Before the 7 o’clock Rays game, we stopped in a little historic neighborhood in Tampa known as Ybor City. In the 1880s, cigar manufacturers and thousands of immigrants from Italy, Cuba, Spain, Romania, and Germany founded the district, and it quickly grew into a bustling, diverse community, producing millions of cigars a year. But after The Great Depression, cigars became less popular as people started buying cheaper cigarettes, so the factories started shutting down… and by the 1960’s the town was almost completely abandoned. But in the early ’80s, musicians and artists started moving into the old buildings, and after just a few years, the district became full of restaurants, bars, and clubs. One Spanish restaurant called Columbia was founded in 1905, and actually made it through all the troubles of the city, and remains open as the oldest Spanish restaurant in America. But we decided to eat at a two-month-old chophouse called Carne instead, where we split a few appetizers and a sandwich for lunch.
I’m not usually a big deviled egg fan, but these were pretty good, with a bite of bacon sticking out of the middle of it to add a nice salty crunch. The Oyster Rockers were good too, which were filled with Andouille sausage, corn, tomatoes, and topped with a spinach and cheddar cheese crust.
The best appetizer was the Prosciutto Wrapped Mozzarella, and the prime rib sandwich was also pretty good, but needed a little more horseradish mayo to bring out the flavor… the hoagie roll was perfectly toasted though.
I also want to mention that the girls at the table next to us had the cutest pitbull puppy I have ever seen…
After lunch we took the ride into St. Petersburg to arrive about two hours early for the game so we could walk around and maybe catch some batting practice. There was a nice walkway from the parking lot leading to the main gate, with a painted ground mural depicting an underwater scene with different types of fish (didn’t see any rays, though) and coral, flanked by rows of palm trees, with the ballpark in the background.
Turns out, they don’t even let people into the stadium until about an hour and a half before first pitch, so we had to wander the gift shop for a few minutes until they kicked us back outside to wait in a crowded courtyard until opening the gates. But when they finally did, we made our way straight to the Rays Touch Tank outside the right-center field wall. This 35-foot, 10,000-gallon open tank contains a couple dozen cow nose rays, which a group of up to 50 fans at a time are allowed to see and even touch for up to a 10-minute visit. They were much faster swimmers than I thought, so it was hard to pet their wings without another ray swimming up and brushing against my forearm without me thinking it was going to bite me or sting me or whatever they do. And we didn’t do this, but for just a $5 donation, anyone can feed the rays by holding a piece of fish underwater, “like an ice cream cone” as our guide described it, and a ray will swim over your hand and suck it right up. Also, if any player hits a home run into the tank (which is about 370 feet from home), the Rays organization will donate $2,500 to the Florida Aquarium, and another $2,500 to that player’s charity of choice. Luis Gonzalez is the only hitter to do this, which was in 2007.
Ted Williams Museum & Hitters Hall of Fame:
This is probably my favorite exhibit in all of the parks so far: The Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame. The downstairs entrance has a room filled with memorabilia of both past and present stars, including autographed baseballs and game-used bats of members of the 500-home run club and gear signed by current players. But the 7,000-square-foot room upstairs is really something amazing. Williams retired to Florida after the greatest hitting career in the history of the game (and some years of coaching too), and this museum depicts so many aspects of his life – from signed baseballs and game-used jerseys and mitts, to stuffed fish that he caught himself, to even a boxing glove given to him by Muhammad Ali that’s signed, “To Ted Williams THE GREATEST from Muhammad Ali THE GREATEST.” The ball shown below was signed by both Teddy and Babe Ruth in 1946.
But this is just the beginning… the other side of this huge upstairs room is filled with rows of glass cases dedicated to dozens of the game’s best hitters. Teddy himself designed this exhibit in 1994, and chose the 20 initial members to be inducted based on what he called a “secret formula.” The top-ten honorees include Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Rogers Hornsby, Joe DiMaggio, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Joe Jackson, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays, in order. And the memorabilia on display for each of these majestic men varies greatly, but the coolest item in my opinion is Babe Ruth’s very first contract, signed on January 6, 1916 for a salary of $2,625.00 by the Boston American League Baseball Club (Red Sox). Yes, the actual contract that he sat beside owner and president Joseph Lannin and signed to officially begin his glorious baseball career at the age of 21. If you’re like me and want to read every word of this document, you can click on it for a larger picture.
