The first time that Red Sox left-hander Bill Lee saw Fenway Park, in 1969, he drove past it. The Californian, 22 years old and on his way to his first big league call-up, couldn’t find his way through the haphazard, ancient streets of Boston, and when he did make it to Fenway, he thought the industrial-looking brick building was a factory. But once inside, he was overawed by the park’s intimacy and verdant coloration: “The green of the seats, the green of the wall, the green of the field, and the little dirt cutout,” he told Ken Burns in 1994’s Baseball. “And the proximity of the foul line to the stands, the closeness of the bullpens to the crowd.
“It’s like you go down all of a sudden on one knee and you bless yourself, and you go, ‘Thank God for making me a ballplayer, because it’s heaven.’”
The streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, unlike those in Boston, are arrow-straight and laid out in a numbered grid, but 50 years after Lee’s journey, I found myself wondering whether I’d also driven past the park I was looking for.
As I passed a series of strip malls and gas stations, and row after row of small single-family homes, there was no sign of a ballpark, or the usual trappings. A few blocks from the stadium, the trees thinned out and over a row of condos I could make out the curved white fiberglass roof of Tropicana Field, nestled on a slant onto the giant beige cylinder of the stadium itself, as though Zeus had made chili but failed to put the lid back on the crockpot straight.
While Fenway is a pastoral oasis within the chaos of urban modernity, the Trop is purposely modern and jarringly inorganic, a unique venue for a unique baseball team. The Trop is the only MLB stadium with a fixed roof, and the smallest MLB venue by far, with a capacity of just 25,000. Its home club, the Tampa Bay Rays, is the only MLB team named after a body of water, and while the Tampa–St. Petersburg media market is the 11th largest in the country, it’s made up of several smaller cities instead of centered on one big one. St. Petersburg is one of them; it’s also the smallest municipality to host an MLB franchise.
That franchise, the Rays, has the lowest average attendance in the American League and second lowest in all of MLB—an ignominious distinction they’re set to achieve this season for the 14th time in their 22 seasons, and fifth in the past five. This despite being in the midst of an exciting pennant race; while other clubs at the bottom of the attendance rankings are purposely bottoming out, the Rays are poised for a playoff berth and are having one of the best regular seasons in franchise history, which is saying something, as they’ve been quite successful on the field during the past decade.
The Rays made the playoffs four times in six years from 2008 to 2013, a time when they produced homegrown stars like Evan Longoria, David Price, James Shields, Ben Zobrist, Carl Crawford, and numerous others, and locked many of them up to long-term team-friendly contracts. Despite this, the team shipped off one star after another for prospects, and in 2019, ownership is shelling out just $63 million in team payroll, about $10 million less than the expenditures of the Pirates and Marlins, two clubs that have gone beyond tanking into downright indifference, and a little more than half the payroll of the Cleveland Indians, a small-market club in the process of disassembling a juggernaut to satisfy ownership’s financial prerogatives.
By the standards of the Red Sox and other long-tenured, big-market traditional powers, St. Petersburg is not an MLB-caliber city, the Trop is not an MLB-caliber ballpark, and the Rays are not running an MLB-caliber payroll. This has led to endless speculation about whether the club will move, either to a shiny and accessible new park on the other side of Tampa Bay, or to a new, larger, more suitable city elsewhere in North America. A year ago, the club got as far as releasing renderings of a proposed new ballpark across the bay in Ybor City, and earlier this season a bizarre plan leaked that would have had the club splitting its time between the Tampa Bay area and Montreal, in an unprecedented (and impractical) permanent time-share that would cross national boundaries.
At MLB’s owners meetings in June, commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters that the club isn’t going anywhere yet, as the lease at the Trop runs through 2027. The lease makes any move out of the stadium a long-term project. That goes for a new ballpark in the Tampa Bay area or a split-season arrangement with Montreal, let alone a permanent relocation, which is not currently on the table. The league’s preference is to maintain at least some footprint in the Tampa Bay region, but the Rays’ current hosts don’t want the team to leave the area even for half a season.
