When I was a kid, I acquired an awesome used book, The Whole Baseball Catalogue, which is described as “an authoritative compendium of information on everything to do with America’s favorite pastime.” Indeed. It had a section on stadiums. Another on baseball cards. I learned about the great voices of the game in other parts of the country; that baseball was played in Alaska during the summer months. I even learned who supplied the dirt for Major League infields.
The chapter on stadiums profiled the “Florida Suncoast Dome,” a brand new (at the time) building constructed in St. Petersburg, FL to lure the Chicago White Sox or some other embattled franchise from their antiquated digs. The dome looked cool in pictures, and in an era when I played a lot of Bases Loaded on Nintendo, where every stadium looked like a glazed donut with a neon green center and pitchers still rolled in bullpen cars, the Suncoast Dome seemed totally appropriate for baseball. The dome was just a donut without the hole.
It would take St. Petersburg five years to find a Major League Baseball tenant; a full eight years before the Tampa Bay Devil Rays debuted in 1998. Possibly no eight-year span in baseball history did more to kill off the era of cold, unfeeling domes lined with plastic grass. Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards debuted in 1992, Cleveland’s Jacobs (now Progressive) Field in 1994, and so on. By 1998, as a dozen Major League teams readied themselves for new stadiums with retro touches, the ballpark in St. Pete was already a relic from a bygone age.
I visited the Suncoast Dome, renamed Tropicana Field, on a four-city baseball trip in 2012 which took me through Atlanta, Miami and St. Petersburg, wrapping up with a weekend in Washington, DC. I don’t have much to say about the stadium experience; though I was able to easily move around and catch the game (against the Minnesota Twins) from a number of angles, none were particularly memorable.
Depending on how you feel about mascots, Raymond is probably in the upper echelon. Parking, tickets and ballpark concessions were relatively inexpensive, which is a plus. The drive from Tampa isn’t all that bad, either. But then there’s DJ Kitty, and if they’re still using the “Feel the Heat Rays” home run song, well, that’s just unacceptable.
And, of course, they can’t fill the thing. I remember some poor Rays fans on Twitter telling me how MLB won’t allow the team to sell tickets for a third world country of tarped-over upper deck seats because they’re “obstructed view,” which is funny because I just went to Houston and paid for seats where I could not see any of L.J. Hoes‘ area code (left field). At Fenway, I sit behind poles. Rays fans: it’s OK to admit you don’t live in a baseball town. You’ve got a great team.
The coolest feature of Tropicana Field is the Ted Williams Hitters’ Hall of Fame, moved from its previous location in Hernando, FL. According to the friendly lady at the entrance, the Red Sox had a chance to bring the Hitters’ Hall to Boston, but passed. Fenway doesn’t exactly have the available space for a museum, but it would have been cool to see in the Boston area: tons of memorabilia from Williams’ career and military exploits, nods to great Negro League players, and of course, the “Hall of Fame,” featuring lockers full of mementos from the careers of talented batsmen. Some of my favorites were there: Stan Musial, Al Kaline and Rod Carew, among a multitude of others.
Several innings of the game went by as I passed from stall to stall, soaking up the history. Then I realized I’d better get back out there — I was missing my chance to spend a warm summer evening in a fluorescent-lit echo chamber watching two teams do battle on an artificial surface.
Ah, Tropicana Field — the last dome in Major League Baseball. To be kind, you are truly one of a kind.