Monday, April 14, 2014
How to Be a Yankee Fan In Tampa Bay -- 2014 Edition
Last year, I saw a blog post (don't know who wrote it) by someone who called San Diego "the Tampa of California." I think he owes San Diego an apology.
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.
For this weekend, the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times) and the Tampa Tribune are both predicting rain, including thunderstorms, for the entire 4-day stretch. They're also predicting daytime temperatures to be in the mid-80s, and nighttime temperatures to be in the mid-60s. Florida must be where the cliche, "It's not the heat that's so bad, it's the humidity" began. So even if you manage to avoid the rain, be prepared to sweat when you're outside the dome, if your visit is later in the season.
The Tampa Bay region is in the Eastern Time Zone, so you don't have to change your watch, or the clock on your smartphone. And while Florida was a Confederate State, you won't need to bring your passport or change your money.
Tickets. The Rays are one of only 5 teams to have been in the postseason in at least 4 of the last 6 seasons. In spite of this, they averaged just 18,646 fans last season -- dead last in the major leagues, 30th out of 30. Aside from their first season, 1998, when they could count on the novelty of even having Major league Baseball, and drew an average of 30,942, their peak attendance is 23,147 in 2009, the year after they won their Pennant.
This is disgraceful support of a winning team, and if they can't draw fans to a lousy ballpark with a winning team, it begs the question, "Can they draw fans to a good ballpark with a winning team?" Considering the trouble they've had getting a location, let alone a deal, we may never find out. Along with the Oakland Athletics, the Rays are the current MLB most likely to move in the next few years. The factor that may keep them in the Tampa Bay area is that nobody else seems to have a suitable ballpark ready for them, unless MLB wants to go back to Montreal and its Olympic Stadium -- and as long as Bud Selig, or anybody who thinks like he does, is the Commissioner, MLB is not going back to Montreal.
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.
The Rays classify a game against the Yanks as a "Diamond Game," meaning they will charge their hLower Boxes (infield) are $83, Baseline Boxes (corners) are $56, Outfield seats are $41, Press Level are $60, Upper Boxes are $35, and Upper Reserved, including the left field Party Deck (a.k.a. The Beach) are $30.
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. Pete. Sounds like you’re gonna be flying.
Then I hope you can afford it. American Airlines charges over $1,300 round-trip, and you'll have to change planes in Charlotte. Most other airlines will be just as bad, or worse, when it comes to price and availability of nonstops. (Tampa International Airport was originally named Drew Field, after John H. Drew, a land developer who gave it to the Army.)
If you want to take a side-trip to Disney World, you could fly to Orlando (which is 92 miles from Tampa) and rent a car, but I suspect that hotels will be cheaper in the Tampa Bay area, and get more expensive the closer you get to Disney.
Amtrak is longer, but a bit cheaper: $529 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. If you're staying for the entire 3-game series, you may have to leave early on Sunday: The Silver Star leaves Tampa at 5:17 PM (arriving in New York 7:18 the following night), so a 1:40 start, coupled with Joe Girardi's tendency to use most of his bullpen in order to beat the Rays, means you may not be out of the Trop before 5:00, and you'd still have to get across the Bay.
You can get a Greyhound bus out of Port Authority at 9:15 Wednesday morning and be in St. Petersburg by 4:45 Thursday afternoon. That's 31 1/2 hours, but it gives you time to get to the game (and maybe even a hotel in-between). You'd leave St. Pete at 6:20 PM on Sunday. That includes changing buses in Richmond and Tampa. Round-trip, $304, but you'd have to order online. The catch is that you'd have to change buses 3 times: In Richmond, Orlando and Tampa. Unless you get a hotel in Tampa, in which case you'd only have to change buses twice. And the layover in Richmond is 3 hours and 15 minutes. And I don't like the Richmond Greyhound station, and I doubt that you will, either. There's also hourlong layovers in Fayetteville, North Carolina and Jacksonville.
Greyhound's St. Petersburg station at 180 9th Street North, a 5-block walk from Tropicana Field. The Tampa Greyhound station is at 610 E. Polk Street, 4 blocks from the Amtrak station. To get from either to the Trop without a car, you'll have to take the 100X bus to Gateway Mall, then transfer to the 74 bus. It will take an hour and a half.
