Live from the Juice Box, It’s Tropic-Ana and the Rays

Long beyond the waterfront of downtown Tampa, across the deceivingly large bay, and into the neighborhoods of St. Petersburg, Tropicana Field rises into view like a partially-compressed can of sea meat.

“Is there anything I should know about this stadium before we go?” asked my friend Lucy, a Boston sports fan who relies on her city’s record of athletic domination, rather than actual knowledge, to pass off her fandom as respectable. But she was genuinely curious this time.

“Yes,” I assured her. “It’s largely considered one of the worst stadiums in baseball.”

She chuckled at my honest bluntness before I explained how the Tampa Bay Rays were plagued by the perfect confluence of poverty in both the wallet and the imagination.

Tropicana Field, opened in 1990 in hopes of luring a team to the Tampa Bay area, was designed as a baseball facility, yes, but one that valued the versatility of a dome and AstroTurf rather than the aesthetics of actual ballparks. Camden Yards, which opened just two years later, kicked off a new era in baseball architecture, which ironically was in full swing by the time Tropicana Field actually gained a permanent tenant–the Rays in 1998.

Since then, efforts to build the Rays a new ballpark have proved futile, between the politics of public funding for a smaller-market team that can’t muster much attendance and the dance of two cities (Tampa and St. Pete) that both lay claim to the market. And now the awkward pressure of Montreal–a city that wants a team (but certainly not for half of each season, like MLB is suggesting), and Major League Baseball, who wants expansion but can’t justify it with Oakland still playing in a sewer and Tampa Bay occupying a mostly-empty Tropicana Field, has furthered the Rays’ existential dilemma.

“Nobody wants [to build a stadium], and nobody wants the team,” Lucy nutshelled for me and, conveniently, this website. “Not even Canada. And they’re super polite.”

And so it sits…an ironic trophy of baseball’s future according to an architectural era that died before the field could be fulfilled by a team.

“That’s actually the look we were going for,” Lucy’s sister Nic leaned into my description (which I stole from The Ultimate Baseball Road Trip) of the so-called ballpark. “A crushed can of tuna fish.”

Lucy and Nic are certainly not baseball fans. They are, of course, Red Sox fans, eager to join the crowds of displaced New Englanders flocking to The Trop to give it, at least for a weekend, the semblance of popularity. But with Fenway Park as a standard, their fandom in Florida is veritably a farce.

“This almost has an indoor soccer feel,” Lucy analyzed as we entered the closed, concrete, blue concourse wrapping around the turf field. “Like you’re on the field and your teammates are so quiet because all the noise is muffled.”

At least Lucy’s initial comparison was a land sport.

My nose was confused by the lack of chlorine in the air as the screeching echoes, random Plexiglas obscuring the view, and thematically aquatic decor transported me back to some indoor pool facility where I spent hours in agony waiting to swim a 23-second race.

“Do you want a drink?” Nic offered as we passed a stand just a few feet away from our section. She was as bothered by my apparent disinterest in a beverage as I was at her nonchalance about missing the baseball game that was already in progress.

As my friends stood in line, I ducked through a tunnel in time to watch Andrew Benintendi take a few pitches in what would be his only at-bat of the game.

I darted back into the concourse to find Lucy and Nic wandering and wondering why I was nowhere to be found.

“I thought we lost you,” Lucy said as I sped up to them.

“Yeah, you’ll probably lose me a few more times tonight.”

The experience of attending baseball games varies vastly with the company.

We settled into section 134, along the right field foul line, for the bottom of the second inning. Kevin Kiermaier launched a deep fly ball down the line that, from my perspective, looked to shoot the gap between the top of the foul pole and the outermost catwalk under the dismal canopy of the dome. The ball landed on the walkway behind the right field seats as the first base umpire signaled “foul.”

“Are you kidding me,” Kiermaier, arms argumentatively outstretched, appeared to yell at the umpire in the video of the play. It was a rare display of insubordination for a play so easily revieweable. Manager Kevin Cash did challenge the play, and the umpire was indeed correct as the replay clearly showed the ball remain right of the pole.

That was the most exciting play for a long while.

While Tropicana Field may as well not even occupy the same league as the friendly confines of Fenway, the two parks do share a trait (albeit an annoying one)–a lack of femur room.

