Friday, February 23, 2018
Human Interest

At opening day game, Rays fans rave about renovated ballpark

ST. PETERSBURG — The minute Travis Morgan walked into Tropicana Field, well before the first pitch in Monday afternoon's Tampa Bay Rays home opener, he could smell something new.

In addition to the usual smells that go with a major league ball game — hot dogs cooking, popcorn popping, beer on tap — Morgan, 27, a Tampa building remodeler, could detect the subtle scent of new wood.

"It was the wood floor of the Porch," he explained, gesturing around at the newly renovated open-air area overlooking center field, packed with noisy fans awaiting the first pitch.

The Porch, which replaced the old Batter's Eye Restaurant, is just one of several new features at Tropicana Field that drew applause from fans who jammed the stands to watch the Rays take on the Toronto Blue Jays, beating them 9-2.

Fans who enter the ballpark through the rotunda can now ride an escalator straight to the Porch, allowing quicker access to the field.

In place of the dull black panels of the Batter's Eye (and later the Everglades BBQ restaurant, which has now moved downstairs), rising between the two viewing areas of the Porch, is now a big patch of blue wall. It provides a solid-colored backdrop in centerfield behind the pitcher, to make sure batters can see the white baseball hurtling toward them.

Some fans thought it needed a snazzy new name to match.

"Now we have the Blue Monster!" said an excited Chris Lambert, 52, of St. Petersburg. He said maybe calling the wall by that name would tick off Green Monster-adoring Red Sox fans.

The Trop's other major renovation was the wide walkway that now nearly circles the entire inner ring of the domed stadium, connecting the Porch to the rest of the park. The Rays have dubbed it a 360-degree walkway, but it's more like 350 degrees because a short stretch behind home plate remains blocked off.

The walkway allows any fan to wander along the lower seating area while watching the game. It's a place to lean on a railing and chat about that amazing double play, or meet up with friends seated in other sections.

"I love being able to get all the way around," said Gary Hargrett, 45, of Clearwater. And Peggy Diugozima, 55, of St. Petersburg, praised the walkway for allowing fans "to see the field from a different perspective."

"It makes the Trop seem friendlier," said Tom Eitel, 64, of Largo, whose season-ticket-holder status allowed him to put a small plaque on the railing with his name on it. "You can see all the people. It makes it seem more like ballparks in other cities."

There are other, more subtle changes as well: a gluten-free food stand, for instance, and a vendor offering "all natural" hot dogs, which sounds like an oxymoron.

All told, the Rays spent about $750,000 on the renovations, though that does not mean they're ready to end their push for a new stadium. The team's principal owner, Stuart Sternberg, told reporters before the game that he has not met since February with newly elected St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, but expected they would continue talking and "things will happen" this year — though he didn't know what.

Kriseman attended the game and said he spoke "very briefly" to Sternberg about the current stadium, "just talking about how it looked inside." He said they would meet again on the stadium issue sometime in the next two weeks.

Monday's game occurred on the 16th anniversary of the Rays' very first opening day game in 1998. That game (a loss to the Detroit Tigers) sold out, with a capacity crowd of 45,369. Monday's game was also a sellout, but at 31,042 — the new reduced capacity thanks to all the renovations.

Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @craigtimes.

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