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-south divider, is 1 block north), 16th Street South on the west, Stadium Drive on the south, and 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 – a bridge so traffic-ridden it's 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.
Once In the City. "Tampa" is believed to be a Native American name meaning "sticks of fire," while St. Petersburg, like the city of the same name in Russia that was known as Leningrad in the Soviet era, is named after the first Pope, the Apostle Peter. Tampa, founded in 1849, is home to 350,000 people; St. Petersburg, founded in 1888, is home to 250,000; and the metro area as a whole 2.8 million, so while neither city is big, it's a decent-sized market (and thus should be drawing more people for baseball games).
In Tampa, Whiting Street divides the city's streets into North and South, and the Hillsborough River into East and West. In St. Petersburg, as I said, Central Avenue divides the city into North and South, and while there appears to be no East-West divider, 1st Street seems to set off a section with Northeast addresses.
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 task, or 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.
HART, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, runs buses, $2.00 Local and $3.00 Express. PSTA runs $2.00 buses around St. Petersburg. So taking the 100X bus from downtown Tampa to St. Pete ($3.00) and transferring to the 59 to the stadium ($2.00) will be $5.00 each way.
The sales tax in Florida is 6 percent.
Going In. Opened in 1990 as the Florida Suncoast Dome, and nicknamed the White Elephant because of its exterior color and lack of a tenant for the sport for which it was intended, the name was changed in 1993 when the NHL's Lightning came in, making the stadium the ThunderDome. But they were only there for 3 seasons, until the building now known as the Tampa Bay Times Forum opened.
In their home opener, October 10, 1993, the Bolts set what was then an NHL record of 27,227 fans in the quirky seating configuration the place had at the time. So an expansion hockey team -- in Florida, mind you -- in the era before you could buy game tickets online, managed to outdraw a winning, Internet-era baseball team.
Anyway, when the Devil Rays (as they were known from 1998 to 2007) arrived, the stadium's name was changed to Tropicana Field -- but, make no mistake, this blasted thing (or thing that should be blasted) is a dome. In 1999, it became the only building in Florida (so far) to host an NCAA Final Four; Connecticut beat Duke in the Final.
According to the team website, the Rays provide carpoolers access to free parking in team-controlled lots, Lots 2, 6, 7, 8 & 9. Vehicles with 4 or more passengers may park free for all Sunday games. For all other games, the first 100 cars with 4our or more people park for free up to an hour before game time, with other main lot Tropicana Field parking rates ranging from $15 to $30 per vehicle. Fans attending games at Tropicana Field are encouraged to arrive early to enjoy tailgating and baseball activities.
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.
The official current seating capacity is 31,042, but that's with several sections of seats tarped over. The actual number of seats 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 stadium 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 MLB stadium built with the bullpens in foul territory, which was really a bad idea. It is also, with the Minnesota Twins having gotten out of the damn Metrodome, currently the only non-retractable domed stadium in Major League Baseball, with Houston, Miami, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Seattle and Toronto 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. It's called the Rays Touch Tank, 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.
The field is not symmetrical. The left field pole is just 315 feet from home plate, the right field pole only 322. In spite of this, it's generally a pitcher's park, which goes against the trend of the domes built in the 1970s and '80s. The power alleys are 370, and center is 404. In 2001, Vinny Castilla hit what remains the dome's longest home run, going 478 feet.
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, pickles 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, if you don't mind giving money to a billionaire who raised his prices to offset the cost of Obamacare, because he was too cheap to provide his employees with health insurance.
The First Base Food Court has the Del Ray Cantina, a full-service bar specializing in tropical drinks, and the Third Base Food 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, 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 the Tampa Bay Mariners -- the region's nautical heritage means they wouldn't have had to change the name of the team -- being AL East opponents? 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' 2008 and 2010 AL Eastern Division Title banners are to the left of the center field scoreboard and the "K Counter" on a small wall. So is, over the Captain Morgan Deck, the Number 12 they retired for Tampa native Wade Boggs, who played the last 2 years of his career (1998-99) with the Devil Rays and got his 3,000th career hit at the Trop -- in spite of not really being a slugger, he was the first member of the 3,000 Hit Club to join it with a home run. (I seem to recall there's since been another... ) Jackie Robinson's universally-retired Number 42 is also there. (Boggs was also named to The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Players in 1999.)