My knees diagonally protruded into Lucy’s airspace to my left as I strained my body to both get a better view of the field and not bruise my kneecaps. I demonstrated to her my predicament by sitting upright and placing my feet straight ahead on the ground. My knees dug into the seatback.

I excuse Fenway for its density because they had as little room to work with in stadium construction as maybe any Major League team ever. But also, and this is just speculation, people were less entitled and physically shorter in 1912.

“Because science!” Lucy interjected.

Science, I suppose, in the form of steroid-injected food is to blame for our larger American stature.

And the Tampa Bay Rays do champion science, or at least marine biology, at their park.

“When do we get to pet the stingrays?” Nic pleaded after she learned I hadn’t been joking about the live stingray touch tank inside the stadium.

At a lull in the action, we made our way over to center field where a half dozen rays entertain themselves in a modest tank by swimming in circles to avoid the grimy hands descending on their dwelling. I’m sure PETA has written many letters over this spectacle.

We pushed around the hoards of youngsters and their distracted parents trying to frame up that perfect pic for the gram (like you have to do when you want the full Tropicana Field experience for journalistic purposes) and made our way to the edge of the tank where we likewise attempted to frame up social-media worthy pictures.

It’s harder than it looks. And the stingrays are slimier than they look.

“That was gross,” Lucy made sure to express her discontent.

With the game still tied at zero in the fourth inning, it was not hard to convince my compatriots to accompany me on an inquisitive lap around the main concourse. Nic assumed I wanted food, which led to concerned questions every time I passed up a reasonable-looking concession stand.

“I don’t understand. Every baseball fan I know wants their hot dog and popcorn at the game,” she said. “And you haven’t gotten any food yet.”

“I just want to take that picture of you at your first time at this stadium holding your favorite baseball food.”

In the name of novelty, I had no choice but embark upon a culinary scavenger hunt.

The smoked meat carving station looked delicious, but $18 for dinner seemed steep. I was also drawn to Bird & Batter by its metonymical name, expecting bone-in fried chicken or other such fresh poultry–not the lousy chicken tenders and fries that dominated the menu.

Hipsters can really make anything sound better with an ampersand and ambiguity. That would actually be a good name for an independent bookshop in the artsy neighborhood of a city. Ampersand & Ambiguity. Hire me, Portlandia.

What looked far better, and more unique, than previously-frozen fried chicken tenders was a Cuban sandwich. And, while it fell short of Miami’s high Cuban standards, it was an above average ballpark dish.

So I got my food, Nic got her postcard picture, and we continued around the ever-intriguing concourse of Tropicana Field.

“Do you see those people down there?” Lucy had previously asked from our seats, pointing to a gaggle of fans standing on field level behind a chain-link fence. “It looks like they’re in jail.”

The image was accurate, but instead of the section belonging to an exclusive club like I expected, it turns out that fans can simply walk right up to a small section of see-through fence in deep left-center. They can stand right up against the field, that is, if they can make it that far without distraction.

I say that because Lucy and Nic did not. They got hung up marveling at a wall mural nearby.

Tropic-Ana, a Hawaiian-looking (now-retired) Tropicana mascot girl, graced a large swath of the wall for all to see, and laugh at I suppose.

“What?” Lucy was absolutely flabbergasted by the child. “This is ridiculous.”

Their bewilderment at the relatively-normal looking poster child confused me for the time being.

“Is it because she’s not wearing a shirt?” I later asked Lucy, a graphic designer whose opinion I tend to trust on these matters due to my own utter lack of artistic talent.

“Yeah, like I don’t think the lei would do an adequate job of covering her,” she supposed.

“But also her mouth. I think if her mouth were different it wouldn’t be as bad.”

Tropicana also apparently took issue with their own mascot because they discontinued her use in the 1990’s. Perhaps her Pacific ethnicity made her the taboo Chief Wahoo of the juice world. Or Tropicana realized it was improper to market their Floridian product with a Hawaiian character.

Continuing to the left field side, we arrived at the entrance to “162 Landing,” a group party deck in the left field corner where Evan Longoria’s walk-off home run on the final day of the 2011 season, which propelled the Rays to an unlikely playoff berth, actually landed.

