Saturday, May 14, 2011

How to Be a Yankee Fan In Tampa Bay

On Tuesday, the Yankees will head down to Central Florida to take on the Tampa Bay Rays, formerly the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a.k.a. the Strays and the Deviled Eggs.

Disclaimer: While I have been to Tampa and St. Petersburg, having relatives in the area, this was a long time ago, before Major League Baseball put an expansion team in the area, and even before the Florida Suncoast Dome, later the ThunderDome and now Tropicana Field, was built.

So this is not based on firsthand knowledge. But, in case you want to go, I want to help.

Before You Go. While the games will be indoors, you'll still have to get around, so you should know about the weather. According to the St. Petersburg Times, it should be around 83 degrees in daylight, and in the high 50s or low 60s at night. The Tampa Tribune is backing up the daytime forecast, but suggesting it will be a little warmer at night, mid-60s.

Getting There. It is 1,136 road miles from Times Square in Manhattan to downtown Tampa, and 1,167 miles from Yankee Stadium in The Bronx to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. Sounds like you’re gonna be flying. If you book a few days early, you can get flights from Kennedy and LaGuardia airports to Tampa International Airport for $288. But if you get your tickets right before leaving, it’ll be about a $1,200 round-trip.

Tampa’s Amtrak station is at 601 N. Nebraska Avenue, and you’ll need a bus to get across the bay to St. Petersburg. Amtrak’s Silver Star train leaves Penn Station at 11:02 every morning, and arrives in Tampa at 12:34 the following afternoon. That’s right, 25½ hours. Which means, if you’re seeing both games of this series, you’d have to leave on Sunday morning to arrive on Monday afternoon, and leave at 5:17 on Wednesday afternoon to make it back to Penn Station at 7:18 on Thursday night. Round-trip, $320. Gee, with that kind of schedule, you might as well get off in Baltimore and catch that night’s Yanks-Orioles game.

You can get a Greyhound bus out of Port Authority at 10:30 Sunday morning and be in St. Petersburg by 5:15 Monday afternoon, giving you time to get to the game (and maybe even a hotel in-between). But you’d have to spend both Monday and Tuesday nights in the hotel, before leaving at either 7:20 AM or 6:55 PM on Wednesday. That includes changing buses in Richmond and Tampa. Round-trip, $309. The Tampa station is at 610 Polk Street, and the St. Petersburg station at 180 9th Street North.

If you do prefer to drive, see if you can get someone to split the duties with you. Tropicana Field has an official address of 1 Tropicana Drive. It is bounded by 1st Avenue South on the north (Central Avenue, St. Pete’s north-side divider, is 1 block north), 16th Street South on the west, Stadium Drive on the south, a service road and a creek to the east.

Essentially, you’ll be taking Interstate 95 almost all the way down, turning onto Interstate 10 West at Jacksonville and then, after a few minutes, onto Interstate 75 South. Taking that into Tampa, you’ll soon go onto Interstate 275, and cross the Howard Frankland Bridge – known locally as “Frankenstein” and “the Car-Strangled Spanner” – over Tampa Bay and into St. Pete. Take Exit 23B onto 20th Street North, and it’s just a matter of blocks until reaching The Trop at 16th Street South and 1st Avenue South.

It should take about 2 hours to get through New Jersey, 20 minutes in Delaware, an hour and a half in Maryland, 3 hours in Virginia, 3 hours in North Carolina, 3 hours in South Carolina, 2 hours in Georgia, and a little over 5 hours between crossing into Florida and reaching downtown Tampa. Given proper 45-minute rest stops – I recommend doing one in Delaware, and then, once you’re through the Washington, D.C. area, doing one when you enter each new State, and then another around Orlando, for a total of 7 – and taking into account city traffic at each end, your entire trip should take about 26 hours. Maybe you can do it in 24 if you speed and limit your rest stops to half an hour each, especially if one of you drives while the other sleeps, but I wouldn’t recommend this.

Tickets. Despite being one of only 7 teams to have been in the postseason in 2 of the last 3 completed seasons (2008 and '10 AL East Champions), the Rays are averaging just 16,519 fans per home game this season, 29th out of 30, ahead of only the Cleveland Indians. Last season, which was not only a worse year in the national and regional economy than this one, but also proved their '08 Division Title was no fluke, they averaged 22,758. So, even with all the ex-New Yorkers and ex-New Jerseyans in the Tampa Bay area, you can probably show up at the Trop on the day of the game and get a decent ticket.

Yanks at Rays is classified as a "Diamond Game," so Lower Boxes (infield) are $70, Baseline Boxes (corners) are $39, Outfield seats are $27, Press Level are $50, Upper Boxes are $23, and Upper Reserved, including the left field Party Deck (a.k.a. The Beach) are $19.

Going In. Although the locals -- the ones who are not transplanted New Yorkers or New Jerseyans, anyway -- really, really hate the Yankees and Yankee Fans for repeatedly "taking over their ballpark" (as if it were much of a prize), they will not fight you. Aside from the occasional brawl between football players in the "hate triangle" between the University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of Miami, there is rarely violence at sporting events in Florida.