“We feel that baseball is an important part of our community and of this region,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman told me by phone. “We obviously would like them to stay. We think they’re important. We think they’re important to our region, and I’ve tried to make that fact very well known to them, that we value them.”
Despite their disadvantages and uncertainty over their long-term future, the Rays themselves are winning, thanks to a young, exciting roster and a creative front office that’s spearheading a change in the very nature of baseball tactics, normalizing the opener and perhaps bringing back the two-way player in earnest. After winning 90 games but finishing out of the money in 2018, Tampa Bay is on pace to win 96 games this year and claim the second AL wild-card spot.
In any other market, a two-year run like this would be a firm foundation on which to build. But instead, this playoff-quality team, with its weird ballpark, low attendance, and rock-bottom payroll, has to justify its existence over and over again.
Tropicana Field wasn’t built specifically for the Rays. St. Petersburg commissioned the building in the 1980s during an unsuccessful attempt to draw the Chicago White Sox, followed in the early 1990s by an equally unsuccessful bid for the San Francisco Giants. For eight years, the park sat without a primary baseball tenant, though the Arena Football League’s Storm and NHL’s Lightning called the stadium home until 1996.
The Lightning, ironically considering the Rays’ current predicament, set numerous indoor NHL attendance records in the arena, partially because of the novelty of expansion hockey in Florida, but also precisely because the building was ill-suited to hockey. Most NHL arenas top out at 20,000 seats or so, while the Trop—or the ThunderDome, as it was known back then—had more than 40,000 seats, and the Lightning simply sold as many as they could, and even then not routinely. In three seasons in the ThunderDome, the Lightning never drew 20,000 fans per game.
In the past 30 years, the Trop has been renovated over and over to convert it from baseball to hockey to baseball, and to spruce up the interior, with costs shared by the building’s owner—the city—and its primary tenant. The result is a weird design hodgepodge of blues and tans and concrete rings. Where the second- and third-level outfield seats would be in a normal ballpark, there’s a gigantic wall festooned with advertisements of varying shape, size, color, and luminescence. Even by MLB’s haphazard aesthetic standards for advertising, most of the Trop’s billboards are gaudy, and none of them match, generating an effect that’s similar to a home that was renovated out of the shell of an abandoned movie theater or warehouse or missile silo—no matter how refined the furnishings, something kind of feels off.
After slashing their stadium capacity from 31,000 to 25,000 this year, the Rays have (as of Thursday) drawn 14,552 fans per game in 2019, 293 more than 2018. They’ve used all 25,000-odd seats just three times: Opening Day, which pitted Justin Verlander against reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell, and two weekend games against the Yankees in early May. While even a modest crowd can make a powerful racket in a dome, loud visiting fans are part and parcel of the Tropicana Field experience.
That’s to be expected in a rapidly growing area, one that until recently was dominated by transplants who bring existing team allegiances with them. St. Petersburg was incorporated in 1903, the year of the first World Series, and passed 100,000 in population only in the 1950s, when the city nearly doubled in size and quickly became a haven for retirees.
“For a very long time, St. Pete was known as God’s Waiting Room,” Kriseman says. “The old joke used to be, ‘What’s the average age of your resident?’ The answer was, ‘Deceased.’ That’s changed dramatically. The mid-40s is our average age. We’ve been voted the number-one city in the state for millennials. What you see happening in St. Pete right now is our fastest-growing demographic is our younger population, 30 and under.”
But transplants, whether the retirees of previous generations or young newcomers who move to the area for work, tend to retain their original team allegiances, and perhaps even pass them on to their children. More established cities produce multigenerational families with roots in the area and ties to local sports teams, but until recently the Tampa Bay area hadn’t been big enough for long enough for such an identity to form.
“It’s better now because communities have grown a lot, but it was so transient for so long,” says John Timberlake, who is the Phillies’ director of Florida operations, and has more than 30 years’ experience in getting crowds to show up for baseball in the area. “It was like if you were in Florida, you were like, ‘Well, where are you from?’ ‘I’m from Chicago,’ ‘I’m from Tennessee,’ whatever. Now you’ve got generations of people that are born and raised here.”
