ST. PETERSBURG — Space and smoke.
Those two words sum up the latest improvements to Tropicana Field, which will be on display for baseball fans Monday on opening day.
The Tampa Bay Rays opened the Trop to the media on Friday to show some physical renovations and gastronomic tweaks.
The most evident change is space, as in open space. The stadium now has a 360-degree walkway surrounding the lower seating area, giving fans plenty of access around the stadium, and new places to stand and watch the game.
The walkway runs smack into what used to be an enclosed restaurant called the Everglades BBQ Smokehouse.
Now the former restaurant is an open-air area called the Porch in Centerfield, a "fan-friendly gathering spot," which also has food and drinks, said Melanie Lenz, the Rays' vice president for development.
There's no roof overhead, but there will be netting to prevent fans from getting beaned by home runs. It's likely to be a meeting spot for people before games. "After the game, we hope it's a place to celebrate a Rays victory," Lenz added.
From some parts of the porch area, you can see directly onto the field. But if you're standing right at the bar, the backdrop known as the batter's eye blocks your view.
The batter's eye is an area that provides a dark-colored backdrop in centerfield to make sure batters can see the white baseball hurtling toward them. But for fans inside the porch area, televisions will show the game so nobody misses a home run.
To one side of the porch area, a deck overlooks the rays tank — but the tank is mostly covered with a net to protect the rays swimming below. The Captain Morgan deck is on the other side.
If you saunter along the walkway to rightfield or leftfield, you will find a railing with a small ledge — a place to set a drink and keep watching the game, if you prefer that spot to your seat.
From these spots, a few rows of seats will be behind you — but you won't be blocking anyone's view. The seats will be covered with tarps, part of the reason the Trop's capacity this year will drop from about 34,000 to about 31,000. On the other hand, if the Rays make it to the playoffs, the tarps could come off.
The renovations are part of what the Rays describe as "a multi-million dollar investment being made in Tropicana Field this off-season."
Smoke is a feature of some of the culinary changes inside the Trop, specifically in the new Everglades Brewhouse. which is on the ground floor near the rotunda and partly makes up for the closing of the Everglades BBQ Smokehouse. The new restaurant's theme is "barbecue, bourbon, beer."
Among the offerings: a $6 packet of beef jerky, which is smoked in the stadium, and a "Roadhouse Reuben," a twist on a traditional reuben sandwich, made with smoked beef brisket, vinegar slaw, swiss cheese and thousand island dressing.
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Executive chef Marc Spooner said the restaurant also will feature several bourbon-based drinks such as the Everglades Moonshine, made with Jim Beam, lemonade and a splash of Pepsi, served with a slice of bacon as a stir-stick. It comes in a souvenir mason jar.
The Rays start their season Monday with a four-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays.