ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Decades before it became what is today, baseball’s sacred jade bandbox, Fenway Park was a ramshackle dump that often drew crowds under 10,000 to Red Sox games in the early- and mid-’60s.
The pre-Nation Red Sox were bad, their park was worse, and when the Houston Astrodome opened as the world’s first domed stadium in 1965, some fed-up Fenway fans clamored for owner Tom Yawkey to build a similar wonder of the world with a roof over it for his band of Back Bay sad sacks.
Then came 1967, an astonishing American League pennant, and almost overnight the old park with its dollar bleacher seats and chipped, splintered grandstands was reborn with a mystique, an aura. The peeled, fading paint was suddenly a patina. Today nary a soul dares utter the sheer blasphemy of building a new ballpark for Boston, never mind a New Fenway with a roof, controlled climate, and all the accoutrements one finds here at the enclosed Tropicana Field.
Truth is, The Trop’s a dump, though not quite as beaten-down and dated as Fenway was in the immediate post-Ted Williams era. Opened for business in March 1990, The Trop is new-age tired, and these days stands as the only domed stadium in the major leagues with a roof that can’t be peeled back, be it on game day or any other day. The Trop’s top is fixed, and it is also dramatically pitched for a couple of reasons:
No. 1: to limit the amount of “open-air’’ space, thus requiring less energy to keep the place cool.
No. 2: to help the building withstand hurricane-force winds. When in Florida, always best to plan for lots of humidity, lots of rain, and a load of wind, sometimes enough to blow your house down. Unless you have a giant slanted roof over your head that makes your house look like it’s about to lift out of the ground with the eerie din of the “Close Encounters of the Third Kind’’ soundtrack blaring over the PA.
Inside, without a view to the outside world, the Rays’ home feels much like a casino, where patrons are denied any sense of day or night and clocks are considered enemies of the house. If a game here starts at high noon, or at 8:40 p.m., as was the case Tuesday night for Game 4 of the ALDS, the feeling inside is exactly the same. Day or night, rain or shine, the roof is in place, the lights are on, and the HVAC system is humming at a comfy-and-dry 72 degrees.
No need for sun block, rain hat, or windbreaker inside the Trop, where it’s always a great day for baseball. Unless, of course, day’s your thing. Or if you happen to appreciate fresh air, or the whimsy of a wind-blown popup or a fly ball lost in the sun. There is no blue sky, but acres of blue seats.
Boston fans would hate it here. Then again, it’s nearly impossible to convince those who regularly make the pilgrimage to Yawkey Way to like, or even acknowledge, anyplace that isn’t Forever Fenway. Boston fans are parochial, especially about their ballpark, even with its thousands of uncomfortable seats and poor lines of vision. The Trop’s not popular, not even with Rays fans, but it has comfortable seats, virtually all of them with great views of the field.
“I’d say there are two groups of fans when it comes to The Trop,’’ said longtime Tampa Bay Times sports columnist Tom Jones. “There’s one group that says, ‘Yeah, we know it stinks, but what do you want us to do about it?’ And then there’s the group that’s tired of hearing all the criticism, so they defend it — because it’s air-conditioned, it’s right off the interstate, and games are never rained out.’’
Jose Lobaton ended Game 3 Monday night with a walkoff homer in the bottom of the ninth inning off sensational Sox closer Koji Uehara. In 15 years of MLB games here, it was only the third ball ever to land in the Touch Tank, a big pool over the wall in right-center that is home to a bunch of live cownose rays, native to the ocean waters in this part of Florida.
Back home, we keep our cownose rays in the New England Aquarium, thank you. Not here at The Trop. They build them a pool and drop them in the equivalent of Conig’s Corner.
There’s nothing inherently bad about indoor baseball. There are a few MLB domed parks that are generally well embraced in their towns. Toronto, Houston, Milwaukee, Seattle, Miami, and Arizona all have their versions of the same theme. Some are quite good. The Trop and the Metrodome in Minneapolis were the two worst in the business, but when the Twins left the Metrodome for Target Field, The Trop was left standing as the worst of the bunch.
“Every ballpark is going to have its quirks, its intricacies,’’ said Sox skipper John Farrell, diplomatically assessing the park’s pros and cons before Game 4. “Whether it’s a speaker hanging above home plate or it’s a wall in left field.’’
It’s what hangs under the Trop’s roof that often causes the most commotion and criticism. There are four large, circular catwalks, labeled ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’, that serve a number of purposes — providing architectural support as well as space to attached lighting and speakers. The Trop’s unique ground rules include ample language covering the rings, specifically what happens when balls richochet off them or land up there simply to roost, much like the carrier pigeons employed at Fenway during World War I to bring news of the 1918 World Series to soldiers at faraway Fort Devens.
But that was Fenway of long ago, long before what we know it as today, the 101-year-old grand dame of the diamonds. There remains no roof over the Fens. Based on how it works here, that remains a good thing.