Thought processes and conversations started under the tilted cap of Tropicana Field. Someday everyone will know the Rays play in St. Petersburg, Florida, not TAMPA, or the fictitious city of TAMPA BAY.
It isn’t any wonder that after Minnesota Twins slugger Jason Kubel hit his high game winning pop-up into the center vortex of Tropicana Field that opponents came out of the woodwork like a bunch of festering cockroaches to condemn the Tampa Bay Rays home. Immediately after the ball struck the A-ring and came down 25 feet in front of where Rays infielders Reid Brignac and Jason Bartlett were stationed, the catwalk carnage was just getting started within the media posse’ in the Rays Press Box. But with these two American League foes, this is the third time the Tropicana Field catwalks have had it say in the course of a Major League Baseball game. Twice the advantage went to the home team, this time, it went for a game winning RBI pop-up single for the Twins
And it is nothing new for the out-of-town media to begin to bicker and rant about the stadium they call an architectural pinball machine. But it did come as a surprise that Rays Manager Joe Maddon, who has been at the helm of the Rays for 3 ½ seasons became its latest detractor after Thursday matinee game. Maddon did everything short of calling the Trop a circus big top and professed that Major Leagues Baseball needs to make changes to the Trop’s present Ground Rules if the Rays make it into the 2010 Playoffs. This was the same Rays Manager who once said we had to embrace the peculiarities of our home field and use them as a unplanned home field advantage. Funny what comes out of your mouth when the “advantage” works against you.
And the Rays home is far from unfair or holds a distinctive home field advantage of some other ballparks around the country. Tropicana Field doesn’t have the luxury of a short Rightfield porch that Yankee Stadium possesses, or even the oddity of a flagpole perched upon a uphill grade within the playing surface like the Houston Astros. Each MLB stadium has it’s own distinctive advantage for the home squad. The problem with the Trop’s apparent advantages is that it can go either way in a matter of seconds.
Tropicana Field’s irregularities are viewed on a vertical scale, while those other examples have a more planed or horizontal distinction. I have even heard the roof support structures of the Trop referred to as the four rings of the apocalypse by a member of the National media. It is almost like the rings surrounding the playing surface of Tropicana Field are a vortex that white baseball enter, but are never seen again…most of the time.
Sure we have seen two different game day occurrences so far in 2010 of a hit baseball entering the upper echelon of the Trop’s air and being diverted a different directions, each with different outcomes. The first instance this season happened against the New York Yankees back on April 11th when Yankees Manager Joe Girardi protested that a pop-up by Even Longoria hit a large speaker situated in foul territory along the C-ring and deflected the ball into fair territory for an infield hit.
The Rays did not capitalize on that day’s magical event as they fell to the Yankees 7-3 losing their first series of the season at home. But again, the media decided at that same moment to bring up the particular interesting ground rules that pertain to this lop-sided dome,. Rules which totally favor the offensive team, and not the defensive unit on the playing surface. To quickly paraphrase the Rays Ground Rules, if a hit ball strikes anything, in fair territory, it is considered “in play” and should be dealt with accordingly. In other words, if it hits something between the foul lines, you better catch it or pay the piper.
And the totally obscure fact that Kubel’s high pop-up probably went vertical about 190-some feet before deflecting off a set of stairs that take people to the upper cupola or the A-ring, it is a magnificent blast no matter who hits it. And with as many distracters of this stadium’s roofing system, it was only the second batted ball to ever hit that section of the Trop’s roof. Particularly amazing, the first time also involved the Twins and Rays too. Since the Rays first game on March 31,1998, only 105 balls have ever come into contact with the Tropicana Field roof support structures, and none have ever been hit into the cotton fabric that lies underneath the stadium’s main Teflon roof.
Let’s see if I can fully illustrate the oddity of Thursday hit by providing that the Rays have played 1,028 home contests with less than 105 balls hitting that menace of a leaning roofing system that projects over 194 feet above Home Plate. That works out to one baseball possibly striking the Rays roof maybe once every 98 Rays home games.
Kubel’s high pop-up is so into the realm of being an obscure it is not even funny. The fact that only four balls have ever been hit up into any of the surrounding roof rings and never came down is simply amazing given the roof reputation by its own distracters. What is more perplexing is that the Twins are no strangers to the A-ring controversy on the Trop’s catwalks. Back on another afternoon contest on Sunday, May 31,2009, when Rays slugger Carlos Pena put the first ball off the A-ring but was caught by Twins reliever Jose Mijares for an out. And the only other time the catwalks have come into play when the Rays played the Twins was back on May 2, 2007 when again Pena hit a towering shot that deflected this time off the B-ring for an infield single.
The next day during Batting Practice, it was discovered that the Twins would have an additional helper up in the catwalks against the Rays as a mannequin had somehow been positioned just off the playing surface high in the roofing ring system with a Twins jersey cap and a right-handed fielding glove. It is not like the ball will always deflect or angle itself away from fielders when the roofing rings are involved. I remember a game one season against the Cleveland Indians and a ball went into the C-ring and was bouncing around on the flat surface. As both teams looked up into the rafter system, Indians shortstop Omar Visquel positioned himself under the ring between the infield and the leftfielder. Within less than a minute the ball began it descent straight into Visquel’s glove for an out.
Tropicana Field was proposed back in the late 1980’s when a futuristic baseball stadium was to be built upon the same site with an open-air concept with a circus tent type roof and water features in Centerfield like the Kansas City Royals Kaufman Stadium. It’s first design was to be open to some of the elements of the Florida climate.
The final recommendation came that a domed stadium, or fixed roofing system had to be employed to further protect the playing surface from rain and gusty winds that plaque the region during the Summer months. It was a matter of picking your own poison, and the comfort of watching baseball indoors while rain and winds howled outside in 72 degree splendor won out to a natural surroundings.
Sure a retractable roofing system might have prevented 105 batted baseballs from striking the Trop’s present roofing ring system. And also of note, that type pf roofing system would give the Rays a chance to open their playing surface to the outdoor elements on starry nights or pleasant and cool afternoons, but that type of retractable roofing system was not totally developed by the time construction started on the then Florida Suncoast Dome.
Our parents drilled into us at a young age to “use what we got, improvise and adapt if you want something to work to your advantage”. All of us have tales and stories of making just that happen in our own lives. Tropicana Field is an abnormality to so many in baseball. Some call it and its crowds more like a mausoleum than a ballpark. But say what you will about the Trop., but remember this.
The Rays, even with their losing tradition early in the franchises first ten seasons has gone 507-520 All-Time at home. Only 13 games under .500 in the team’s history. Credit some of that to the Rays past teams, credit some of that to the fanatic Rays Republic, and you can give credit a few of those wins to the rings around Tropicana Field. It might not have gone our way on Thursday afternoon, but it distinctly our home field advantage….most of the time.
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