Sunday, June 17, 2012

Miami Marlins at Tampa Bay Rays - June 15-16, 2012


With the Florida State League on its all-star break, I spent the weekend in Tampa Bay where the Rays were hosting the Marlins in what is dubbed the Citrus Series. The Rays swept the Miami games the previous weekend so Ozzie Guillen's boys had revenge on their mind.

Tropicana Field



The Florida Suncoast Dome was opened in 1990 in an attempt to get an MLB franchise to move from another city. Despite coming close a couple of times, the Tampa Bay area was unable to attract an existing team, and salt was rubbed on those wounds when the Florida Marlins were awarded an expansion franchise for 1993. 

The Tampa Bay Lightning and AFL's Tampa Bay Storm made use of the new facility to put St. Petersburg on the major league sports map, but it was an MLB tenant that the city really wanted. Finally, in 1995, the Devil Rays were awarded, with play to begin three years later. in 1996, the other franchises moved across the Bay to Tampa's new and more suitable Ice Palace (now the Tampa Bay Times Forum), opening up the renamed Tropicana Field for the Devil Rays to call home.


I visited The Trop on my MLB road trip in 2001 and found it to be one of the worst venues at that time. Since then though, it has undergone some additions that make it a much more enjoyable spot to watch a game despite a relatively poor fan base.



The first thing to do is find parking. There are plenty of lots immediately surrounding the ballpark but they are expensive, with prices varying depending on the day of the week. Better to make your way to the other side of town where you can park along the street around 1st Street and Central Avenue. There are meters there that expire at 6 pm (and are free on weekends).  From there you can enjoy a drink or two at one of the Central Avenue bars (Five Bucks Drinkery and Midtown Sundries are two that I liked) before taking the free shuttle from 2nd Street and Central. You will be dropped off right at the stadium, a five-minute ride, and the shuttle will pick you up there after the game.



For tickets, there are four game types depending on the opponent and day of the week, and twelve seating areas which I will not rehash here. I like the first row of the upper deck, at $24 for a platinum game, it was a reasonable price. Tickets are $3 cheaper if bought more than 5 hours before game time. If you prefer the unofficial route, I saw a few scalpers outside the box office as well but in the heat I'm not sure it is worth wandering around that much. Once inside, if you want to try sitting in a better location than you have paid for, be careful. The Rays employ ushers to keep riffraff out of the good seats but if you are shameless, you might get lucky and find a nice guy who will let you stay.

Before the game, most of the excitement is on the lower concourse behind the outfield fence. There are three "streets" named for the outfield positions, each with several attractions. If you are in right field, entered the seating area and have a look in section 144, where a solitary yellow seat stands out in a sea of blue. This is where Wade Boggs' 3000th hit landed, he was the first to hit that milestone with a home run.



The highlight here is the Ted Williams Hitters Hall of Fame, with memorabilia from Williams' career as well as small displays for a number of baseball's best batters, such as Ernie Banks (below). A section commemorates the Negro Leagues, there is a window on Japanese baseball, and a number of other exhibits that make this a must-see. There are even a few pitchers inducted, making it a bit of a misnomer.  It is free to enter and not that crowded, and might take you up to 30 minutes depending on how much you want to read.



For kids, the Rays Touch Tank allows fans to touch live cownose rays and for $5 you can even feed them. Expect to wait here for a while as there was a lineup well before game time.



As you walk around the area, note the wall murals that explain the history of baseball in Tampa Bay, both on and off the field. Above is an example showing Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe who spent time together in St. Petersburg in 1961, just before her death.



A new addition here is the timeline from September 28, 2011, when the Rays beat the Yankees while Boston lost to the Orioles, giving Tampa Bay the Wild Card berth in one of the most electrifying days in baseball history. Still, it always annoys me to see Wild Card Pennants; finishing second is not worth celebrating.



There is also a cigar bar on the second level of Center Field Street that has plush chairs and big screen TVs that let you live it up for a while. If you prefer the game live, the Batters Eye Restaurant across the way is a full-service eatery with two seatings: one in the two-hour period before first pitch and the other during the game.



I did not eat any food as the prices were rather expensive, but the Cuban sandwiches looked interesting as did an Italian meatball sandwich, both at $9. Don't bother with the designated driver program, you are supposed to get a 12-oz pop but instead you will get a 12-oz cup filled with 11 ounces of ice and 1 ounce of soda. The above photo shows the food court near gate 5, smartly designed apart from the concourse to prevent crowding. Below is the main entrance at gate 1, with a nice thank you to the fans.



The main scoreboard is big and has all the info you need. I like how the positions and uniform numbers change in the lineups; below you see the positions but every few seconds these become uniform numbers. There are also a few stats boards around the ballpark, and a dot matrix board that shows the pitch count among other info.



One final touch is that the roof glows orange after the Rays win. As I drove by after Friday's game, it was quite cool but I couldn't stop on the highway to grab a picture.

Overall, Tropicana Field makes the best of a bad situation. It is just a year younger than the nearly-obsolete Rogers Centre, but has undergone the changes necessary to keep itself as an attraction. There are rumours that a new stadium will be necessary to keep the team in town, so if you have yet to visit, do make an effort in the near future and check out a game or two at the Trop.

