1. Miami to St Petersburg, Florida Thursday May 8th 2014
The next and final stop of our 2014 MLB tour was St Petersburg, Florida, home of the Tampa Bay Rays. The three hour and 45 minute drive led us across the northern portion of the Everglades National Park, as well as the Big Cypress National Preserve. Never having seen an alligator in the wild (not many gators in the Northeast), we welcomed the opportunity to seek them out in their natural habitat.
As might be expected, each stop along the way yielded no gator sitings. Granted, we did not venture far from the road, as we were not prepared to trek into the swamp. This greatly reduced our chances of seeing gators in the water. Disappointed, we abandoned our attempts and followed Interstate 75 North toward St Petersburg.
Along the way, we stopped shortly after crossing the Sunshine Skyway to get pictures of the bridge. While taking pictures along the waterline, we caught the attention of the local wildlife. A great egret, standing tall on a wooden pallet, made no attempt to hide her contempt for our presence near HER shallows. Even while taking pictures of her, she did her best to intimidate us. Not wanting to aggravate her further, we left as soon as we were finished with our picture taking.
Arriving at our hotel in St Petersburg well ahead of the 705 pm first pitch at Tropicana Field, we relaxed at the hotel before heading out to the ballpark.
2. Tropicana Field
We arrived at Tropicana Field about 90 minutes before game time, just as the gates were opening. There was ample parking in the general vicinity of the stadium, much of which is one-quarter of a mile or less from the stadium. On this night, with a fairly light crowd expected, parking was $15, but parking can vary between $15 and $30.
Upon arriving at the park, we walked around the stadium. Being a domed stadium, there was not much to see outside. Entering the park behind home plate, the brightness outside was replaced by the dimness of the translucence of the roof of Tropicana Field. Having seen what appeared to be a drab interior on TV, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that is was not as dark nor dank as I imagined. Fun fact; Tropicana Field is the only remaining MLB Park with a fixed roof.
Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the roof is that is slants from home plate down toward center field. While the slant is discernible from outside, it is much more exaggerated inside the park. Suspended from the roof are catwalks. They are part of the support structure of the roof, specifically the lighting and speaker system. There are four rings of catwalks, some of which are in play. Many times over the years, the catwalks have giveth and taketh away, resulting in confusion and loathing. Because of this, the catwalks have been a lightning rod for criticism since the opening of the park.
With plenty of time before the scheduled 710 pm start, we wandered inside the stadium. Outside of the roof, the stadium was a nondescript domed ballpark. Like most domed stadiums, the place seemed cavernous, with three levels of seats spanning from foul pole to foul pole. Much of the stadium was accessible via concourses, allowing us to take pictures of virtually the entire park.
Wandering the lower level in center field, we discovered the fabled ray tank. Arriving as early as we did, there was almost nobody around the tank, meaning we were able to pet the rays at will. Knowing very little about rays, I was unsure whether they were bothered by human contact. Of course, the rays are probably accustomed to the interaction, and petting them likely did not cause any additional stress. However, in deference to the animals, I chose not to pet them, instead admiring them from a respectful distance.
Like most major league ballparks, there were more than a dozen locations from which food was available, including standard concession stands. Despite the large selection available, we chose to indulge in more standard ballpark fare before seeking out our seats for the game.
The Rays hosted the Baltimore Orioles this evening, the last game in a three game set. The announced crowd for this game was just over 11,000, which made Tropicana Field (with its 42,735 seat capacity) seem almost empty. The Orioles sent Umbaldo Jimenez against the Rays’ David Price in what promised to be a pitcher’s duel. Our seats for the contest were behind the Orioles dugout in the lower level.
The Rays opened the scoring with a run in the bottom of the first, with the Orioles scoring in the second and third innings to take a 3-1 lead. That was the extent of the scoring, as both starters and respective bullpens kept the promise of a potential pitcher’s duel. Despite being a low scoring affair, the game clocked in at just over three and one-half hours.
The extra time have us the opportunity to take in the feel of the park. While Tropicana Field was not as dungeon-like as I expected (based on what I’d seen on TV), the park lacked any significant charm or presence. It’s no wonder the franchise has been seeking another home, one that might provide fans with a warmer environment.
1. St Pete Beach, Friday May 9th 2014
Following breakfast at the hotel, we had plenty of time to explore the region ahead of the 705 pm game time at Tropicana Field. Our first stop was St Pete Beach. Located on Long Key, a barrier island a few miles west of St Petersburg, St Pete Beach is consistently voted one of the top beaches in the United States.
Wall to wall sunshine and temperatures climbing into the 80s during the late morning resulted in a perfect beach day. The white sandy beach reminded me of those we saw at South Beach the day before. However, unlike the rougher surf we saw near Miami, the crystal clear waters along St Pete Beach were nearly calm.