Adorning the entrance from the concourse is a timeline of that day’s infamous events, including the Red Sox’ dramatic loss to the Orioles, capping their epic September collapse fueled by complacency, beer, and fried chicken. Lucy and Nic were unfamiliar with the episode, or maybe just feigning ignorance like most Boston sports fans do when it comes to the losing efforts.

“It didn’t really matter because they won the World Series two years later,” I leaned into their fan egos.

“So all they did was eat fried chicken and drink beer?” Nic asked, confused how already-fat baseball players could be worsened by a normal American diet. “It’s funny to think about what used to be scandalous.”

It’s worth noting that, ironically, the Patriots had just released Antonio Brown about five hours before she made that comment.

Inspired by Terry Francona’s 2011 Red Sox, Nic insisted she buy us a round of drinks, so we made our way to the nearest concourse bar, of which there are many. I think I saw more bottles of rum in one night at The Trop than I did in all my four years of college.

The Tampa area has a unique love affair with pirate culture, or all things “Gasparilla”–inspired by the legend of Jose Gaspar, a mythical pirate who now dictates festive attire and is Tampa’s cultural excuse for binge drinking.

He’s like the Floridian Saint Patrick. Except that Saint Patrick was actually real.

Cocktails in hand, we went bottoms up for Gaspar and settled down in a mostly-empty section behind the right field foul pole.

“Steve just wants to catch a foul ball,” Lucy explained to her sister, wondering about my desire for a position change.

It actually turned out to be a much better view as we didn’t have to strain our necks or hips to orient our view toward home plate. And there was more femur room too. But no fouls came our way.

Mitch Moreland finally broke the scoreless tie in the seventh inning with a two-run homer, which excited my companions and most of the rest of The Trop, which was characteristically full of displaced northerners.

But in the bottom of the inning, Tampa Bay scratched across three runs of their own to take the lead.

“We need Big Papi,” Lucy lamented.

“You know he got shot, right?” I asked her.

“Yeah, I might have heard that,” the die-hard Red Sox fan responded.

I had actually just read a Washington Post article earlier that day about David Ortiz’s improving health, which took a nasty turn even after multiple surgeries to repair the bullet damage.

“He just went back to Fenway Park this week to throw out the first pitch,” I said. “But he’s lost about 40 pounds. So he’s more like Medium Papi now.”

Lucy was nice enough to give a token, pity chuckle at my on-brand, unremarkable humor. But an older lady sitting directly in front of me just about lost her lunch laughing, unable to contain the fact that she had been eavesdropping on our devastatingly-lively conversation between two of the most deadpan introverts you could ever meet. She turned around to commend me on my intellect and then shared the joke with her friend before repeatedly mumbling the phrase “Medium Papi” under her breath. I should have referred her to Paul Fritschner’s broadcasting. There’s plenty more where that kind of joke came from.

Now energized by the prospect of winning the game, the Rays’ organist began reverberating the dome with syncopated, call-and-response tunes.

“Baseball is like church,” Lucy marveled. “Everybody knows what to do.” She clearly doesn’t judge people at Christmas Masses the way I do.

“You know, Yogi Berra said something very similar,” I complemented her creative mind, incorrectly attributing the quote that actually belongs to Leo Durocher.

“Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.”

Lucy laughed. “Yogi the Bear said that?”

“No, Yogi Berra. The Yankees catcher,” I informed her. “He also said ‘If you see a fork in the road, take it.'”

She didn’t care.

“Only you can prevent forest fires!”

“That’s Smoky the Bear.”

If only I had remembered Leo Durocher.

The Red Sox bullpen allowed another run in the eighth, prompting many fair weather New Englanders (literally, because they’re in Tampa) to depart the juice box.

“I bet it’s the fried chicken,” Nic proposed at her team’s misfortune. It probably was.

But the Sox must have shared the food with the Rays’ bullpen because Moreland went yard again to tie the game in the top of the ninth. That was a nice lasting baseball memory for my Massachusetts friends, who were content (read: pleading) to leave after nine innings of knotted baseball. They had the car keys, so I of course left as well.

Lucy had, though, asked me to read the scoreboard for her about eight times throughout the night, so I realized I should have just told them that it was the seventh inning and I could have convinced them to stay for all 11. We missed a Willy Adames walk-off hit that kept the Rays up in the AL Wild Card standings and officially eliminated the Red Sox from postseason contention.

There’s always next year.

Actually, there’s always this year. Because Tom Brady.

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