Game 1 - Tampa Bay 11, Miami 0



Carlos Zambrano (above) got the start for Miami against Matt Moore. The Big Z should have been called the Big W as he walked 6 batters in 2+ innings and Tampa Bay made him pay, scoring 3 of those walks on their way to a quick 4-0 lead.

The Marlins offense was as inept as their pitching. Donovan Solano singled as the second batter of the game and that was the only hit they could muster off Moore, who was solid through seven. Meanwhile, the Marlins added two more in the 5th and then another five in the 7th, highlighted by a Desmond Jennings bases-clearing double (below).



The Rays' relievers had no trouble shutting down the anemic Marlins' bats over the last two frames and the home team walked away with an 11-0 victory, a combined 1-hitter.

Carlos Pena was the star, walking 4 times and scoring each time he walked. Hideki Matsui went hitless in 5 trips and is definitely struggling.

Game 2 - Miami 4, Tampa Bay 3 (15)



This game was the opposite of the blowout the day before. James Shields (above) started for Tampa Bay and was the victim of poor defense, giving up 3 unearned runs early. The Rays scratched a couple of runs back and were trailing 3-2 at the 7th-inning stretch.


Hanley Ramirez returned after missing Friday's game due to a nose injury suffered in batting practice.

I had bought the cheap seats and was sitting upstairs for most of the game but at this point, I moved down to watch what I thought would be the last couple of innings. Just as I sat down, the Rays tied it up in the bottom of the 7th when Sean Rodriguez tripled home Pena.


B.J. Upton singles in the 13th

After that, the bullpens took over, throwing one scoreless frame after another as we headed to extra innings and then some. The battle was in its 15th frame when Scott Cousins tripled home Justin Ruggiano, the fourth three-bagger of the evening. Heath Bell struck out the side for the save, getting Matsui looking to end the game. Matsui went 0-for-6 with a walk and is simply not that effective anymore.



In fact, the only memorable hit he had in these two games was a foul ball that nearly beaned me. A kindly usher had let me sit in the wheelchair section that had been abandoned by the ticketed patron. This was just a folding chair on the concourse along the third base line. I was trying to get pictures of Matsui when he fouled one off right at me (above). It took me a second to see the ball, at which time I realized that I had no free hands to try to catch it. I ducked and the ball fortunately fell just in front of me and shattered the plastic fence that is "supposed" to protect disabled fans from foul balls. The ball bounded past me, but I was too confused by the shards of plastic flying about to bother to chase it. When all settled down, the guy next to me had the ball and I got a picture of the hole in the fence.



If you believe in karma, then perhaps Matsui was telling me to stop ragging on him. Sorry Hideki, but it is time to retire.

Notes

If the Rays strikeout 10 or more batters, all fans get a free small pizza from Papa John's. However, you have to go to a local furniture store to pick up the coupon, so for most people, the hassle factor is not worth the $8.50 you would save, since the stores are generally not conveniently located. Very smart promotion in that you get the publicity without having to pay out that much.

I had originally planned to see the Florida State League All-Star Game on Saturday, which was being held in Port Charlotte. I changed my mind when I saw that the giveaway item at Tampa Bay was an MLB drawstring backpack. Any time I can acquire a one-of-a-kind item that makes me even geekier, I cannot resist. Have a look at this baby below - fits a scorebook, two pens, and a camera comfortably!



A Special Memory

In 2001 I saw all 30 MLB ballparks and the Trop was the site of one of the best games I saw. Roger Clemens took the hill for the Yankees in the early August affair, while rookie Jason Standridge was given his first MLB start for the Devil Rays. Clemens was on an 11-game win streak yet Standridge was the star, throwing over 6 scoreless innings only to have his bullpen blow it in the 9th. Clemens went on to win 19 in a row and the Yankees took the ALCS, knocking off 116-win Seattle.

Fast-forward to Game 7 of the World Series in Phoenix. Clemens started and I was again in attendance. As you all remember, the Yankees lost in the 9th on Luis Gonzalez' squib single off Mariano Rivera and Phoenix went crazy, winning the title in just their 4th year of existence. It was great fun being there as I celebrated with the locals.

For me though, things got even weirder the next day. I went to an Arizona Fall League game in Maryvale and the starter for one team was none other than Standridge! He tossed four hitless innings and his team then went on to a 7-inning, 3-pitcher, combined no-hitter. It amazed me that they could be on the same stage in August and then so far apart, baseball-wise at least, just three months later and no one ever made the connection.

Interestingly, Standridge never realized the promise he showed in his first start, bouncing between the majors and minors before moving to Japan in 2010, where he still throws for the Hanshin Tigers.

Next Up

The FSL season resumes tomorrow and I am in Bradenton to watch the Marauders hosting the St. Lucie Mets. As usual, updates will be posted here.

Best,

Sean

2 comments:

  1. As always, thanks for sharing your travel stories. Love the Matsui foul shot photo.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes, I totally agree with you that the first thing that comes to everyone’s mind is where to park the vehicle. There are many parking lots and many better ways to park the vehicles safe and secure with the best Tampa cruise parking.

    ReplyDelete