Not only is St. Pete developing more regional continuity, the Rays have now been around long enough for a lifelong fan to grow up and (theoretically) become a season-ticket holder, or even play for the Rays himself.
Left-handed pitcher Ryan Yarbrough earned Rookie of the Year votes as a piggyback starter working behind an opener last year. In 2019, he’s been a revelation, with a 109 ERA+ in 136 2/3 innings while filling in for injured starters in the rotation. He was also a 16-year-old Rays fan when the club won its only pennant in 2008.
“This is home for me,” says Yarbrough, now 27 years old. “I grew up in Lakeland, which is about an hour away, so I came to a bunch of games here growing up and I haven’t really known anything else.”
Drawing conclusions from attendance numbers alone creates a facile and incomplete reading of the Rays’ popularity. In 2018, the Rays, like 23 other MLB clubs, were the no. 1 prime-time cable TV show in their market. They drew a greater percentage of local TV viewership than the Mets or Rangers, among other teams, and more eyeballs total than eight other clubs, including the White Sox and Padres. And that interest is monetizable: The Rays are in the first year of a 15-year, $1.23 billion TV contract with Fox Sports Sun, which is obviously nowhere near what a team can bring in when it owns its TV channel, but dwarfs, by $20 million a year or more, the amount the Astros, Braves, A’s, and Diamondbacks are making from local cable TV.
But a healthy TV viewership has not translated to butts in seats, with geography the frequent scapegoat. A Tampa Bay Times article from May cited “The $%&#@ traffic” as one of five reasons the Rays aren’t drawing, and the stadium’s location in St. Pete, rather than Tampa, as another.
Tampa Bay separates two major population centers for the region: Tampa is in Hillsborough County in mainland Florida, on the east side of the bay, while St. Pete and Clearwater are in Pinellas County, a peninsula between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Though nearly a million people live in Pinellas County, that makes up a small fraction of the 3 million–plus residents of the Tampa Bay area, plus millions more Rays fans who live as far east as Orlando, more than 100 miles from the park.
For fans coming from Pinellas County, the Trop is easily accessible by both highways and surface roads, and parking is not only abundant but cheap. But for fans coming from Hillsborough County, across the bay, getting to the park is difficult. With a sizable body of water to negotiate, only two small bridges (the Howard Frankland and the Gandy) crossing between Tampa and St. Pete, and rush-hour traffic to contend with, it’s tough to make a 7:05 first pitch after work on a weekday from anything east of downtown Tampa.
Having heard so much about the intolerable drive across Tampa Bay, I made a point to do it myself, at rush hour on a Tuesday afternoon. It took me about 45 minutes to get from downtown Tampa to the Trop, in traffic. Maybe Orlando is out of reach on a weekday, but that’s true for parts of every MLB club’s market, even those in more populous and densely populated areas.
A 45-minute trip—or an hour or more from the east suburbs of Tampa—might not seem like a lot to people who have sat in traffic in Houston or Los Angeles, or to folks who have to navigate the New York City subway to Citi Field, but it’s important to consider each city in its own context. When Field of Schemes author Neil deMause wrote about Tampa Bay’s attendance problems in February, he quoted one Rays fan as saying, “If you drew a 30-minute drive time circle around the stadium, three-fifths of it is going to be water.” That, plus the relatively light population density of St. Petersburg compared with other MLB cities, means very few people live within a convenient driving distance of the park.
Of course, Tampa Bay is not the only MLB market that’s doughnut-holed by a big body of water. The San Francisco Bay Area also rings a body of water, but the Bay Area has many more and much wealthier residents. Moreover, there’s an MLB club on each side of the water and better access to public transit, which is limited in St. Petersburg—perhaps understandably for such a small city—and might as well not exist between St. Pete and Tampa.