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 only open on 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. Of course, that's possible because the Rays get small crowds, so individual fans can be heard, much as Cleveland phone-company worker John Adams could be heard on his drum all the way out in the bleacher of Cleveland Municipal Stadium when he was surrounded by 65,000 empty seats, less so now that the Indians are in Jacobs Field and drawing much better. Szasz is considered 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. Like the Happy Heckler, this is an annoyance.
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 (like former JOHN 3:16 banner guy Rollen Stewart) 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' mascot is not a ray, but a cat named D.J. Kitty. The Rays have a "mascot race" between people dressed as Pepsi products: Pepsi, Pepsi Max, Aquafina and Sierra Mist. I guess they didn't want Diet Pepsi, figuring, being on a diet, he'd be in better shape, and thus have an unfair advantage.
The Rays do not have a regular song to sing after "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the 7th inning stretch, and they 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, but 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."
The Birchwood Hotel, at 340 Beach Drive NE at 4th Avenue, caters to New Yorkers, including at its rooftop bar, The Canopy. It's a mile and a half from the ballpark, though -- but that still makes it a lot closer than these other options:
"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.) The University of South Florida (USF) also plays football at Raymond James, and the U.S. national soccer team has played 4 games there, and has never lost, winning 3 and drawing 1.
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. It was built in 1967 with 46,000 seats, and expanded to 74,000 when the Bucs were expanded into existence in 1976. The Giants won Super Bowl XXV there. It also hosted Super Bowl XVIII, in which the Los Angeles Raiders beat the Washington Redskins, and 3 games of the U.S. soccer team. It was demolished in 1999.
The entire group of current and former stadium sites is north of downtown Tampa, near the airport. Take the Number 30 bus from downtown to the Number 36 bus to the complex.
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.
The 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. It is the home of the new version the Tampa Bay Rowdies, in the new version of the North American Soccer League, the second division of North American soccer. Bus 100X to Bus 4.
Tampa-based teams have won Florida State League Pennants in 1920, '25 (Tampa Smokers), '57, '61 (Tampa Tarpons), '94, 2001, '04, '09 and '10 (Tampa Yankees). St. Petersburg teams have done it in 1975, '86 (St. Petersburg Cardinals) and '97 (St. Petersburg Devil Rays, who won a Pennant before their parent club had even played a game). The Clearwater Phillies won a Pennant in the same year as their parent club in Philadelphia, 1993, and won another under their current name, the Clearwater Threshers, in 2007, presaging their parent club's success.
The Tampa Bay Times Forum, formerly the Ice Palace, home of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning, 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. They're a 15-minute walk from the Greyhound station, or 5 minutes on the Number 8 bus. The Forum hosted the 2012 Republican Convention, at which Mitt Romney was nominated for President.
Tampa Bay does not have an NBA team, nor is it likely to try for one in the near future. The Orlando Magic play 84 miles from downtown Tampa, while the Miami Heat are 279 miles away. Yet, mainly due to LeBron James (but also due to Shaquille O'Neal being much more recently in Miami than in Orlando), the Heat are more popular in the Tampa Bay region than the Magic are -- and the Los Angeles Lakers are nearly as popular as the Magic, probably because of Shaq and Kobe. If Tampa Bay was an NBA market, it would rank 20th in population.
This 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, an hour and 15 minutes by car from downtown Tampa.
Malio's, in downtown Tampa at 400 N. Ashley Drive at Kennedy Blvd., is a locally famous restaurant, known around there as George Steinbrenner's favorite. He had a private room there, as does the still-living Tampa native and Yankee Legend Lou Piniella.
The Tampa Bay region doesn't have a lot of tall buildings. The tallest, at 579 feet, is 100 North Tampa, named for its address at Whiting Street downtown, formerly named the Regions Building.
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!"