Saturday, October 11, 2014

How to Be a Devils Fan In Tampa Bay -- 2014-15 Edition



This coming Tuesday night, the Devils will continue their season-opening road swing, away to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

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, when the only major league sports team in the Tampa Bay region was the NFL's Buccaneers -- and, considering how bad they were at the time, they barely counted as such themselves.

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 Monday and Tuesday. That won't be a problem during the game, which will be indoors, but you'll have to be outside sometime. the entire 4-day stretch. They're also predicting daytime temperatures to be in the mid-80s, and nighttime temperatures to be in the low 70s. 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 arena.

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.

Tickets. The Lightning averaged 18,612 fans per game last season, nearly 97 percent of capacity. This means that, proportionally, they're doing far better at the box office than the Rays or the Buccaneers. It also means that, if only 1 team is likely to still be in Tampa Bay in 10 years, surprise, it's the hockey team.

Lightning tickets are among the cheapest in the NHL. In the Lower Level (100 sections), seats between the goals will run you $93, behind the goals $68. In the Club Level (200s), $87 and $66. In the Upper Level (300s), $51 and $26.

Getting There. It is 1,136 road miles from Times Square in Manhattan to downtown Tampa, and 1,126 miles from the Prudential Center in Newark to the Amalie Arena (formerly named the Ice Palace, the St. Pete Times Forum and the Tampa Bay Times Forum). Sounds like you’re gonna be flying.

If you don't mind changing planes in Philadelphia, Charlotte, or even overshooting Tampa and changing in Miami, you can get a round-trip ticket for under $600. Otherwise, it's going to be over $800, and you'll still have to change in Charlotte.

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: $270 round-trip from Newark Penn Station.  Amtrak’s Silver Star train leaves Penn Station at 11:22 every morning, and arrives in Tampa at 12:34 the following afternoon. That’s right, 25½ hours. It leaves Tampa at 5:17 PM (arriving in Newark at 6:54 the following night).

You can get a Greyhound bus out of New York's Port Authority at 11:00 Tuesday morning and be in St. Petersburg by 3:20 Wednesday afternoon. That's a little over 28 hours. Round-trip fare can be as high as $407, but advanced purchase can bring it down to as little as $174. The catch is that you'd have to change buses twice, in Richmond and Orlando. 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. The Tampa Greyhound station is at 610 E. Polk Street, 4 blocks from the Amtrak station.

If you do prefer to drive, see if you can get someone to split the duties with you. 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. Just outside of Tampa, you’ll switch to Interstate 4, and take that to the end, before its merge with Interstate 275, onto Nebraska Avenue South, riding that into downtown Tampa. The arena has an official address of 401 Channelside Drive, and is also bounded by Morgan Street and Old Water Street.

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 and football 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, 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.

HART, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, runs buses, $2.00 Local and $3.00 Express. PSTA runs $2.00 buses around St. Petersburg. So, if you want to go into St. Pete, taking the 100X bus from downtown Tampa ($3.00) and transferring to a bus in St. Pete ($2.00) will be $5.00 each way.

The sales tax in Florida is 6 percent.

Going In. Depending on which lot you enter, parking will be either $15 or $20. Since the arena is on the waterfront, bounded by the Ybor Channel on the south, you'll probably be entering on the north side. There is an elevated walkway connecting the arena area with the adjacent Embassy Suites hotel complex.

The Lightning attack twice toward the north end of the arena.

Food. The Tampa Bay region is known for its 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.

Local chain PDQ, a fast, casual dining restaurant that specializes in fresh hand-battered chicken tenders, sells chicken tenders, sandwiches, fresh salads, fries and other favorites off their restaurant menu, outside Section 102. Mr. Empanada, Tacos Trueno, Anthony’s Italian Sandwich, Deli and Stir Fry and a carving station will be new offerings around the arena. Additionally, a new portable concession stand on the 100 Level will feature fresh, hand-rolled sushi for fans attending Lightning games and Amalie Arena events. A gourmet grilled cheese portable concession stand will also be available on the 100 Level concourse.

Holy Hog will open a new location on the 100 level this season. The local BBQ restaurant opened their first location on the Bud Light Party Deck at the beginning of last season. Items available at Holy Hog include award winning barbeque, mac n’ cheese, beef brisket sandwiches and other favorites from their restaurant menu.

The Lightning will be offering fans the option to purchase value meal items at select locations around Amalie Arena. Value items at Lightning home games will include $4 Kayem hot dog, $4 garden salad, $4 chicken nuggets, $5 Lynchburg nuggets and fries and $8.75 super slice of pizza and a 12 oz. soda.

The premium menus at Amalie Arena have also been updated for the upcoming season. Firestick Grill will now offer fresh rolled sushi, grilled veal rack chop, hydroponic green salads and fresh stone crab claws. Fans enjoying events and Lightning games from the suite level will now have the option to order World of Beer pretzels with beer cheese dipping sauces and the famous Columbia Restaurants 1905 salad.

Team History Displays. The Lightning hang their 2004 Stanley Cup banner, 2004 Eastern Conference title banner, and 2003 and 2004 Southeast Division banners from the rafters. True, the Devils also have banners for Division and Conference title seasons in which we also won the Cup, but with as many banners as we have, and with the 3Cup banners at the opposite end of the arena, it doesn't look like we have a brief history of success all clumped together. Even the Islanders and Flyers, who had dynasties and haven't won the Cup since, have enough banners to make it look worth their while. The Bolts, as yet, don't.

