BEEN THERE (NOT): I saw the unmistakeable white dome from an altitude of 40,000+ feet in February 2005.
WORLD SERIES: 2008 NCAA basketball Final Four: 1999 ARTIFICIAL TURF: ever since 1990
This was probably the most egregious example of a baseball stadium built "on speculation," and hopefully it will be the last. The original idea was to give the Chicago White Sox franchise a juicy package of incentives to relocate to sunny Florida, but Illinois politicians secured a financing deal to build a replacement for Comiskey Park just in the nick of time. Left out in the (figurative) cold, Tampa Bay area promoters then turned their attention to other restless teams, but those deals fell through as well. Tampa Bay missed out on the 1993 expansion round, but finally got lucky when MLB bestowed the franchise rights upon them in 1996. None of the other stadiums built on speculation had to wait as long as eight years before a major league team moved in.
This is apparently the only tilted dome stadium, which looks strange from the outside but makes sense for baseball, where most of the seats are positioned behind home plate. (Some folks in St. Petersburg deride this white dome as the "diaper pail.") The tilted dome also reduces the total inside volume, cutting air conditioning costs. Like the Georgia Dome, the roof is supported by a complex system of arches and cables, with four support rings upon which lights are installed, with catwalks. Under the current ground rules, the two inner catwalks are in play, while any ball hitting the two outer catwalks are home runs. (In September 2008, Alex Rodriguez hit a massive home run that struck the catwalk behind the left field foul pole.) The apex of the roof is 225 feet above the field, directly above a point just in front of second base. In nearly all other "doughnut" stadiums, in contrast, the center point was at least 20 feet beyond second base. This is because those stadiums were explicitly designed to accommodate football games, with a balance in the number of seats all the way around, but (until recently -- see below!) there was never any thought of that in this cozy little dome. The overall design is similar to the Kingdome in terms of how a rectangular playing field is fitted into a circular structure, and similar to Kauffman Stadium in terms of how the upper deck tapers to a point near each of the foul poles. One minor design flaw is the orientation of the seats adjacent to the bullpens near the left and right corners, facing toward center field. Those seats are also too far from the field. In my opinion, those rows of seats should have been made to curve toward the infield beginning at a point close to the infield. (Maybe in the future they can rebuild it...)
Under the original (1990) design, the outfield dimensions were perfectly symmetrical: 340 feet to each corner, 385 feet to the power alleys, and 410 to center field. By the time Tampa Bay was awarded a major league franchise in 1996, baseball stadium architecture had been revolutionized, and symmetrical domes were hopelessly out of style. So, they went to work trying to patch things up to conform to prevailing trends, putting angled fences in the corners, and turning the center field wall a few degrees clockwise. However, the resulting trivial asymmetry was all rather arbitrary and phony, much like the 2001 renovations in U.S. Cellular Field. According to the Devil Rays' Web site, "Tropicana Field's asymmetrical outfield dimensions closely follow those of the Brooklyn Dodgers' old home; a fact that became evident only after those measurements had been determined." (How's that for absurd public relations hyperbole? In fact, none of the respective outfield dimensions are even remotely similar to Ebbets Field!) The distance from home plate to the backstop is only 50 feet, but there is a lot of foul territory down the lines, where upscale fans can dine at tabletops in special areas next to the bullpens.
A major part of the $85 million renovations prior to 1998 was the fancy cash-siphoning shopping mall through which many patrons enter the stadium. Open year round, it is known as "Center Field Street," and its signature feature is an eight-story-high rotunda entrance modeled after the one at Ebbets Field. Another addition was "The Beach" -- a small elevated deck with low-price seats overlooking left field. Behind the center field wall is the "Batter's Eye Restaurant" that features specially tinted windows. All those creature comforts are well and good, but no fancy bells or whistles or climate controls can hide the fact that indoor baseball is not real baseball. (One might question whether baseball even belongs in Florida during the summer, given the intense heat, humidity, and frequent tropical storms.) In a survey of major league players published in the July 7, 2003 issue of Sports Illustrated, Tropicana Field was rated as the fourth least favorite of all ballparks. There is one saving grace, however: It was judged to have the nicest visting team locker room.
Tropicana Field is the first stadium with artificial turf to have an all-dirt infield playing area since Busch Stadium in 1976. In 2000 a new surface (called "FieldTurf") was installed, giving Tropicana "Field" a more natural color and texture. It's like the "NeXturf" installed at Veterans Stadium in 2001. In 2007 (or thereabouts) a big new video display / billboard was installed in back of right field, causing a net loss of a few hundred seats.
For the first ten years, the Devil Rays spent most of the time at or near the bottom of the American League East Division. Frustration on the playing field was reflected in low sales at the ticket booth. In 2002 they became the first team to have lost 100 or more games in two consecutive years since the Blue Jays did so in 1977-1979. Average attendance in 2002 was about 13,000, the third lowest in the major leagues. The Devil Rays are often mentioned as one of the "at risk" franchises, and relocation or "contraction" is not entirely out of the question. In 2006 the owners spent several million dollars sprucing up the stadium, adding a unique feature in the gap on the right side of the center field restaurant: a large aquarium tank containing several live rays! (They are the relatively small and placid "Cow-Nosed rays," however, not exactly the fearsome undersea beasts one usually thinks about.) During the first half of the 2008 season, the Rays showed unexpected slugging power, led by veteran Carl Crawford, Carlos Peña, and rookie Evan Longoria, as well as solid pitching (especially Scott Kazmir), and climbed to the top of their division. Against all odds, they hung on to first place for the rest of the season, and won the American League pennant for the first time. They lost to the Phillies four games to one in the World Series.
This is the only major league baseball stadium ever to have served as a hockey or basketball arena. While the NHL Tampa Bay Lightning played here (1993-1996), it was named the "ThunderDome." The structure was renamed "Tropicana Field" in October 1996 under a contract with the Tropicana-Dole Corporation, a key part of the financial arrangements needed to upgrade the stadium prior to the inaugural 1998 season. Well, encouraging consumption of Vitamin C is certainly better than encouraging consumption of alcohol... The NCAA basketball championship "Final Four" games were played here in 1999, and the Arena Football League Tampa Bay Storm played here as well. In December 2008, the first annual "St. Petersburg Bowl" (now called the "Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl") football game was played there as well.
SOURCES: Lowry (2006); Pastier (2007); USA Today / Fodor's (1996), Zimbalist (1992)