If the Major League Baseball season were to end today, the best record in all of baseball would belong not to any of the teams experts believed would have held this honor, but instead would go to the Tampa Bay Rays.
That’s right. Tampa Bay is currently playing better ball than teams that were projected to be in contention for the World Series, including the Boston Red Sox, the Chicago Cubs, the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers. What makes this even more impressive is Tampa Bay has the lowest payroll of all 30 teams, paying $53 million for its roster, a far cry from the Red Sox, Cubs, Yankees and Washington Nationals, all of whom have a roster costing more than $200 million.
Although the Rays are riding high in the American League East right now, there is one place, besides the team’s payroll, where Tampa Bay sits at the bottom of all of professional baseball — its home venue. Consistently rated among the worst sports venues in North America and the last remaining dome in the majors, Tropicana Field (aka the Trop) has seen far better days, and it’s time for the Rays to find a new place to call home.
The Trop was built in the late 1980s when St. Petersburg, Florida was looking to bring in a baseball team interested in relocating (the Chicago White Sox were the top contender for this honor), which of course never happened. So, by the time the Devil Rays (as they were called when they were founded) first took the field in 1998, their home was already a decade old.
One key issue with the Trop is not only the fact it is a domed stadium, but the ceiling is white, just like a baseball. There have been instances where players have tried fielding a popup, only to lose the ball against the ceiling and end up misplaying it. Of course players can lose sight of a ball in the glare of the sun at an outdoor venue, but searching for a white ball against a sky blue backdrop is slightly easier.
Early on in the team’s existence, ownership neglected basic upkeep of the stadium, which only made some of its problems worse. A book about the team, “The Extra 2%,” listed several such issues, including restrooms where some of the sinks didn’t turn on while others had been running virtually non-stop for several years. Meanwhile, the team’s owner was being tightfisted, refusing to spend more than absolutely necessary on the team or its park.
Lastly, the Trop suffers from the same problem another domed stadium had. Both it and Olympic Stadium in Montreal were quite some distance from the center of their fanbases. Olympic Stadium is located relatively far from downtown Montreal and, coupled with the structural issues it had, it was not always easy for the Expos to play to a packed house. Meanwhile, the Trop sits on the opposite side of Tampa Bay from the city of Tampa where much of the Rays’ fanbase is. Some estimates have suggested it can take Rays fans in Tampa an hour to get across the bay, thus leading to lower turnout numbers. Even in 2008, when the Rays went to the World Series, Tampa Bay was 26th in league attendance with approximately 1,781,000 fans coming through the turnstiles.
With a stadium that can be difficult to access and in need of a serious makeover, it’s time to give the Rays a new home. As the team seems to have found ways to compete again, the fans and players deserve a nicer venue. Sometimes it’s good to hang on to the past (Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, among others), and sometimes it’s better to move on to something new.
Donald Campbell is a former staff writer for The Outlook.