Game 25: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, FL

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“Oh, you should’ve been here last night.”

At least 4 people told me that during my time at Tropicana Field last night. Why? Well, for starters, they won on Tuesday night, 6-1. It was the second straight win against the Yankees, and since more than half of the fans in attendance were Yankees fans, a series win is a very satisfying thing.

It was also another stop on the Derek Jeter Farewell Tour. The Rays presented him with a kayak with pinstripes, apparently. Personally, I’d rather get the BBQ sauce set that the Royals gave Paul Konerko last night instead, but maybe #2 does more kayaking than the average person. Multiple times over the weekend the typical DER-ek JE-ter *clap, clap, clapclapclap* chant spread throughout The Trop.

So the Yankees fans kept telling me I’d missed the ceremony. Rays fans kept telling me that I’d missed a butt-kicking. I kept jokingly responding with, “a pox upon me for a clumsy lout,” as if I was going to adjust my itinerary to see Derek Jeter get honored. Again.

Tempers flared that night as well when Derek Jeter got hit in the hand in the 8th inning. Both dugouts were warned. Yankees manager, Joe Girardi went off and got tossed. Then the Yankees retaliated and hit Kevin Kiermeier in the next half inning and the dugouts emptied. There wasn’t a brawl, but a lot of jawing at one another while coaches restrained angry players.

But that was Tuesday. Last night was Wednesday. Let’s talk about Wednesday in St. Petersburg.

The Trop isn’t a miserable place, but it also isn’t great. The main entrance and concourse feels like a shopping mall, and you can’t see any of the game through the concourse. The grandstand is one giant bowl and the vendors don’t provide any visibility into that bowl unless you get back to the seats. There are TVs everywhere though, so that’s nice.

The seats are bright blue, which is kinda refreshing and cool, but about 1/5 of them are covered with tarps because the Rays hardly ever come anywhere close to selling out. Unless the Yankees are in town, which they were yesterday, it’s typically a pretty desolate place to see a game.

The worst part about the Trop: the outfield grass. The AstroTurf in Tampa Bay is uuuuuuugly. It’s splotchy and black and streaky in places. It looks greasy and wet in large swaths across the outfield. While most clubs have gorgeously maintained lawns, the Rays basically have an ugly stained carpet. The warning tracks are fake too.

The infield dirt, however, is real, thank goodness.

There’s a giant aquarium tank in the center field stands too. You can touch the rays with your own hands – two fingers, along the wings, according to the tank attendant. They’re rubbery. I didn’t like it.

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Despite this being just the Rays 17th season as a franchise, Tropicana Field is 25 years old. St. Petersburg spent a decade trying to lure a baseball team to come to Florida, and the giant white dome was one of the major moves they made in hopes of landing a team.

The experience bringing the Rays to Tampa Bay was quite the roller coaster ride.

In July 1988, there was a vote that nearly passed to move the Chicago White Sox to St. Petersburg. They had been in talks with the Twins, Mariners, A’s and even the Tigers as their ballparks were growing older to move them to Florida. Talks with the Twins progressed somewhat too, but obviously didn’t work out. In 1993, they tried to land an expansion team, but the Marlins were awarded to South Florida and Rockies to Colorado instead.

At one point – and this is just crazy to think about – the San Francisco Giants even signed paperwork to make the move from crumbling Candlestick Park to play at The Trop. Thankfully, Major League Baseball blocked the move. Can you imagine a world where the Giants play in Florida?*

* – Probably exactly what people were saying when the Giants and Dodgers moved west in the first place.

Finally, the roller coaster of possible suitors ended in 1998 when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays became a thing.

Originally, they wanted to be the Stingrays, but there was another team in Hawaii already called that and Vince Naimoli – the penny-pinching paranoid micromanaging former owner of the Devil Rays – didn’t want to pay the measly $35k it cost to purchase naming rights. So they went with the Devil Rays instead.

A story just to get an idea of the kind of guy Naimoli was: he created a strict No Outside Food rule as to force patrons to purchase everything inside the park. Naimoli enforced this rule extremely well: he would roam the stands himself and if he found someone with outside food, he would ask what gate they had entered through and immediately fire whatever employee was assigned to that gate, no questions asked. Once, a bus of senior citizens came to the ballpark and a woman in a wheelchair was found with a granola bar in her purse. When she was asked to throw it away, she explained that she was a diabetic and needed it to stabilize her blood sugar level. When they wouldn’t budge without her ditching the granola bar, she opted to wait in the bus for 4 hours until after the game was over. That’s the sort of penny-pinching we’re talking about.

There was lots if immediate backlash to the name. The public hated it and they hated the color scheme/logo even more. Naimoli held a public vote between the Devil Rays and Manta Rays. When the voting opened, Manta Rays was winning in a landslide. Slowly and mysteriously, the gap narrowed, and about the time it was almost 50-50, the polls closed and Devil Rays was declared the winner, which was fortunate for Naimoli because all that money spent on “Devil Rays” gear would’ve gone to waste.

Vince Naimoli just didn’t get it. He made his millions by buying failing businesses, slashing all extraneous positions and expenses, and resurrecting it by doing things as extreme as forcing employees to reuse Post-It notes.

As the owner of a baseball franchise, this didn’t translate. The Devil Rays’ didn’t even have a company email account during the majority of his tenure. Everyone had to email from their personal AOL, Yahoo!, or Hotmail address because Naimoli was too cheap to pony up and pay for company email. And the worst part was that everyone was so afraid they’d get fired, no one stood up to his antics. They lived in fear.

The quality of ownership was reflected on the field. The Devil Rays were absolutely dreadful.

