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Why Rays are excited to be returning to Port Charlotte for spring camp

Extensive damage from Hurricane Ian in September 2022 forced the team to find temporary bases last year. Now, it feels good to be home.
 
The Rays are glad to be back at Charlotte Sports Park for spring training after damage from Hurricane Ian forced them to make other accommodations last year.
The Rays are glad to be back at Charlotte Sports Park for spring training after damage from Hurricane Ian forced them to make other accommodations last year. [ TOM O'NEILL | The Daily Sun ]
Published Feb. 12

ST. PETERSBURG — When Dan Moeller finally was able to get access to the Rays’ Port Charlotte facility a few days after Hurricane Ian ravaged the area in September 2022, he was staggered by the extent of the damage.

“I was speechless. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” said Moeller, director of operations at the complex. “Metal panels from the stadium roof just wrapped around palm trees as if they were just a piece of ribbon. All the fencing was taken down, all the backstops were down. We lost the padding on the outfield wall.

“... The light poles come in three sections, and when you looked up you’d see they were going in three different directions. We lost some of the light fixtures, and the ones we didn’t lose, some were just hanging there by wires or were all twisted and mangled.”

Moeller went on for nearly five minutes, recalling seared-in specifics of the scene nearly 17 months ago.

Damage caused by Hurricane Ian at the Rays' spring training complex at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Chatlotte in September 2022.
Damage caused by Hurricane Ian at the Rays' spring training complex at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Chatlotte in September 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Gashes in walls and roofs caused by dislodged objects (such as air handlers and awning poles) led to flooding in the Rays’ clubhouse that caused extensive damage. It was a similar scene on all three levels of the stadium building — press box, suites and the team store.

Tall steel-reinforced “batter’s eye” screens beyond centerfield on three practice diamonds were twisted like pretzels. Two others, Moeller said, “were also flattened out, like a giant suddenly just stepped on them. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Awnings were shredded. Turf was torn up. Infield clay flowed deep into outfields. One of the 1,000-plus-pound aluminum cages used at home plate for batting practice somehow ended up 500 feet — beyond a 6-foot fence and across a pond — from where it had been chained to the backstop. (Yet the Tiki hut on the centerfield boardwalk was relatively unscathed.)

The disruption forced the Rays to split last spring training between four sites (Disney, two in St. Petersburg and Sarasota) and relocate other in-season and postseason minor-league programs.

Damage caused by Hurricane Ian at Charlotte Sports Park forced the Rays to split last spring training between four other sites.
Damage caused by Hurricane Ian at Charlotte Sports Park forced the Rays to split last spring training between four other sites. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

When the Rays return to Charlotte Sports Park to open spring training on Tuesday, there will be few, if any, signs of the havoc and destruction.

A coordinated and collaborative effort between Charlotte County and the Rays led to a $17 million-plus repair and rebuilding project — most covered by county insurance — over the past several months.

The facility reopened in early January for minor-league minicamps and has been bustling ever since.

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“It’s very impressive,” Moeller said. “It was moving slowly initially because things had to get improved by insurance. … We had some concerns it wasn’t going to get done, but we had many, many meetings with the county and they would continuously give us updates.

“It wasn’t until the last couple months that things really turned into high gear on this. And now things have really come together.”

Staff prepare the Rays' clubhouse earlier this month at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte.
Staff prepare the Rays' clubhouse earlier this month at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte. [ TOM O'NEILL | The Daily Sun ]

There are new lockers and carpet in the clubhouse. Stronger LED-style lights at the stadium. Larger batter’s eye screens. Fresh grass on the fields (and a sample of the new Tropicana Field turf on the extra practice infield). Plus, other noticeable touches.

Insurance coverage paid for restoration of what was there, so the facility was mostly rebuilt rather than renovated.

“Our goal was to repair it in kind with what it was the day before the storm,” Charlotte County facilities director Travis Purdue told the Daily Sun. “You follow best practices to make improvements that were needed, but insurance kind of drives us to make in-kind repairs.”

Still, Moeller said, the complex looks better.

“Everything was put back in place as it was” Moeller said. “But it’s just a little newer, a little brighter, a little crisper.”

After months of uncertainty about the site of last season’s spring camp and extensive planning and logistical challenges to navigate the multiple facilities, the Rays are looking forward to being back in one, familiar place — their spring home since 2009. (And hopefully for their first full, one-site spring training since 2019, following pandemic and labor dispute disruptions from 2020-22.)

A drone view of Charlotte Sports Park taken during a media tour earlier this month.
A drone view of Charlotte Sports Park taken during a media tour earlier this month. [ TOM O'NEILL | The Daily Sun ]

“No concerns or complaints at all,” manager Kevin Cash said. “It’s been some quite some time since we’ve had what we would consider a normal spring training being in one spot. So we’re super appreciative of that, super appreciative of the county that worked so hard to get it up running and, as much as anybody, the Rays employees and officials that have spent so much time getting it to where our players have the proper and consistent spring training facilities that they need.”

The Rays got off to a record-tying 13-0 start last season despite the spring turmoil, but baseball operations president Erik Neander said normal is better.

“Baseball is a day-to-day game, routines are important and having predictable schedules are very helpful,” he said. “So to get back there and to have that, it’ll certainly be a benefit. When it comes to team-building and developing the needed camaraderie to be a championship-level club, it’ll certainly afford us the best possible opportunity to do that as well.”

With the construction done, merchandise restocked in the team store and concessionaires prepping equipment, Moeller said things are just about back to normal.

“It’s starting,” he said, “to feel like a real spring again.”

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