Timberlake stressed the importance of location in his own experience, from when the Phillies moved their spring training facility from a park in a residential neighborhood into a new location on one of the most heavily trafficked intersections in Clearwater, north of St. Pete.
“Since we built and opened formerly Spectrum Field, in 2004, it’s certainly changed the identity of the minor league team,” Timberlake says. “It created a facility in a well-traveled location, a very busy intersection in Clearwater, that basically became a destination. And we had not had that in the past.”
Kriseman promises that will change in the next decade. He says that in addition to improving the two existing cross-bay bridges, St. Petersburg is installing a rapid transit bus line, connecting the stadium to the beaches and downtown, and considering a second bus line that would link St. Petersburg to downtown Tampa. Virgin Trains is also planning a high-speed rail line for 2024 that would, in concert with the bus line, get fans from Orlando to the Trop in an hour and a half, Kriseman says.
Any one of these challenges to fan attendance—the low population density, the lack of public transit, the stadium’s location on one extreme side of its region—might not be a big issue on its own, but taken in concert, they’re enough to deter at least some fans from making the trip. Maybe the improvements to the bridges and new public transit lines will help, but even if the team is doing well, it’s tough to ask fans to wade through rush-hour traffic to watch a club whose ownership’s commitment to winning, and to the area, has frequently been suspect.
The fastest way to get fans to embrace an expansion team is to win, and win quickly. The NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights learned that when they played for the Stanley Cup in their inaugural season. So, too, the Rays’ fraternal-twin franchise, the Arizona Diamondbacks, who opened their doors in 1998, signed Randy Johnson for the 1999 season, traded for Curt Schilling in 2000, and won a World Series in 2001.
The Rays, then the Devil Rays, tried to pepper their early rosters with big names, but instead of Johnson and Schilling, they brought in an aging Fred McGriff, Jose Canseco, and Greg Vaughn, and a positively ancient Wade Boggs. The Rays lost 99 games in 1998, 93 in 1999, and 92 in 2000, and have not run a payroll above the MLB median since, as original owner Vince Naimoli rejected the axiom that one has to spend money to make money.
In 2004, Goldman Sachs executive Stuart Sternberg bought the club for $200 million, and in 2008 the team rebranded as the Rays. Even under current ownership, the Rays have run a $100 million payroll only once, and then only barely, and have never been higher than 20th leaguewide in team payroll. In the past, Sternberg has cited low attendance as a reason to slash payroll, which created a feedback loop the team has still yet to escape. But despite continuing not to spend, the Rays under former GM Andrew Friedman, now president of baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers, began to cultivate homegrown talent, and have occasionally been successful by being creative.
The Rays won more than 70 games for the first time in 2008, when Longoria, Crawford, Shields, and Price led the club to its first and so far only pennant. The 12 seasons since 2008 have included the 11 most successful in franchise history, by win total, including eight winning seasons and four playoff berths, possibly five if they play well in the last week of this season.
This past offseason, the Rays signed right-hander Charlie Morton to a two-year, $30 million contract, one of the largest free-agent deals in franchise history, which is the definition of damning with faint praise. Morton has spearheaded a phenomenal pitching staff that includes not only Yarbrough, but former first-round picks Snell and Brendan McKay, as well as former top Pirates prospect Tyler Glasnow, who’s remade his career with Tampa Bay and is just now returning from a four-month injury layoff.
The Rays, like any successful team, hunt for veteran bargains on the free-agent market and develop their own prospects, but they also trade aggressively, which is the hallmark of the team’s success. Last year, at the trade deadline, Friedman’s successor, Erik Neander, sent pitcher Chris Archer, the club’s biggest name by far, to Pittsburgh for Glasnow and DH Austin Meadows. Glasnow’s career ERA at the time of the trade was pushing 6.00, but it’s down to 3.05 in 22 starts with Tampa Bay. Meadows is batting .293/.366/.559, and leads the team in home runs and OPS+. Since the trade, Archer has a 4.92 ERA in 33 starts.
