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Are the Rays quietly changing their outside food policy?

The Rays — like 28 other teams in baseball — used to allow outside food at Tropicana Field, but now they don’t. Why?

Joseph Kastelic, 17, of Redwood City, picks up a picnic basket after enjoying a picnic in Dolores Park on Wednesday, July 1, 2020 in San Francisco, Calif. Photo By Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

For many years one of my favorite things about Tropicana Field was that you could, within reason, bring in your own food.

This is not a knock on the concessions available at the stadium. The Rays have worked hard to provide a more interesting and diverse selection of menu items. But there is a limit to what can be offered at food stands, and not everyone’s tastes can be met.

In my semi-immediate family I count two vegetarians, someone with gluten intolerance, two with Crohn’s disease, a diabetic, someone on a salt-restricted diet, and a few who are just plain picky. How nice it is to be able to bring food from home so I know everyone can enjoy an afternoon at the ballpark without going hungry! The Rays do provide information on food that meets some dietary restrictions, but that is very limited.

And of course there is the price of ballpark food. Rays tickets can be, to my mind, a pretty decent deal, but try bringing a couple of kids with you and the cost of a few drinks, hot dogs and popcorn is quickly going to exceed what you paid for those outfield seats.

Last year, the Rays established a number of COVID-related restrictions to allow fans to return to the stadium safely. For a while seats were blocked off to allow distancing (although that ended around mid-2021). To cut down on crowding around bag-search security lines, the Rays prohibited nearly all bags.

As bags were prohibited, bringing in outside food was also eliminated.

Now, in 2022, COVID-related restrictions are mostly gone. Bags are more limited in size than they had been, but the permitted bags — 16” x 8“ — are plenty big enough to carry a sandwich or other food items.

Yet the instructions for visiting Tropicana Field now state:

Outside food or beverage is not permitted, with the exception of one sealed, personal-sized bottle of water. Exceptions can be made for food specifically needed for medical reasons or childcare.

This represents a significant change from pre-COVID instructions, which welcomed outside food (beverages have always been limited to sealed water bottles).

In adopting this approach, the Rays — a team that prides itself on providing fan-friendly, accessible baseball — are well outside the mainstream for the sport. We reviewed the online “visitor guide” for all thirty major league teams and found only one, the Detroit Tigers, that has a clear outside food prohibition.

The vast majority of major league teams — 24 in total — expressly allow outside food to be brought in, usually with some guidelines requiring individual-sized portions but without restriction for a medical condition. Statements over portion sizes are most likely intended to avoid spillage and to make sure food is brought in for individual consumption and not for sale. Among other teams, four don’t mention outside food at all. (Although I have heard that one of these teams, the Oakland A’s, in fact has a very liberal outside food policy. After all those feral cats have to eat).

In other words, most of major league baseball follows the same practices as the Rays did prior to last year.

Have the Rays simply forgotten to update their policies as COVID restrictions fell away? If that is the case, hopefully they will correct this error as soon as possible. But if this is not related to COVID-era safety, have the Rays quietly shifted their stance on outside food hoping fans wouldn’t notice?

Now, in reality, I assume that ticket takers are not asking for doctors’ notes. If you bring in a sandwich and say it’s for medical reasons, it seems reasonable to expect that they most likely will not challenge you or ask for proof.

But why create this kind of uncertainty for fans? Why put gameday staff in the position of asking guests about their medical conditions?

The Rays could easily return to their 2019 food policies, much as the rest of the league’s teams have done, and allow attendees to bring their own food.

UPDATE:

Following the publishing of this article, the Rays provided the following statement:

We are not returning to pre-pandemic food policies because of continued health and safety protocols and procedures. In addition, much like the bag policy, it also reduces queues and wait times at security screening.