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Tampa Bay Rays' new spring home of Port Charlotte offers a different world

PORT CHARLOTTE

As the Rays have gotten adjusted to their new spring home, and as fans begin exploring starting with Wednesday's exhibition opener, it's noticeable that a few things are missing. For one, despite its name of 50-plus years, there is no port there. For another, there's not much there there either. "Downtown Punta Gorda, that's the there," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "And that's about all the there we're going to get here." The nearby waterfront district of Charlotte County's only incorporated city features some upscale restaurants and bars and a few forms of amusement such as the "senior citizen karaoke night" manager Joe Maddon stumbled upon at a place called Harpoon Harry's. "It is the best," Maddon said. "A lot of country, an occasional show tune. It was good stuff." But otherwise … think a crossing of U.S. 19 and Alligator Alley. "I've never seen a downtown Port Charlotte," said minor-league pitching coordinator Dick Bosman, who spent six seasons there as a Rangers coach.

"People ask me that, I say it's just a bunch of strip malls on (U.S.) 41."

That's not all because there is also an enclosed mall, every fast-food and family chain restaurant you can imagine and all the marts and discount stores.

"I think I'd been to Wal-Mart twice in the last four years, and I've been there three times in the week I've been here," reliever Joe Nelson said. "But the people are very, very nice."

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What they lack in wild nightlife, they've made up for with wildlife.

The complex and surrounding area would make Marlin Perkins proud with a cornucopia of wild pigs, alligators, osprey, opossum, vultures and whatever else might lurk in the wooded areas.

"This place," third-base coach Tom Foley said, "is the wild kingdom."

Foley had his own close encounter Thursday when, at the urging of bench coach/avid outdoorsman Dave Martinez, they returned to the stadium after dark to see if any wild pigs, which can weigh 200-400 pounds, had ventured out of the woods that border the parking lot.

Eventually, they saw two. Unfortunately, the pigs saw them.

"We got about 25 yards from them, and they look up," Foley said. "One runs back into the woods. The other one heads right for my car. (And apparently ignoring his stop sign.) I turn left, the thing veers left. I turn right and gun it, and it misses my car by I don't know how much."

Trappers have been hired to deal with the pigs. An osprey nest was relocated from one of the stadium light poles, and opossums (though so far no snakes) have been seen on the fields.

So many birds were congregating (and staying to do other business, staining the new boardwalk deck in ways the Rays hadn't planned on), that machines that emit "predatory bird sounds" and fake owls were installed to keep them away.

There are some small alligators in the complex's lakes, but legend is the largest, a 10- to 12-footer known as Elvis who lived in the water beyond the stadium's leftfield wall, was removed early in the construction process.

"We were certainly pleased," Rays vice president Melanie Lenz said, "that Elvis has left the building."

Carlos Peña said during the four springs and one full minor-league summer he spent in Port Charlotte as a Texas Ranger, the alligators were so common that players were given instructions on how to get away if chased.

"You know how we have media training now?" Peña said. "We had alligator training."

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From the baseball standpoint, the facilities and setup are grand.

For players and staff who find the area too quiet, officials say they should explore further and relish the lack of crowds and hassles.

"We view it as paradise," Punta Gorda vice mayor Harvey Goldberg said.

And players who trained here with the Rangers, who left for Arizona after 2002, say the Rays should appreciate what options (however limited) in restaurants, housing and entertainment they have now.

"It's definitely changed and changed for the better," Peña said. "I think it's become more of a metropolitan area, if you want to call it that."

If you want. The population of Port Charlotte, according to recent Census surveys, is 46,000, a little more than a full house at the Trop. The entire county has about 153,000 people, nearly a third 65 and older, most polite, none, seemingly, in a hurry.

While some players have headed to Boca Grande, Sarasota and even back to Tampa for fun (ex-Ranger Jose Canseco used to drive home to Miami), other Rays like the lack of action and distraction and figure, at the very least, it should make it harder for anyone to get into trouble.

"There's a baseball field and lots of golf courses," pitcher Jason Hammel said. "It's pretty much my dream world."

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Aside from the Joe Cracker Sportsgrille and Tiki Bar labeling itself spring training headquarters — adding a Tampa Bay Reuben to the menu and offering 23-ounce beers for $2.50 on game days — there aren't many signs the Rays are in town.

But officials insist the community is beyond excited, evidenced by how rapidly tickets to exhibition games have sold (all reserved seats are gone, four of the 16 games are sellouts) and that more than 1,000 turned out for Thursday afternoon's welcoming parade through Punta Gorda.

"It's a huge deal," said Tricia Duffy, chairman of the Charlotte County Commission, citing the economic (restaurants, hotels) and psychological benefits for the depressed area that was devastated by Hurricane Charley in 2004. "We're in the big leagues now."

If she says so.

Tampa Bay Rays' new spring home of Port Charlotte offers a different world 02/21/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 27, 2009 4:53pm]

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