While the process of getting a team was a roller coaster, the Devil Rays first decade of existence was anything but. It was more of a flat line. Between 1998 and 2007, the Devil Rays finished dead last in the AL East every year but once, and that year they finished second to last. They lost 90+ games all ten years and 100+ three years.

They were an absolute embarrassment and the laughing stock of Major League Baseball.

So, in 2007, they exorcized the “Devil.”

No, I’m not calling Naimoli the devil. Chill out, you guys. I’m talking about the name change. They dropped the “Devil” and simply became the Rays. And while the team still embraced the sea creature as it’s namesake, it was also an allusion to the other meaning for the word: a ray of sunshine.

Brighter, sunnier days were coming. And soon.

It was time for a change. There was a new philosophy of Rays Baseball. One that centered around defensive analytics and being comfortable going against the grain of baseball tradition. In the same way that the Oakland Athletics’ Moneyball thinking redefined how to win in baseball, the Rays needed to do the same. Otherwise, they’d always stay behind the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East.

And while I wasn’t calling Naimoli the devil, he did decide to step out of his role as owner. There was a new ownership, new GM, new marketing, new color scheme, new logo…and a new manager who was the perfect match for this new era of baseball at The Trop.

Joe Maddon was hired by the Tampa Bay Rays and he is NOT your traditional manager. He isn’t afraid to push against orthodoxy and do things managers aren’t supposed to do. For example, he doesn’t like to utilize a traditional closer. Instead, he will bring in his best reliever at the most crucial point. If the bases are loaded with 1 out in the 7th, he won’t hesitate to pitch the guy who usually throws the 9th.

He breaks unwritten rules. One time in a game against the Rangers, Maddon intentionally walked Josh Hamilton to pitch to Marlon Byrd with the bases loaded. He didn’t care that it let in a run, the score was 7-2 at the time, he just believed that they were more likely to get Byrd out than Hamilton. Unlike the Naimoli era, ther is no fear in Tampa these days.

In 2007, the new leadership didn’t do much. Why? Because they didn’t feel it was important to win immediately. They could’ve worked hard to put the best team they could out on the field. Instead, they decided to take their time, flip some assets, and play for the future.

“Trust the process,” became their motto.

Royals fans are now familiar with this phrase – their own period of ineptitude, Dayton Moore started utilizing it as well. And now, 8 years later, they have fruits to show for their patience.

But for the Rays, it was much quicker. As in immediately. In 2008 – very next year – the Rays won the American League Championship and advanced to their first World Series. Worst to first.

Granted, spending a decade in the basement had produced a solid crop of young draft talent that was ready to emerge in the majors, but this was a different team – a different franchise and fanbase – than it had been.

The fans are a mixed group. On the one hand, there’s a youthful party vibe to Tropicana Field as might be expected for a young franchise. However, with the large number of retired individuals living in the Tampa area, there seems to be a segment of elderly fans too, but the majority are a raucous bunch.

One of the moves the new management made was to make it fun to come to The Trop. This meant summer concert series and goofy promotions. The most popular was Cowbell Night where fans received cowbells as an homage to the SNL, Blue Oyster Cult skit with Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken. The cowbells stuck and are now around at every home game.

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I was sitting out in right field for most of the night, and there, right in front of me, was Wil Myers. Myers was traded to the Rays two years ago along with Jake Odorizzi in exchange for James Shields and Wade Davis. It was a hotly contested move at the time, and one that seems to have actually paid off for the Royals and the Rays…assuming the Royals don’t blow it down the stretch.

Myers is smooth and casual and makes the game look easy. He made a leaping catch up against the wall last night that most players can’t make.

“Oh, to be young,” says Ichiro, probably. The Yankees right fielder spends literally every spare moment in the field bending and squatting and stretching out to make sure he is as loose as can be. At his age, he can’t walk out and play like he could when he was Myers age.

There was at least a buzz around the place – something that exists only depending on the opponent and/or promotion. Sadly, most of the buzz supported the rival Yanks.

Anyway, all that to say, it was an…okay experience. Not sure what the theme is here yet. Probably something about leadership and communication and fear. I have some ideas but I’ll have to flesh them out a bit before I write any of it down.

For now, some game notes.

Game Notes:

The game was a good one. Both starters pitched well to start the game. Alex Cobb, who nearly threw a no hitter against these same Yankees in his last start against them, retired the Yankees in order the first time through the lineup. He worked around a lead off single to start the fourth, and had 0 runs on 1 hit through 4 innings.

In the bottom half, the Rays got on the board first when Evan Longoria – the most prized of those many early draft picks through the years – hit a solo HR to center field. 1-0 Rays.

Brandon McCarthy started for the Yankees, and he needs to thank his defense for the win last night. In the first inning, Ben Zobrist led off with a single, and then David DeJesus scorched a grounder up the middle that looked destined for the outfield “grass.” Instead, it ended up in second baseman Brendan Ryan’s glove as he dove up the middle. If that ball finds green, it would be 1st & 3rd, nobody out. Instead, it got Zobrist with a 4-6 fielder’s choice. DeJesus got thrown out trying to steal second soon after, and McCarthy, somehow, only faced three batters in the first.

After Longo’s bomb, the wheels started coming off for Alex Cobb. Slowly in the 5th, and then entirely in the 6th.

The 5th started with Cobb hitting Chris Young with a pitch, who scored on a Chase Headley double. Headley then score himself when Ryan doubled two batters later and the Yankees took the lead, 2-1.

Then in the 6th, Cobb gave up a single to Jeter and three walks. Amazingly, the Yankees only plated one run as Jeter tagged up and scored on Myers dazzling play in right field. The Rays got 1 back when DeJesus led off with a triple in the bottom of the 6th, but that was it. Yankees took the final game i the series 3-2 and avoided the sweep.

Twenty-five down. Five to go.

Up next: Miami Marlins.

-apc.

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