Though the weather was conducive for beach going, there were surprisingly few people on the beach, and none in the water. However, there were plenty of birds on the sand and fishing in the shallow water of the Gulf. In fact, there were many more black skimmers (a bird I’d never seen before) than people on the beach that morning. Great egrets roamed the surf, occasionally pulling a fish out of the water.
Strolling along the beach, we saw much of the architecture had some connection to Art Deco, much like we noticed in Miami. Though it was only early May, the sun angle was high enough to give me a mild sunburn. As the temperature headed toward 90 degrees, we cut short our walk along the beach to find some shelter and lunch.
2. Sawgrass Park
Following lunch, we headed into St Petersburg. We happened upon Sawgrass Park, which looked like a good place to spend some time before riding back to the hotel to relax before the game.
Almost immediately after leaving the car, we became acutely aware of the lizard population. Brown anoles were everywhere; in fact, I had to actively avoid the lizards for fear of stepping on them. We started our exploration of the park near Sawgrass Lake, following a dirt path to an elevated boardwalk. Along the way, we passed a large variety of birds forging in the marshes.
We stopped to watch a great egret stomping his way through marshes along the dirt path leading to the boardwalk. At first, it wasn’t clear why the egret was stomping. However, after stomping a few times, the egret pulled a fish out of the marsh. The bird was stomping until it found a fish and pounced on it. We watched this happen a few times before moving on.
Following the elevated boardwalk brought us to a viewing platform on the edge of the lake. A sign posted in the gazebo covering the viewing platform warned that we were in gator country. Gazing out across the lake, it seemed as though there were no alligators to be found. Being early to mid afternoon, I thought they were basking in the sunshine elsewhere, someplace less conspicuous.
My brother signaled to me that he found something in the mud on the edge of the lake; baby alligators. The hatchlings were partially submerged in the mud, numbering about a dozen (though there could have been others deeper in the mud). Despite being small and arguably cute, the hatchlings possess little but sharp teeth that could inflict some pain, if harassed.
Lurking not far offshore we finally spotted the mama gator. Like mothers of other species, this cow was keeping a sharp eye on her babies. Though she was a distance away, I had no doubt that if her young were threatened, she would take swift and definitive action to protect them. It seemed, though, that she was not particularly agitated, as if she had become accustomed to people being close to her young.
Spending far more time in the park than anticipated, we left the park shortly after finding the gators, and headed back to the hotel to relax before the game. Wanting to see alligators while in Florida, I didn’t expect to find them in a park in St Petersburg. If you find yourself with some time near Sawgrass Park, I’d recommend a visit, if only to track down some gators.
3. Tropicana Field
Having been to Tropicana Field the night before, we did not arrive as early for this contest. With little to see outside the park, and exploring much of the park with the Orioles in town, we arrived about an hour before the first pitch, scheduled for 710 pm. The Rays’ opponent this evening was the Cleveland Indians, who were beginning a weekend series in St Petersburg.
For this game, our seats were on the first base side behind the Rays’ dugout in the lower levels. Once again, the announced crowd of 17,455 for the series opener seemed like an overestimate. The sparse crowd made the domed stadium feel nearly empty. Granted, the Rays were not playing well so far this season, but without fan support, the environment almost felt drab.
Starting for the home team was right hander Jake Odorizzi, and right hander Corey Kluber took the ball for the visiting Indians. For Corey Kluber, 2014 was a breakout season which ended with him winning his first Cy Young award. Odorizzi was in his first full season with the Rays, and tonight’s matchup was promising to be a pitcher’s duel.
The game started out just that way, with both pitchers tossing three scoreless innings. The Rays scored single runs in the fourth and fifth innings, and as well as Odorizzi was pitching, two two runs looked as though they might be enough to ensure a Rays’ victory.
Jake Odorizzi struck out 11 Indians in five innings of work, but in doing so, threw over 100 pitches. With Odorizzi out of the game, the Indians torched the bullpen for a run in the sixth and five runs in the seventh. That outburst was more than enough to support Kluber, who struck out nine in six innings of work.
By the seventh inning stretch, the sparse crowd began to file out, all but assured of yet another Rays’ loss. A team with promise at the start of the season, a loss would drop them six games under the .500 mark. The Rays’ managed to score a run in the bottom of the ninth, but it wasn’t enough to prevent an Indians’ 6-3 win.
Leaving Tropicana Field, I understood why some refer to this stadium as the least attractive in MLB. While the place lacks an discernible charm, and seems almost tomblike with small crowds in the cavernous building, it was not the dungeon I imagined it to be. Having said that, I get why fans stay away; should they return, they deserve a better home for their team.