I just read an interesting article
in the NY Times
about the rays. The owner is quoted saying the Trop has a shelf life of five years. And that baseball doesn't feel right indoors.
Any thoughts on where you would like to see a new stadium?
Devil Rays Tempting Fans With a Field Trip
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., May 3 — Under the dome of Tropicana Field, Carlos Peña hit a pop-up that never came down. It lodged in the ceiling for a foul ball. Next time up, in the 10th inning, Peña hit another pop-up that caromed off a catwalk and landed for a single behind the confused Minnesota infielders.
That hit fueled a rally that gave the Tampa Bay Devil Rays a 4-3 victory before 9,101 fans. Later, Peña said that he liked the quirky indoor stadium but also looked forward to going to Disney World for three games in the open air of a spring training and minor league facility about 100 miles northeast.
“It’s a gorgeous ballpark, and it’s also close to my home,” Peña said Wednesday of the 7,500-seat stadium at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, where the Devil Rays will play host to the Texas Rangers on May 15-17. “I live in Orlando. Hopefully, I can get a couple of my teammates over to my house for dinner.”
Perhaps Peña can invite the customers, too, as part of the team’s new marketing campaign. If ticket sales do not improve for the games against the Rangers, the Devil Rays’ experiment at a home-away-from-home site could be a disappointment.
Tampa Bay’s new ownership, in its second season, is trying to expand the regional profile of one of baseball’s weakest franchises. Stuart Sternberg, the principal owner, would not reveal specific ticket sales at the Disney park, but he expressed concern.
“It’s a low number,” said Sternberg, whose team is averaging 15,729 this season. “If we don’t end up attracting a reasonable crowd, it would be my first significant disappointment.”
Sternberg and his top aides are baseball novices who did well on Wall Street. Their newest investment certainly has potential.
With the youngest roster in baseball, the Devil Rays rank near the bottom of the 30 major league teams in attendance (last in the A.L. each of the past six years), payroll (last in the majors this season) and franchise valuation (29th, according to Forbes magazine). They drew 1.37 million fans last season, up from 1.14 million in 2005. They hope for 1.5 million this season. Their circumstances are somewhat paradoxical.
The Devil Rays play 81 regular-season home games in a region best known for spring training. Although their state is known for outdoor activity and year-round sunshine, the sun never shines in their stadium and the scorecards flutter in the artificial breeze of the air-conditioning.
The team’s name mentions Tampa, but it plays in St. Petersburg. Another step to expand the brand will come in 2009, when the Devil Rays plan to move their spring training camp from St. Petersburg to Port Charlotte, Fla., about 78 miles to the southeast.
Matt Silverman, the 30-year-old president of the Devil Rays, said that “there are blemishes and there are challenges” about the franchise and that “this is a work in progress.” The word Devil may soon be dropped, he said, among other changes, a decade after the team’s expansion debut.
“We expect to change our uniform and our colors and our logo effective for the 2008 season,” Silverman said.
So far, the new management has invested $18 million for improvements in a stadium that opened in 1990 but has not aged well.
“Baseball does not feel right indoors,” Sternberg said.
The current capacity is 36,736, reduced by 4,000 this season by blue tarps that are draped over seats high in the upper deck. The field is covered with a new version of grasslike artificial turf.
“How do we make the best of this thing?” Sternberg said. “It wasn’t built to last 30 to 40 years.”
Although he made no threats to move or suggestions for a new stadium, he said of the current stadium, “We recognize it has a shelf life of five years.”
For now, management will try to build fan identification with young, talented and relatively inexpensive players like Delmon Young, B. J. Upton and Carl Crawford.
In their first nine seasons, the Devil Rays finished out of last place in the American League East only once, when they were second to last in 2004 and won a franchise-best 70 games. [Their 14-17 record this season projects to 73 victories.]
For the second year, the Devil Rays are allowing free parking on stadium-owned lots and are permitting fans to bring in some food and beverages. Stadium workers have been retrained in customer relations.
The original ownership, headed by Vince Naimoli, alienated people with a heavy-handed approach. A local high school band, scheduled to play the national anthem, once canceled its appearance when the Devil Rays demanded its members buy tickets.
“We are changing the personality of the organization and the Trop,” Silverman said. New family-friendly innovations include a fish tank in right-center field where fans can touch and feed more than 30 cownose rays.
Curiously, such attractions are located near stadium holdovers like a cigar bar and a pool hall sponsored by a liquor company. The cognitive dissonance extends to the home clubhouse, where a large sign bears a quotation from Albert Camus: “Integrity has no need of rulers.”
Sternberg said that the notion of playing a series at Disney World was “a eureka sort of idea” and “seemed to me like a no-brainer.” For one of the games, the ceremonial first pitch will be thrown out by the stock-car legend Richard Petty.
The sojourn will be a win/win for pitcher Casey Fossum, who said his children loved to go to Disney World and enjoyed watching him pitch. Fans who buy tickets will receive a free voucher for a game at the dome. “Hopefully, they’ll come back for more at the Trop,” Fossum said.
For the Disney games, the best box seats near home plate sell for $119. The cheapest tickets, $15, are for lawn spots on the foul lines beyond the bases and in the outfield. About 2,000 people can sit on the lawn or stand elsewhere.
Sternberg put his team’s Disney visit in historical context. He said that the Green Bay Packers used to play some home games in Milwaukee, the Boston Celtics played in Hartford and the Brooklyn Dodgers occasionally played in Jersey City.
Outfielder Rocco Baldelli said: “We’re here to play the game wherever they tell us to play. It’s going to feel a little weird playing there. I played there for a bit in Double-A.”
When asked about small crowds, he said, “If there was 100 people there, we’d go out and play just as hard.”
Pitcher Scott Kazmir said that he liked the dimensions of the Disney field, which is 340 feet down the left-field line, because “it’s a pitcher’s park.” Shortstop Ben Zobrist, speaking of the intimate ambience, said, “I think it will be cool.” But the veteran infielder Ty Wigginton, thinking of Florida weather, said, “I just hope it ain’t too hot.”
Devil Rays Manager Joe Maddon said that adjusting to a different clubhouse “might be uncomfortable” for his home team. But he added that getting closer to new customers “is something different we’ve got to do” and that, as the team improves, “they’ll come from 200 miles away to see us play.”
Reggie Williams, the vice president of Disney Sports Attractions, said, “Major League Baseball is a screaming success in Central Florida” for spring training; the Atlanta Braves train in his park. But he conceded that Orlando’s N.B.A. team did not always sell out playoff games.
Williams said that he hoped the Devil Rays would play an annual series at Disney and that crowds of “7,500 to 8,000 people would be a phenomenal start” for this series.
Baldelli, referring to the team’s new ownership and management, said: “You can definitely see that these guys have a plan. They know you can’t just come in here and take a baseball franchise and turn it around in a week. They’re taking steps to build it from the ground up.”