At the same time, the Rays sent three prospects to the St. Louis Cardinals for outfielder Tommy Pham, who was unhappy in St. Louis, but has a .385 OBP, 28 stolen bases, and 74 extra-base hits in 181 games with the Rays. The Rays have not only traded big-name players like Archer for talented (and cheaper) youngsters and bought low on players like Pham, but pounced on players who represented incremental improvements when those improvements could be made cheaply. The Rays bought catcher Travis d’Arnaud from the Dodgers in May to supplement Mike Zunino behind the plate, and d’Arnaud has delivered one clutch hit after another. Utilityman Mike Brosseau was an undrafted free agent. No stone is left unturned.
That includes changing the concept of the starting pitcher through the opener, which the Rays started using last year, and which over the past 18 months has emboldened clubs across the league to move away from a traditional five-inning-plus starting pitcher. It also includes the even more radical step of spending the no. 4 overall pick on McKay, then developing him from the outset as both a pitcher and a hitter, something that hadn’t been done with an American professional prospect in more than 100 years.
Many of the Rays’ players are on some level castoffs or reclamation cases, which invites comparison to the Moneyball A’s, another club that’s had to find creative ways to get the most out of a limited payroll. This method of team construction has led to a clubhouse more or less devoid of stars but solid top to bottom, which allows manager Kevin Cash to rewrite the lineup each night as he sees fit.
Any one of the 25 players who suits up could be the hero on a given night. That this is a well-trod baseball cliché does not diminish its relevance to the Rays. When I was in town, I saw second baseman Eric Sogard, an unassuming career utilityman, homer in his first two at-bats with the club at the Trop. It was the first multihomer game of his career. A few days later, the Rays came back from 6-0 down to Toronto on home runs by Meadows, second-year shortstop Willy Adames, and White Sox and Tigers castoff Avisaíl García. This past weekend, rookie first baseman Nate Lowe completed an 11-inning comeback win against Boston to nudge the Rays ahead of Cleveland for the second wild-card spot. And looking up and down the roster, it’s not clear who the Rays’ best player is. Maybe Morton, or Meadows, or Pham, or one of half a dozen others. There’s a new hero every night.
“That’s the fun thing about a team like this,” says right-hander Oliver Drake, who arrived on the Rays’ books in January after having been waived or sold seven times in eight months. “It can be anyone at any one moment. You never know who’ll step up at any moment—everyone’s capable of doing it.”
Like the Rays’ roster, the Trop was constructed on the cheap and is in a constant state of evolution, and because the building is so unconventional, it’s hard for visiting teams to adapt. Tropicana Field is the only MLB park with catwalks in fair territory, hanging below a fiberglass roof that lets in more light than you’d think watching games on TV, but makes it incredibly difficult to track fly balls. I watched one day game from the right-field seats and at the first pop-up wondered how every fly ball didn’t end up dropping in for a hit.
“The roof is off-white, the ball is off-white, and when you get them both into shadow above the lights, it’s tough,” says third baseman Matt Duffy. “I think you can really see that when teams come in. They seem to have a harder time on pop-ups. It’s just a place you can’t take your eye off a pop-up.”
Rays players like the fact that the Trop’s indoor, air-conditioned environment protects them from the heat and rain that beat down outside its walls, and their familiarity with the roof is an advantage most home teams don’t have. But they also want to see how loud the park can get.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve noticed the crowds have been getting bigger and bigger,” d’Arnaud says. “Attendance has been getting higher and higher, and the stadium gets really loud. So we still feel that energy from the crowd. It would be cool to see it filled and see how loud it gets, and to see that huge home-field advantage I know we can have. It sounds like a cliché but home-field advantage is real. I believe in it.”
While the Trop is hardly ever filled to even its modest capacity, it does get loud in key moments, because it’s a giant concrete cylinder. Even 10,000 people can make a ruckus when they’re bunched together inside a gigantic snare drum.
“The atmosphere can get pretty good,” says reliever Andrew Kittredge, though he adds that he doesn’t know what the playoffs might unearth in the crowd. “I’ve never been in a playoff game, so I don’t know what that’s going to compare to.”