The Lightning have no retired numbers yet. Only 2 of their players have been elected to the Hall of Fame, each playing only 2 seasons for them and better known for playing elsewhere: Dino Ciccarelli and Denis Savard. (Dave Andreychuk played the last 3 seasons of a 640-goal career for the Lightning, and is eligible for the Hall, but isn't yet in. And, of course, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis are still active.) Nor do the Lightning have a team Hall of Fame.

Stuff. The all-new Tampa Bay Sports store is now open, and located to the right of the main staircase, inside the McDonald's Ticket Office on the west side of the arena.

Whether the Store sells team books and DVDs, I don't know. Most likely, the only DVD they would sell would be the official 2004 Stanley Cup highlight video. As for books about the team, you may be out of luck, at least until 2017 when they'll celebrate their 25th Anniversary. Steve Yerrid published Tampa Bay Lightning Winning Ways: The Making of a Championship Heart, but that was back in 2005, during the yearlong lockout, and is now well out of date, with no mention of current star Steven Stamkos.

During the Game. 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), their hockey fans don't have the same kind of rivalry with any of the New York Tri-State Area hockey teams. 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.

The team's mascot is ThunderBug -- actually, a lightning bug. (Get it?) According to the Lightning website, "Thunderbug enjoys birthday parties, street hockey, ice hockey, and Lightning fans, while his dislikes include flyswatters and bug zappers." The team also has the Lightning Girls dancers. Their goal song is "Fluxland," by the group of the same name.

On occasion, the Lightning will wear a 3rd jersey with "BOLTS" in diagonal script, a la the Rangers. Since the team did not exist before 1992, this is not a "throwback," jersey, it's a "fauxback."

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

If you're looking for a place to relax with a postgame snack and drink, a mall named Channelside Bay Plaza is across Beneficial Driver from the arena. It has a Hooters, a Japanese restaurant named Oishi, a "fusion" restaurant called Flambe', and a ColdStone Creamery.

If you're looking to spend time with others from the Tri-State Area, "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, about 9 miles due north of the arena. 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, 14 miles northeast.

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. They also played 3 games at Tampa Stadium.

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 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.

To get to Tropicana Field, home of the Rays, you'll have to 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 itself and into St. Pete.

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.

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 Lightning played their 1st season, 1992-93, at Expo Hall, part of the Florida State Fairgrounds. It seats only 10,425 people, so it was never going to be more than a temporary home, but they outgrew it immediately, because, unlike the new Ottawa Senators, who came into the NHL at the same time, they weren't horrible; indeed, they were rather respectable from the off. 4800 U.S. Route 301, about 8 miles northeast of downtown. It would take 3 buses to get there.

Tampa Bay does not have an NBA team, nor is it likely to try for one in the near future. The Orlando Magic play 93 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.

The Tampa Bay History Center is across from the arena at 801 Old Water Street. The Florida Aquarium is at 701 Channelside Drive, east of the mall. And Busch Gardens, with its African theme (for political correctness reasons, they can't call it "The Dark Continent" anymore), is at 10165 N. Malcolm McKinley Drive, 10 miles northeast of downtown. Take the Number 8 bus to 7th Avenue & 15th Street, then walk up 15th Street to 11th Avenue and catch the Number 18 bus, and take that to Busch Blvd.

This should provide you with some 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.

As far as I know, the only major-network TV show set in the Tampa Bay region  has been Second Noah, ABC's 1996-97 series starring Daniel Hugh Kelly as a veterinarian at Busch Gardens. Quite a few films have been set there, though, including Cocoon, Edward Scissorhands and A Time to Kill.

*

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!"

1 comment:

MikeG said...

Hi, this is a Tampa local and I just wanted to say what a well-written and generally-correct review you have done. I am a Lightning fan from the beginning, but have little or no interest in other local sports. I wanted to make a couple of relevant comments that your readers might find useful.

Be careful on Interstate-4. It is a mess and a magnet for accidents. Locals try to avoid it as much as possible by taking alternate routes whenever possible. If you can avoid I-4, do so. There is a toll road that is a good way to get from I-75 or I-275 to the downtown area. They keep changing the name of it, but I think it is called the Selmon Expressway now (after Buccaneer Leroy Selmon). Consult your GPS and take the toll road if possible.

The weather is starting to cool off by October and November, so you will be avoiding the worst of the heat and humidity. Mosquitos are still a problem until the first freeze, which usually isn't until Christmas or later.

The Tampa bus station is awful but the airport is very nice.

Avoid the local bus-lines unless you thrive in environments of homeless and hipsters.

Tampa hockey fans come in two types : transplant and local. The transplants are retired down here from a variey of Northern locales, mostly Michigan, New York, Philly, and Boston. Expect a lot of fans of those teams during games. Sometimes opposing jerseys outnumber home jerseys, depending on which team is visiting. There are lots of Canadians here as well, but most of the hockey fans seem to be Francophones.

Local fans can be annoying, but they are mostly harmless. Tampa hockey fans actually have more class than they are given credit for, because in part, most of them are native fans of other teams up north to start with. (I'm local, but grew up rooting for St. Louis and Toronto).

I hate the Thunderbug. LOL.

Downtown Tampa is nothing fun. Most of the nightlife is in nearby Ybor City. Vinik is working on bringing downtown up to par, but it's a work in progress. If you want good food, good music, and a good scene, head to Ybor City.

Lots and lots of homeless people everywhere. Don't make eye contact and move quickly to and from your vehicle. Most of them are not threatening in any way, but there seem to be increased numbers lately.

Have fun and Go Lighting. :)

MikeG