bar that includes leather couches and top-of-the-line liquor. It is the only major league ballpark with a cigar bar. Smoking cigarettes is not allowed in the ballpark.
New video screens improve the experience of watching a game, plus the unique Rays Touch Tank beyond the outfield allows fans to reach into a 10,000-gallon tank and touch the cownose rays that are swimming within. It is free to touch them but costs $5 to feed them.
Best of all, the Ted Williams Museum is now located within the Trop, and fans can visit it for free before and during games with a ticket.
If the Rays are forced to honor the lease that runs through 2027, the franchise might not survive, at least not in St. Pete. A new park is needed, and soon.
The search for an acceptable site in the Tampa Bay area has taken many twists and turns in recent years, including a proposal to build a retractable-roof ballpark on the site of Al Lang Field. That proposal, as well as numerous others, has fallen through. All the while, attendance suffers.
"Although the Rays ownership have done a good job enhancing the fan experience while putting a very good team on the field, Tropicana Field was designed as a multipurpose facility well over 30 years ago," observed Joe Spear, senior principal at Populous, which designed the stadium back when the architecture firm was known as HOK.
He added that the Trop "lacks many of the things baseball fans across the league expect today. It seems clear that (the Rays) in a next-generation ballpark would see much higher attendance."
It's interesting that Tropicana Field holds the distinction of many firsts and lasts.
It was the first stadium to have FieldTurf installed, as well as the first to host all of the following: the NCAA Final Four, the NHL, college football and Major League Baseball.
On the other side of the ledger, the Trop is the last baseball stadium with a fixed dome, as Phoenix, Toronto, Houston, Minneapolis, Seattle and Miami all have retractable roofs.Another "last" for the Trop: last in our rankings.
Where: 1 Tropicana Drive, St. Petersburg, FL 33705
Architect: HOK Sport (now called Populous)
Cost to build: $130 million
First MLB game: March 31, 1998
Ticket info: Call 888-FAN-RAYS; online at RaysBaseball.com/tickets; or at the stadium box offices located at Gate 1 and Gate 4 or the Rays Tampa Pro Shop & Ticket Outlet at 400 N. Tampa St. in downtown Tampa.
Ticket price range: $19-$300
2012 average attendance: 19,255 (30th in the majors)
All ballparks have wide selections of food and beverages, but each has a signature item that usually reflects the local flavor: Rays Cuban Sandwich
Symbolic of the nearby Ybor City neighborhood in Tampa, this local favorite features sliced ham, pork and Genoa salami on toasted Cuban bread with Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. The sandwich is grilled flat. Available throughout the ballpark at all Grand Slam Grill, East/West Deli and Diamond Classics locations.http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/rays/2013/04/06/tampa-bay-rays-tropicana-field-no-30-rank-mlb-ballparks/2058289/