That’s important to remember. The Rays have several players with postseason experience: Morton and Duffy both have rings with Houston and San Francisco, respectively, d’Arnaud’s played in the World Series with the Mets, and newly acquired first baseman Jesús Aguilar was a standout on last year’s NLCS-bound Brewers. And somewhere back in Rays history there were great moments at the Trop. When a young Price closed out the Red Sox to win Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS, the park was so blanketed with noise it came through the TV broadcast as a distorted patter. But almost nobody in the current clubhouse knows what that’s like firsthand. The sum total of the Rays’ playoff experience with the club belongs to center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who as a rookie played two innings as a defensive replacement in the 2013 AL wild-card game.
That 2013 roster featured a slew of familiar names: Price, Longoria, Archer, Zobrist, Alex Cobb, and Matt Moore, among others. It wasn’t too long ago that the Rays were built on a recognizable core of homegrown talent, as the modern-day Astros and Cubs are. All of them are gone, either traded or departed as free agents.
Those names serve as proof that the Rays can create their own homegrown stars, names on the back of the jersey that fans can invest in emotionally. And despite their current strength-in-depth approach to building a roster, they have the talent to mint a new generation of franchise players, if they were inclined to do so. Between Morton, Glasnow, Snell—who is, it bears repeating, the reigning AL Cy Young winner—Yarbrough, and Yonny Chirinos, the Rays have one of the best rotations in baseball. If he doesn’t transition to the mound full time, McKay is the closest thing baseball has to another Shohei Ohtani. Adames, 24, is an exciting young all-around player who might one day be replaced at shortstop by Wander Franco, an 18-year-old who is the consensus top position player prospect in baseball, and could be the Rays’ best position player since Longoria.
But the Rays’ commitment to running a rock-bottom payroll means the front office can’t hold on to those stars once they hit their prime, which forces them to be very conservative on the free-agent market and very aggressive when selling high on their own players. Many—even most—of those deals made good baseball sense. Nobody can dispute that the Rays won the Archer trade, or cut bait on Cobb and Moore at the right time. But Rays fans don’t expect their favorite players to spend their entire careers with Tampa Bay anymore, and under those circumstances it’s difficult to build a meaningful connection.
“Years ago when we had Price and Shields, I’d come on days when I knew they were pitching because I wanted to see Shields or Price,” Rays fan and Tampa resident Rudy Granda told me. “But when you’ve got [so much turnover] it’s hard to get attached. I’m a baseball person, so I’m going to come regardless, but the average fan is going to come to see players.”
Rudy’s wife, Nancy, was much more direct.
“It’s like a new team every year,” she says. “I want to support the team. They’re young guys and you want to support them. … As soon as we get attached and they’re doing super well, they trade them.”
The team is trying as hard as it can to get folks in the door, even in the face of constant roster churn and the stadium’s inconvenient location. Almost every home game features some giveaway or discounted tickets for students, children, and senior citizens, with some ticket specials coming in as low as $2. In 2006, the club installed a 10,000-gallon touch tank in center field, allowing fans to watch Rays games with actual stingrays and cownose rays, which is not only novel but much less frightening than an equivalent area in the Detroit Tigers’ ballpark would be.
The touch tank sits just below one of the eight group party areas the team rents out for large gatherings, in addition to luxury boxes. Some of these party areas are quite close to the action, with one picnic area on each baseline by the bullpens. And the team has held numerous events in conjunction with games, from on-field pregame yoga to dog-friendly games. It’s an approach that works well at the minor league level, where fans look at baseball games as an entertainment experience, not just a sporting event.
“You’ve got to keep the games important,” Timberlake says. “But there are people that show up at Minor League Baseball games and the game’s a little bit secondary. They’re out with friends, they’re out with a group, they’re out with their school group, church group, networking group. They’re having food and beverage, they’re in a suite or they’re outside a suite, or they’re on a deck or a party deck, or they’re out at the tiki bar. And so it’s this socialization, and that’s a big change that I’ve seen in the time I’ve worked in Minor League Baseball is where people, they’re seeking that out.”
