One of my friends in Orlando is a Red Sox fanatic. He subscribes to NESN to watch every game. He already bought tickets to Big Papi’s last game at Fenway in October. He plans weekend trips to Ft. Myers to watch them train, and stops at Fenway every time he goes back to Boston. On Sunday March 13 we drove three hours each way from Orlando to Port Charlotte to see the Red Sox play the Rays.
We were lucky enough to score seats in the first row behind home plate. It was a great vantage point to enjoy the Rays’ 13-5 drubbing of the men from Boston. Not only did I see a preview of how I hope the pennant race will go, I also had a glimpse of how things can go for the Rays after they move into their new stadium.
Melanie Lenz, the Rays Senior Vice President of Strategy and Development, is one of the key executives tasked with building the new stadium. Her first project for the Rays when she joined the team in 2006, from the staff of New York’s Economic Development Commission, was to rehab the team’s spring training development facility in Port Charlotte. According to the Rays’ web site, USA Today voted Charlotte Sports Park the number one spring training destination in 2014.
I took time to explore the park after the Rays scored six runs with two outs in the bottom of the second off Porcello. It was a great day for baseball; the sun shone brightly, and the temperature was in the eighties. I wanted to play two. Charlotte Sports Park was full of fans having a great time. Three eight-year old boys roamed the aisles wearing baseball gloves, looking to snag foul balls. It appeared that approximately one-third of the crowd wore Red Sox gear, but their chants of "Go Sox" quieted down considerably when it became clear how the game was going.
While we can expect large contingents of visiting fans to show up to Rays games in the future, particularly when the opposing team is the Sox, the Yankees, and the Mets, my day at Charlotte Sports Park models a not-too-distant future where Rays fans will both outnumber and outshout the visitors. I’m happy to have fans of other teams attend games; every dollar they spend is another dollar the Rays can spend on players.
The Charlotte Sports Park’s boardwalk enables fans to walk from behind home plate all around the stands. This feature proved so popular that Melanie Lenz spearheaded the effort to remodel Tropicana Field to add a similar walk last year. I nodded to the fans picnicking in the grassy areas in far left field, stopped for a beer at the tiki bar in left center, and waved to the glum Red Sox fans who reserved one of the party spaces in center field.
One of the charms of spring baseball is that even when your team is getting crushed you can enjoy seeing your favorite players up close and wondering which rookies may make the team. My buddy was thrilled to see Yoan Moncada, the Sox’s Cuban sensation, get his first hit of the spring. I was thrilled to see Hank Conger hit his first spring homer and continue to make the case the Rays need to start the season with the alliterative catching tandem of Conger and Casali. Prospect Patrick Leonard also contributed a three-run homer. I don’t think he can make the big club this year, but he may make a place for himself in 2017.
Charlotte Sports Park features several amenities the Rays want for their new stadium. It has a children’s playground and a mix of food options from the traditional burger, hot dogs, and fries, to craft beer, wine, and upscale offerings. I consumed a fine hot pretzel and mustard, and the salami special sandwich on pita bread drizzled with balsamic vinegrette. Just like at Tropicana Field, the stadium staff, from ushers to concession stand workers to people selling programs, were friendly, helpful, and happy to be there.
No matter where the new stadium is located, if the fan experience is similar to the one I had at Charlotte Sports Park, the Rays attendance should increase considerably. Of course, my vantage point helped. From the front row it’s much easier to appreciate Enny Romero’s 99 mph fastballs and his 78 mph change up than it is from watching in the upper deck. Seeing Kevin Kiermaier accelerate to full speed out of the box when he hit his double was also amazing; now I understand the pressure his speed puts on opposing fielders.
None of the amenities will matter, though, if the Rays don’t win. The most promising part of the day was watching Rays hitters spank the pitches from the Red Sox starting rotation. As we were exiting, my friend noticed Red Sox GM Dan Duquette in the crowd, looking downcast. He said to Duquette, "Too bad about the game." Duquette simply said, "that wasn’t pretty."
As you may imagine, the three hours back to Orlando was a lot of fun for me. If they hit like that throughout the year, the Rays will run away with the Eastern Division crown. Based on my front row perspective in the middle of spring training, the Rays future remains bright.