ST. PETERSBURG — John Schneider hadn’t been to Tropicana Field in three months and was hours away from managing his Blue Jays in a heated American League East battle, but already he was grumbling about the Rays’ home stadium.
“That roof, the turf and the sticky handrails in the dugout,” Schneider said with a sarcastic laugh. “Yeah, it’s great to be back here.”
No visiting player or manager is ever truly happy to be back at the Trop. It’s known across baseball as old, rundown, inconvenient, empty, dark, weird and, perhaps most importantly, a difficult place to win.
When MLB Network radio was going over the Rays’ postseason outlook a month ago, one of its hosts, Eduardo Perez, gave the Trop its props: “It’s so bad,” he said, “it’s good for the Rays.”
The Rangers, who the Rays will host in the American League Wild Card Series beginning Tuesday night, won four of the six games between the teams this season but dropped two of the three at the Trop.
The Rays, who had a whole spring to get reacclimated to the Trop due to hurricane damage to their Port Charlotte site, opened the season a franchise best 30-6 at home this season. Only the legendary 1932 Yankees had a better start at home. The Rays finished the year 53-28 at the Trop.
“It’s just weird, right?” Angels manager Phil Nevin said, waving his hands at the Trop roof. “I mean, it’s the only place in baseball with that kind of roof that changes its brightness based on the weather. It’s tilted ... and it’s just different than any other place these guys play.”
Nevin said that when he brought a young Angels squad to the Trop in September, he had to address the big white dome looming over them.
“It was kind of like Gene Hackman in “Hoosiers,” when he took out the measuring tape before the big game,” Nevin said. “I had to remind them the infield is the same, the game is the same here. It just doesn’t feel like it.”
It starts with the roof, the only nonretractable dome in baseball, the catwalks, and the speakers that hang down from them.
“It’s definitely different than a lot of places,” Mariners first baseman Mike Ford said. “It’s strange, because it’s a roofed stadium, but if it’s a day game the roof is brighter, so it’s harder to see the ball when it’s in the air. Then the ball just ricochets off the catwalk and different things out there.
“I played here a lot when I was with the Yankees, and I always did well here, so I felt kind of comfortable here. When guys kind of haven’t played here a lot, it’s a little bit different.”
It’s not only the roof that makes the Trop tough on visiting players. It’s the field, too.
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“I don’t want to piss on everything here, but it’s all the things that you have to deal with here,” said Red Sox infielder Justin Turner. “The roof is the worst, and the AstroTurf is the hardest in baseball.
“I think the hardest part is this AstroTurf is different than other domes, and it’s just hard. It puts a lot of wear and tear on your body. I think it’s especially tough on outfielders. It kills your knees and backs, and to run around on that turf, it can be brutal.”
It’s not just the physical characteristics of the Trop that visiting players dislike. It’s the atmosphere, too.
“It’s kind of hard to play here when there is no one in the stands, and then when they pack the place — like they did when I was with the Yankees — it’s really loud and weird too,” Nevin said. “The sound of this place is different than any other place these guys play. They just aren’t used to it.”
Blue Jays reliever Chad Green has plenty of experience playing in front of the bigger crowds at the Trop from his time with the Yankees. He acknowledged that the building presents some problems but said the biggest one is the team that it houses.
“I think that it has its challenges; it’s not ideal,” Green said. “But the biggest challenge is them. The Rays are a really, really good team. They are used to it, and they play well here.
“So, of course teams don’t want to come in here. The Rays are just hard to play.”
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