“I had a friend, who was a big baseball player back in high school, he could throw that speed ball by you, make you look like a fool.” Bruce Springsteen – Glory Days
Back in the early 1980’s spring training was a sleepy affair, held in small wooden ballparks, that were for the most part, built in the 1920’s and 1930’s. That changed in the mid-80s with the opening of the Houston Astros in Kissimmee at the (at the time) state-of-the-art mega complex. Pro-sports teams, are nothing if not copycats, so soon every team wanted a joint like the ‘Stros had — the ballpark wars were on.
Cities in Florida and Arizona tripped over themselves running for their checkbooks to lure teams with the promise of bigger and better complexes. One of the first was the sleepy Gulf-Coast-fishing-burg of Port Charlotte. Located about 30 miles up the coast from Fort Myers, Port Charlotte has always been southwest Florida’s red headed stepchild — smaller than Fort Myers and less chic than Naples. City fathers set out to change this image, and the first step was to be “major league”. They built what was essentially a replica of the Astros’ Kissimmee complex and lured to town Texas’ other team, the Rangers.
Fifteen short years later, when the original lease ran out, the once state-of-the-art ballpark had, of course, been surpassed by newer, bigger, and better parks in other cites. In 2003, showing the undying loyalty pro-sports teams are known for, the Rangers abandoned Port Charlotte for Surprise, Arizona. This left Port Charlotte with an empty, antiquated ballpark and spring training complex.
In stepped the Tampa Bay Rays. Training just down the street from their regular season home in St. Pete since their inception in 1998, the Rays were looking to extend their fan base down the Gulf Coast. They knocked on Port Charlotte’s door and struck a deal. In 2009, after $27 million in renovations, the Rays moved into their new, “old” home.
The renovations, by noted ballpark architects Populous, have done wonders for the place. New clubhouses, batting cages, new seats, a new façade for the grandstand, all new concessions and a team store are some of the highlights. The grandstand interior was for the most part retained, so the stadium lacks the open concourses of some of the newer parks. This, however, is cleverly made up for by the stadium’s defining feature, the baseball boardwalk. The boardwalk rings the entire outfield, allowing fans to walk 360 degrees around the park.
Concessions ring the boardwalk including beer, gyros, burgers, and chicken sandwiches. On a side note, the cheese steak sandwich is the best I’ve ever had outside of Philly and is located next to the boardwalk’s defining feature, the tiki bar in left center field. The beer selection includes Sam Adams, Yuengling, and Summit Pale Ale, but alas, no hometown Cigar City brew.
The renovations by Populous and the Rays are, in my opinion, brilliant. They give the place a more intimate and relaxed feel than most of the other, newer spring training parks. There are places to stand, or sit on barstools, and chat baseball with your fellow fans or even the players. It’s almost like an updated version of the older spring parks that brought fans and players close together for one glorious month every spring, when all players are equal, and all teams in first place.