Some of my other favorite cases were of Wade Boggs, Carl Yastrzemski, Johnny Bench, Tony Gwynn, and Phillie greats Mike Schmidt and Richie Ashburn (which Ashburn Alley is named after, if you remember from my Philadelphia post a while back). Each of these had similar items like used jerseys and cleats and signed baseballs, but some unique pieces too, like a magazine with the player featured on the cover from his day.
I’m sure most fans would agree with me that baseball should be played outdoors, with the midday sun beating down on the fresh-cut grass. But Tropicana Field doesn’t provide any of these opportunities. It is the only current MLB stadium with a fixed, domed roof, and is accompanied by an Astroturf playing surface (otherwise known as “GameDay Grass”). But it’s no real grass, and there’s no sun shining through any parts of the stadium. The dome is made of Teflon-coated fiberglass, and looks like similar material to the workout bubble at my high school (West Orange High, NJ). It ranges from 225 feet above 2nd base to just 85 feet above the center field wall, and is supported by 180 miles of cables connected by 4 catwalks at different heights. The catwalks are so low that they’re hit pretty often and there are rules about what happens if a ball strikes one on the fly: if one of the two lowest catwalks is struck in fair territory, the result is a home run; if one of the two higher catwalks is struck in fair territory, then the ball is in play and can be caught or fall foul or reach the stands for a ground rule double.
There aren’t many other unique aspects to the ballpark, except for a cool arcade game section and a minute-to-minute timeline of the final day of last year’s regular season (easily the most dramatic day in my baseball fanhood life). For anyone who doesn’t know, the Red Sox led the AL Wild Card by 9 games on September 4th with 24 games left to play in the season. That’s a pretty big playoff advantage, with statistical calculations giving them a 99.78% chance of making the postseason. But the team collapsed in the last month of the season, and on the last day they were tied for the Wild Card spot with the Tampa Bay Rays. If the Sox lost their game against the Orioles and the Rays beat the Yankees, the Rays would be in the playoffs (and vice versa: if the Rays lost and the Sox won, the Sox would be in the playoffs). Papelbon enters the bottom of the 9th inning with a 3-2 lead, blows just his 3rd save opportunity all season, then loses the game on back-to-back doubles for a walk-off win by the Orioles. Meanwhile here in Tampa Bay, the Rays came back from being down 7-0 after 7 innings against the Yankees and tied the game, forcing extra innings (amazing in itself). And literally 2 minutes after the Red Sox lose their game, Evan Longoria of the Rays hits a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 12th inning, winning the game 8-7, sending them into the 2011 playoffs and knocking the Red Sox out of contention, completing one of the most historic comebacks in the history of baseball. Sorry for my readers who aren’t the biggest baseball fans and don’t really get any of this, but it was such an amazing day of baseball that I felt I had to include it somehow. And for those of you who would learn better pictorially than from reading this very detailed description, here’s a graph from the end of the timeline in Tropicana showing the Red Sox and Rays chances of reaching the playoffs last year:
The food we had before the game was too good to follow up with the hot dog we had at Tropicana Field, which really wasn’t that special (still better than the Dodger Dog, though). So I’ll skip a food section and just talk about the game. We’ve seen both teams already this summer (the Tigers in Boston and the Rays in New York), but we got to see Max Scherzer pitch against James Shields, who have both been two of the game’s more consistent pitchers over the past few years. And seeing Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera is always fun, seeing how they’re two of the biggest and strongest hitters out there. Shields gave up 14 hits and 4 runs, but still lasted almost 8 innings; and Scherzer had a great game, giving up only 2 runs on 4 hits in 6 innings.
DJ Kitty was definitely an interesting part of the game entertainment, who’s apparently a secondary mascot (after Raymond the Ray) for the organization… maybe because of the catwalks? I really don’t know, but he shows up on the huge videoboard during the late innings wearing a sideways baseball cap, Rays jersey, and gold chain, scratching a record to some interesting remixed rally song… and the fans love it. Well, the few fans that are ever at the games.
Final score: Rays 2, Tigers 5
Starting pitchers: James Shields (L) – 7.2 IP, 14 H, 1 BB, 4 ER, 6 Ks; Max Scherzer – 6 IP, 4 H, 2 BB, 2 ER, 7 Ks
Home run: Miguel Cabrera
Next stop: 7/4 – Citi Field for the New York Mets against our Phillies who will probably lose once again!