First it was free parking, now it's a museum.
Devil Rays fans have more to be excited about after Citrus County's Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame announced Thursday it will open a free satellite exhibit at Tropicana Field, exclusively available to fans attending games.
And more is likely to come.
The 2,300-square foot exhibit will be housed in a former arcade room next to the Devil Rays' fan shop, just inside the Gate 1 rotunda.
"Bringing a museum like this to Tropicana Field only helps cement Tropicana Field as the baseball capitol of the state of Florida," said Devil Rays president Matt Silverman.
Fans can view the exhibit startingApril 10, the Rays' home opener against the Orioles. The museum will open two hours before home games and stay open through the last inning.
Auctions will occasionally be held during home games to benefit scholarships the museum gives to Citrus County student-athletes.
The museum will have a variety of Ted Williams baseball, fishing and military items, along with memorabilia from other famous hitters, according to Dave McCarthy, the museum's executive director. Among the items expected are a hand-carved wooden locker with a signed bat, ball, old glove and replica of Williams' jersey, and a lifesize 3D photo of Williams swinging a bat.
The exhibit will also include Devil Rays memorabilia from Wade Boggs, and possibly the ball Williams threw out for the first pitch on opening day at Tropicana Field.
McCarthy presented Silverman the first artifact - a Ted Williams signed Louisville Slugger.
The original museum opened in 1994 near Williams' home in Hernando in Citrus County. The blockbuster opening drew celebrities such as Muhammad Ali, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle and the annual induction ceremonies for the Hitters Hall of Fame brought a parade of baseball stars.
But since Williams' death in 2002, the museum has increasingly had trouble attracting visitors and big-name guests. The museum's location, away from metropolitan areas and a major airport, have caused an increasing number of events to be held off site, including the relocation of the annual induction ceremonies to Fort Myers.
The museum did not receive an endowment or money from Williams' estate. Instead, Williams donated items before his death. The combination of those items and public donations have made the museum worth several million dollars, although the assessed property value is $1.3-million, according to the county's property appraiser.
The long-term plan, according to McCarthy, is to move the entire museum to Tropicana Field and expand to the second level, which would add approximately 7,000 square feet to the announced exhibit.
"The big accomplishment was bringing this collection here," Silverman said, "and that sets the stage and helped us develop a relationship that should benefit us as we enter the next stage of those conversations."
McCarthy said the hitters Hall of Fame induction ceremony could eventually be moved to Tropicana Field.
"We'd certainly love to have that at a major-league ballpark," McCarthy said. "Has that been discussed yet? No. Will that be part of it? Absolutely."
Meanwhile, the Rays announced Thursday they will provide rent-free space at Tropicana Field for the St. Petersburg office of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association.
Dawn Reiss can be reached at (352) 860-7303 or firstname.lastname@example.org