Gate 1, the Rotunda, is at the northeast corner of the stadium, dead center field. Gate 2 is at 1st base, Gates 3, 4 & 5 behind home plate, and Gate 6 at 3rd base. Gates 1 & 4 are Will Call pickup areas. However, unless you're a season ticket holder (and, being a Yankee Fan, you're not), the only gate by which you can enter is Gate 4.

Current seating capacity is 42,735, but that doesn't give the Trop an "intimate setting." Like the hardly-mourned Kingdome in Seattle, the high, gray roof gives the place the look of a bad mall. Those "catwalks" around the rim don't help. And that awful field -- one of the few ever, and the only one now, to have a dirt infield with the rest of the field being artificial turf, instead of just dirt cutouts around the bases -- may make you nostalgic for Giants Stadium's awful experiments with real grass. But the seating design itself may look familiar to you, in shape if not in color: It was copied from Kauffman Stadium (formerly Royals Stadium) in Kansas City. Don't look for fountains in the outfield, though: That would be too classy for this joint.

The Trop may turn out to be the last ballpark built with the bullpens in foul territory, which was really a bad idea. It is also, with the Minnesota Twins having finally gotten out of the damn Metrodome, currently the only non-retractable domed stadium in Major League Baseball, with Houston, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Seattle, Toronto, and the new Marlins ballpark opening in Miami next April having retractable roofs. (Of those, only Toronto still has artificial turf. Cold in Canada? I guess they never heard of Green Bay: Lambeau Field has real grass.)

Yes, that is a pool in center field, which is reminiscent of the one in right field in Phoenix. No, it is not for people. They have a live cownose ray in there. No, I'm not kidding. And while they do let people touch the ray (very carefully), it is not the kind that killed "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin, so you can relax. If you're into that sort of thing. I am not.

Food. Whatever I say about this ballpark being bad, I cannot fault it for its food, which reflects the Tampa Bay region's Spanish and Hispanic heritage. Cuban sandwiches, featuring freshly sliced ham, pork, and Genoa salami on toasted Cuban bread with Swiss cheese, pickes and mustard, are sold throughout the stadium.

Stands for Everglades BBQ serve barbecue-themed items. The right field concession area has a Checkers burger stand. Both the First Base and Third Base Food Courts have stands for Papa John's Pizza.

The First Base court has the Del Ray Cantina, a full-service bar specializing in tropical drinks, and the Third Base court has the similar Oasis Bar and the Outback Steakhouse Food Court -- in recognition of Outback's Tampa headquarters and the NFL Buccaneers' hosting of the Outback Bowl, which was known as the Hall of Fame Bowl when it was held at the Bucs' old stadium. The thought of having an Outback Steak appeals to me -- especially since I watched the first 5 innings of the 2009 World Series clincher at the Outback at 56th & 3rd on the East Side -- and the idea of having a Bloomin' Onion at a ballgame, while hardly healthy, also has, pardon the pun, appeal.

Oddly, considering the stadium's name, there is no juice bar.

Team History Displays. Stop laughing. The Rays do now have some history. The area could have had more, but near-miss moves by the Chicago White Sox for the 1989 season, and the San Francisco Giants for the 1993 season, and seriously considered moves by the Minnesota Twins in the 1980s and the Seattle Mariners in the 1990s, all fell through. (Can you imagine the Yanks and Tampa Bay Mariners -- they certainly wouldn't have had to change the name of the team -- being an AL East opponent? All the Jeter and A-Rod comparisons? Plus all those times having to face Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson and Ichiro Suzuki?)

The Rays' Division Title banners are above the left-field stands. So is the Number 12 they retired for Tampa native Wade Boggs, who played the last 2 years of his career (1998-99) with the Rays and got his 3,000th career hit at the Trop -- in spite of not really being a slugger, he is, thus far, the only member of the 3,000 Hit Club to join it with a home run. Jackie Robinson's universally-retired Number 42 is also there.

But the stadium's big feature, history-wise, is the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame. It was moved to the Trop after its original facility in Hernando, Florida (the town where Ted lived the last few years of his life), went bankrupt. It houses the exhibits on Ted's careers both with the Boston Red Sox and the United States Marine Corps during World War II and the Korean War, and the monuments to the members of the Hitters Hall of Fame, complete with memorabilia. Ted did not induct himself into his own Hitters Hall of Fame, and was inducted in 2003 only after he died. The museum is open during game days, opening at the same time as the park and closing after the seventh inning with the concession stands. Admission is free, and the museum is open to all ticketholders.

Stuff. The main Team Store is located in Center Field Street near Gate 1, and is open during Rays home games and special public events. Additional merchandise locations and novelty kiosks are open throughout the stadium during all home games.