Of course, in the minor leagues, the average fan can afford food, drink, and parking in addition to the ticket, whereas most MLB stadiums have priced many fans out of the experience. Not so at the Trop. A promotion through 7-Eleven allows fans to purchase tickets for certain games for $7.11. One fan I talked to, who came to the game with his son, passed on that offer because he could get better seats, in the second level behind home plate, for just $25 each. Offering a more low-key, carnival-like atmosphere at a lower price might sound a little purposely small-time, but every team in baseball offers promotions, events, and ticket specials, so it’s a difference of degree, not of kind.
The Rays’ heavy promotional schedule and Tropicana Field’s uninviting exterior might lead one to believe that the Rays play in a dank, mausoleum-like park, but there’s a lot to like about the stadium experience. With the reduced seating capacity, most seats at the Trop are now in the lower deck, which after the 2014 renovation rings the entire stadium. While most outdoor parks, even new ones, have weatherbeaten and austere concrete concourses, Tropicana Field’s concrete floors are painted an inviting shade of blue, and a section of the outfield concourse is overlaid in wood laminate. Out in center field, past the ray tank, is Ballpark & Rec, an indoor-outdoor bar with pregame drink specials and an outdoor terrace with lawn games, from cornhole to jumbo-sized Jenga.
“It was a shock from never being inside a domed stadium and comparing it to Wrigley, but for this location, in Florida, you can’t beat this,” says Bill, a Rays fan I talked to before a Wednesday-afternoon game. “The food’s great, the seats are great. I really have no complaints whatsoever. I really have to scratch my head trying to figure out why people aren’t here. If you’re a true baseball fan, there’s nothing better.”
Tropicana Field feels less like a ballpark than an indoor amusement park on the Jersey Shore, which is ironic, because it’s one of very few current MLB parks that was built to look like a stadium in a contemporary architectural style, and not a throwback park or, in Lee’s words, a factory.
Even though it’s home to the joint-youngest club in the league, the Trop is MLB’s eighth-oldest ballpark. The next stadium built after the Trop was Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field, the first MLB park designed by the architectural firm HOK Sport, now called Populous. Of the 22 MLB stadiums built after Tropicana Field, Populous either designed or codesigned 18, most famously 1992’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the inspiration for a generation of retro or retro-modern stadiums that followed in the next 25 years. (Populous has also either designed or consulted on numerous renovations of older parks, including contributing to the Trop’s original design and the 2014 face-lift.)
These stadiums were built to replace, and were in reaction to, a series of parks designed in the 1960s and 1970s with the intention of hosting both baseball and football. They came, for the most part, in two forms: round and monochromatic, like Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, or round and monochromatic with a roof, like the Astrodome.
By 1990, the American baseball public wanted parks with character, with the kind of unique design and on-field features that had made older parks so memorable: Fenway’s Green Monster, Wrigley’s ivy-covered walls, Tiger Stadium’s flagpole. And that’s what the public got.
Camden Yards is a cathedral, but almost every Populus-designed retro stadium that came after is an imitation of the original, which is itself an imitation of early-20th-century stadium architecture, and after a while, the retro parks ended up looking just as formulaic as the derided steel and concrete cookie-cutter ballparks they replaced.
Sure, each one had its own quirks, but for the most part they were calculatedly and inauthentically quirky. Rather than having oddly shaped outfield walls to fit the shape of the property like their predecessors, modern parks have oddly shaped outfield walls because old parks did, sometimes ripping design features verbatim from previous stadiums. It’s architecture-by-cover band, which I say as someone who loves cover bands. It’s beautiful, but not original.
Very little about the Trop is pretty, and certain aspects of the facility are awkward, but those flaws end up being endearing because—in contrast to the overdetermined pastiche of retro ballparks—they give the park character. And that character is obviously genuine, because while a restaurant or a seating area named after a beloved former player carries the faint metallic saccharinity of the focus group, the frequently haphazard weirdness of the Trop’s decor feels less calculated and therefore more authentic.
