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Tampa Bay Rays' spring opener at new stadium goes smoothly, except for traffic

PORT CHARLOTTE — There was plenty new Wednesday, from the look and the sounds and the feel of the place, as the Rays opened spring training by re-opening the grandly renovated and upgraded Charlotte Sports Park on a picturesque afternoon.

There was some old, as they raised a banner — but not the banner — to celebrate last year's American League championship, and manager Joe Maddon stood on the first-base line with eight players who were part of their World Series squad (and a ninth, Pat Burrell, who played for the other team).

There was some baseball, for the first time since the cold October night in Philadelphia, as the Rays did a few good things on the bases and in the field but made a few mistakes and a few too many bad pitches, and didn't do much offensively, in losing 7-0 to the Reds.

And there was something completely different, as the otherwise successful debut was marred by a problem the Rays hadn't had to deal with at their spring home in St. Petersburg: a massive traffic backup leading to the stadium.

Early arriving fans said it took a half-hour to get the 8 miles from the I-75 Toledo Blade Road exit to the ballpark. They had it easy, as WDAE radio sports personality Whitney Johnson said it took him nearly 1 hour and 45 minutes — longer than the drive from St. Petersburg — to go the final 2 miles, and he didn't get in until the third inning. "It's like Woodstock out there," he said.

Team officials met later Wednesday with Charlotte County and Sheriff's Office officials, and quickly made several changes: open the lots and stadium gates earlier and add more parking personnel.

"Part of it, you could say to yourself, we've got to figure out how to get the cars in and out of here," Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt said. "The other side is it's the first time we've had a spring training game with a lot of traffic backed up, so that's a good sign, too. … I can promise you it's going to be a hell of a lot better on Friday."

Those who did get in seemed to enjoy it, even with some goofy pomp and circumstance. There was a solid crowd on the boardwalk that rings the outfield, and fans sampling everything from kettle corn to root beer floats to specialty beers on tap. The announced attendance of 6,028 was shy of a sellout but still larger than any of the 230 spring training games the Rangers played here from 1987-2002. The Rays bused 100 employees from the Trop so they could be a part of it.

"It was a great first day in spite of the score," Maddon said.

Even former Rays managing general partner Vince Naimoli, who attended the game with his wife, Lenda, and her twin, Glenda, was impressed. "A beautiful park," he said, wearing an old-logo cap. "A lot better than when the Rangers were here."

The players enjoyed the buzz of the crowd, and the excitement of getting back on the field. New Ray Gabe Kapler, who played here as a Ranger, said it was noticeably different. "An excitement and an enthusiasm and a (lot) of Rays fans," he said.

For the old Rays, seeing the banner go up made it more special.

"It feels good to see what you did raised up high, so everybody can see it," said Carl Crawford, who had their first hit. "It's something you'll always remember. It was a sense of accomplishment."

Or, as Maddon said, "Very cool."

Maddon is convinced the Rays can carry over what happened last fall, and the new spring digs help that process.

"The fact that (the offseason) has been so short, it really almost feels like we just wrapped it up," he said. "I can still visualize standing in front of our guys in the Philly clubhouse very easily. The offseason went so quickly and you get back here and the energy has been so great and then you come into a new yard — I really believe we have an opportunity to feel last year's momentum and carry it into this spring and this season."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Reds 7

Rays 0

Tampa Bay Rays' spring opener at new stadium goes smoothly, except for traffic 02/25/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 25, 2009 11:47pm]

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