It was a thrilling home opener at Tropicana Field, with two banners raised to recognize the 2020 American League champions. The energy in the stadium was high, even though capacity was only between six and nine thousand fans. You could sense the joy — and relief — among season ticket holders and Rays employees.
Baseball had returned, and people were here to enjoy it.
I had the privilege of attending the home opener against the Yankees and walking the stadium to document everything new. If you’re on the fence about returning to Tropicana Field in the near term, or if you’re curious about what changes have occurred, allow this article to be your guide.
Entering the ballpark
I cannot attest well to the time it might normally take to enter the ballpark, as I arrived more than an hour before the game, but disclaimers, social distancing, and guidelines were evident.
2021’s new rules have curtailed some of the practices we are used to seeing at Tropicana Field. This year, there are no bags, no purses, no outside food, and no tailgating — although I certainly saw some socially distanced fans chowing down 90 min before the game shortly after lots opened.
As you enter the stadium, you are greeted by Rays staff in matching masks provided by BayFront Health, a synergy of advertising (BayFront is the team’s big new sponsor) and best practices in public health.
Where staff interact with fans, clear barriers are constructed, as is typical of any retail establishment you might visit.
All concourses were open and the limited number of fans prevented over crowding.
At thoroughfares where lines could build up in hallways stations were closed, but the large food concourses were open just around the corner. It also surely helped that the Rays re-opened the 300 level for fans.
The only person I saw without a mask was Wade Boggs...
Social distancing and capacity limits were in place at all team store locations, including the alcoves by the food hall atriums.
Staff were also eager to help direct guests if they had an idea of what they were looking for to facilitate moving the line, although I must admit the line for the main team store seemed slow moving.
As for the food halls, the bright and open space was certainly the most socially distanced option for ordering food, with opportunities to order on your phone and pick up food from designated counters. This was true at open vendors throughout the stadium.
Stickers on the floor marked the proper spacing for 6’ and for the most part people obliged.
For the most part, but not in all cases. The line for alcohol vendors were tight and wrapped into the walkways. It was the only situation in which I could not find a socially distanced option readily available, especially with beer vendors prevented from walking the aisles.
Draft beer was not available on game day, instead cans were provided which is a reasonable alternative to... well, I’m not exactly sure why but I bet there’s a good reason.
Mix drinks were available as well, and those were served in mason-jar inspired souvenir glasses.
Finding your seat
Upon entering the concourse for seats, Fan Hosts are ready and waiting to help you locate your seating and, if necessary remind you to Rays Up your mask. Even ol’ Raymond the Sea Dog was masked up!
In each section, rows of seats are zip-tied together to prevent people from sitting in areas not designated for a socially distanced pod.
In some cases entire rows are zip tied to allow more social distancing and walk ways through the park that are not the 365 concourse were sometimes blocked.
And for retractable seats, blocked locations are wrapped and also cannot be used.
Even seats along the rail have been socially distanced.
Changes in the outfield
For those curious, one of the more noticeable and dramatic changes has been to the bullpens, which have now expanded into the seating areas by the field.
Evidently players are welcome to use this area for watching the game.
Part of me wonders if the Rays should consider moving the mound into that area to re-claim foul territory, but that would likely decrease the number of seats available further.
Players may use this area closer to the dugout to warm while the game is ongoing instead of travelling below the seats.
In the outfield we find that the cownose rays have not returned to their tank.
Here is a view of the Budweiser porch, where — again — social distancing was a bit more scarce than in other areas of the park.
Here food staff prepare orders for pickup without the need to process requests.
One other area of note is the “deck” that is currently unsponsored. Captain Morgan and Trade Winds previously claimed the area of the park, but with no fans allowed to congregate there, it will be interesting to see whether a new sponsor will be identified.
I interviewed fans throughout the park to get their impressions of Tropicana Field’s “new normal”. They found a lot to like:
- Mobile ordering from diverse food vendors.
- Re-opening of the 300-level.
- Helpful, positive Fan Host and Rays employee interactions.
But a few changes were less appreciated:
- No beer vendors walking the aisles, infrequent opportunities to acquire beer, lack of social distancing at bar locations.
- Parking did not open until 90-min before the game, causing fans who paid for parking but who also wanted to eat locally before the game to pay for parking twice.
- No bags! I spoke to multiple women in the park who felt that a clutch purse, as allowed at Raymond James, or accessibility to hygiene products could have been a compromise on the No Bag policy at Tropicana Field (or at Amelie Arena, it should be note) this season.
Despite the restrictions, Tropicana Field was a lively venue for the home opener. Fan interaction with Randy Arozarena was fun and frequent while he was on defense, and the Rays put the smack down on the Yankees in a brisk, 10-5 victory.
It was also refreshing to not have any card board cut outs in the stand... well there was one exception.
From what I saw, fans — like Dan Johnson here — observed mask mandates and kept their distance when they could. It was only areas with beer sales where a bit of crowding was evident. The Rays employees and fans seem to have worked together to create an atmosphere that is both welcoming and safe.