I ended up adoring Tropicana Field. Not just because tickets and parking are cheap, or because of the air conditioning, but because it offered an MLB experience totally unlike what I’d encountered in the big markets where I’ve taken in the sport for most of my life.
The Trop, for all its New Wave–era architectural artificiality, fits in with the late-20th-century design aesthetic of its neighborhood just as seamlessly as Wrigley Field blends into its own milieu. A Camden Yards knockoff in St. Petersburg might conform to national design norms, but it would be devoid of context, rather than unapologetically of its place and time. The Trop’s tan-and-blue color scheme might not be the historical verdant baseball ideal, but unwavering devotion to the established norm isn’t ideal, it’s boring. Tropicana Field is not just a comfortable place to take in a ballgame, it’s a refreshing change of pace.
The Rays’ roster is similarly easy to love. The players are young, and form a coherent unit built from the ground up to take down the Yankees and Red Sox, and if there’s a more admirable goal in baseball, I’d like to hear it. The combination of callow rookies and grizzled veterans looking for redemption is straight out of a Disney sports movie, and the team’s youth and weirdness meshes perfectly with the city it serves.
When asked about the potential Montreal time-share at the All-Star Game in July, Manfred described the idea as a way to ensure that MLB stays in the Tampa Bay area in some form, and assured that uprooting a franchise is not the league’s preference. “Baseball has had a long-standing policy of franchise stability,” he said. “We ask our fans to make a huge commitment to our franchises.”
But franchise stability requires commitment from the team itself, as loyalty, like the Gandy Bridge, is a two-way street. Star power draws. The Phillies signed Bryce Harper and Andrew McCutchen this past offseason and drew 7,400 more fans per game in 2019 than in 2018, even though the Phillies ended up being nowhere near as good as the Rays. The Padres, who threw $300 million at Manny Machado this winter, are up nearly 3,000 fans per game, the fourth-largest increase in the league this season. The numbers might not pan out exactly the same way for an equivalent Tampa Bay signing, but it’s a noteworthy data point.
Or consider the Lightning, who to be sure play in a smaller and more centrally located facility than the Rays do, but routinely spend to the salary cap limit and have made an effort to keep their winning core together. And they have no trouble selling out their arena for a sport that’s far less entrenched in the region than baseball.
Successful small-market teams in other sports don’t break up the band every year. The Green Bay Packers didn’t trade Aaron Rodgers for draft picks when he was due to make big money, nor did the Portland Trail Blazers trade Damian Lillard. The Edmonton Oilers won five Stanley Cups from 1984 to 1990, and when they did trade Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, for financial reasons, the franchise never recovered.
It’s not only possible, but common for the teams in small cities to take on the character of their hosts and punch above their weight. Even in MLB, to a certain extent, the Indians, Brewers, A’s, and Twins have done this at one time or another in the past decade. That the Rays’ reputation and ballpark present unique challenges to doing so does not excuse ownership of the responsibility of making the effort. Not only to win by sleight of hand, but to spend—either by pursuing the next high-level free agents or by refusing to let the next Price or Shields escape for monetary reasons. That would encourage fans to spend in return.
Modern baseball is so fixated on efficiency, and on appealing to as wide a base as possible, that it’s becoming homogeneous. Teams follow similar tactical playbooks, and each new successful on-field innovation is replicated leaguewide in a matter of months. Even the stadiums and uniforms come from the same inoffensive templates.
Ironically, it’s the poorest and therefore most efficiency-focused franchise in the league that’s taken on a distinctive character. This organization of cast-offs, with its outdated ballpark and tiny home city, play and sell the game like nobody else. It’s not a radical departure from the norm, but it’s different enough to feel special. Baseball will be a more beautiful sport if the Rays continue to scrape by.
An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Rays’ top baseball operations executive. He is Erik Neander, not Chaim Bloom.