As you might guess, having been to one World Series (and lost it) thus far, the Rays don't have team history videos on sale. But there have been a few books written about the Rays, and they may be available at the Trop. Most notable, probably, is The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, by Jonah Keri.

During the Game. You may notice these things at a Rays home game:

"The Happy Heckler" is a fan by the name of Robert Szasz, a Clearwater real estate developer. He has season tickets near home plate, and is known for his rather boisterous heckling. He is so loud that he is clearly audible on both TV and radio broadcasts. He is also known as an "ethical" heckler, heckling opposing players only based on their play and never throwing personal insults. Despite this, he has drawn the ire of some opposing players.

Just as the Yankees have Bleacher Creature Milton Ousland and his cowbell, and the Mets have Eddie Boison, with "COW-BELL MAN" and the Number 15 on his Met jersey, the Rays have cowbells as well. It was originally a promotional idea thought up by principal owner Stuart Sternberg, who got the idea from the Saturday Night Live "More Cowbell" sketch. Since then, it has become a standard feature of home games. Road teams have often considered the cowbell a nuisance.

The most famous proponent of the cowbell is Cary Strukel, who is known as "The Cowbell Kid." Strukel can be seen at most home games sitting in right field and wearing some kind of costume, typically topped with a neon colored wig or Viking horns. The cowbells are rung most prominently when the opposing batter has two strikes, when the opposing fans try to chant, and when the Rays make a good play.

The Rays do not have a regular song to sing after "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the 7th inning stretch, and don't have a regular postgame victory song. They do, however, have a mascot, Raymond (at least the name makes sense). Not a ray -- manta, sting- or otherwise -- he is a furry blue creature wearing a large pair of sneakers and a backwards baseball cap, completed with a Rays jersey. He is described officially as a "seadog," and bears a physical, though not in color, resemblance to Slider, the mascot of the Cleveland Indians.

After the Game. Downtown St. Petersburg is not an especially high-crime area, and, as I said, Rays fans do not get violent. You might get a little bit of verbal if you're wearing Yankee gear, it won't get any worse than that.

There aren't a lot of interesting places to relax with a postgame snack and drinks near the Trop, although Ferg's Sports Bar & Grill, at Central Avenue and 13th Street, a 10-minute walk from the dome, is described by one source as "a popular haunt right after a game, for the Rays fans and Rival fans alike."

As for local bars that are considered New Yorker-friendly, Legends Sports Bar, Billiard, Hookah and Grill is the home of the New York Giants Fan Club of Tampa Bay. But it's at 1339 E. Fletcher Avenue, on the north side of Tampa, 31 miles from the Trop. The home of the New York Jets Fan Club of Tampa Bay, Peabody's Bar & Grill, is similarly far away, at 15333 Amberly Drive on the north side of Tampa, 35 miles.

Sidelights. The Yankees' spring training home, George M. Steinbrenner Field (formerly Legends Field), is at Dale Mabry Highway and Tampa Bay Blvd., across from the home of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Raymond James Stadium. (Raymond James is a financial holding company, not a person native to Tampa who deserved the naming rights.)

North of Raymond James was Al Lopez Field. (Lopez, a Hall of Fame catcher and manager, WAS a person native to Tampa who deserved the naming rights.) North of that was the Buccaneers' first home, Tampa Stadium, known as The Big Sombrero because of its weird shape. The Giants won Super Bowl XXV there. The entire group of current and former stadium sites is north of downtown Tampa, near the airport.

One of the legendary homes of spring training baseball, Al Lang Field (now Progress Energy Park), named for the Mayor who promoted St. Pete as a spring training site, is at 1st Street SE & 2nd Avenue S., 2 miles east of the Trop, in downtown St. Pete on the shore of Tampa Bay. Spring home of the Yankees from 1947 to 1961, the Mets from 1962 to 1987, and the St. Louis Cardinals from 1947 to 1997, it is no longer used as a major league spring training or Florida State League regular season facility. In fact, the new Rays ballpark was supposed to be built on the site, but they haven't been able to get the funding, so Al Lang Field remains standing.

The St. Pete Times Forum, formerly the Ice Palace, home of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning (currently in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Bruins), is at 401 Channelside Drive in downtown Tampa, near the Convention Center, the Tampa Museum of Art, the Tampa Bay History Center, and a mall called Channelside Bay Plaza. Why a team in Tampa would have the name of St. Petersburg's newspaper on its building, I don't know. But those other things I mentioned should provide you with a couple of non-sports things to do in the Tampa Bay region. And, if you want to go there, Walt Disney World is 70 miles up Interstate 4 from downtown Tampa.

Oh, and, get this: As New York is known as the Big Apple, Tampa likes to call itself the Big Guava. In the words of the immortal Jack Paar, I kid you not.


So, if you can afford it, go on down and join your fellow Yankee Fans in taking over the Rays' stadium. Let's just hope the Yankees' bats and arms are as good as their fans. We need to make a statement against these guys. Tell them, as Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck) said in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, "You'd better mind your P's and Q's, buster, and remember who you're dealing with!"

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