Tampa Bay Rays
Tropicana Field: A House Of Horrors
ST. PETERSBURG - The Boston Herald has, at various times, described the Rays' home park as a "dank, uninspiring place to watch baseball," a "cheerless joint" and a "dingy-gray domed stadium" No Fenway Park for sure, Tropicana Field has provided fans with little charm and the Rays with even less lift for most of their history. Almost overnight, though, the lopsided spaceship that Rays ownership can't wait to replace has turned into something quite beneficial: a house of horrors for opposing teams. When the Rays open their historic first playoff series Thursday against the Chicago White Sox, their building and the way they play in it will be one of the main things working in their favor."It's always been a place we felt like could be a homefield advantage," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. Manager Joe Maddon believed in the potential of the Trop when he took over in 2006, dubbing it "The Pit" and vowing to build a fan base that could provide an inhospitable din. Small crowds and lacking teams made the Trop more like "the pits" in 2006 and 2007. But this season, Maddon's vision has become a reality, with the Rays posting not only the best home record in the majors at 57-24, but also the best home mark of any team since the 1998 Yankees. "In the past as bench coach with the Anaheim Angels, we hated coming into this building," Maddon said. "It's slightly abnormal based on the roof. I know the sightlines and seeing the ball have to be different. If you have a homefield situation like this, you should make it a homefield advantage maybe more than any other team has." The Trop is one of only two permanently enclosed stadiums in the majors. The other is Minnesota's Metrodome, and the Twins' advantage there in years when they have been competitive is well documented. The Twins were so good at home in 1987 that they made the World Series with a 29-52 road record. The Twins won all eight home World Series games in 1987 and 1991, beating St. Louis and Atlanta, respectively, four games to three. So loud was the Metrodome during the '87 series - decibel levels were said to be near the threshold of pain - that Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog threatened to "poke holes in the roof to let some of the noise out." Why does crowd noise matter in baseball? It just does. "The emotion of the fans is an incredible thing for players, and especially those who haven't been used to it," said pitcher John Smoltz, a member of the Braves in 1991 and a TBS announcer for the playoffs. "It can cause you to elevate a ball as a pitcher, swing harder as a hitter. The dome historically has more noise." With a seating capacity of 36,048, Tropicana Field isn't as large as the Metrodome, but it can get loud, and the Rays' advantage when it has this season has been pronounced. In games played before crowds of 30,000 or larger, Tampa Bay was 21-2, with a 21-game winning streak before the home finale. Talent Helps, Too Obviously, the advantage wouldn't play out if the Rays couldn't pitch, couldn't hit and weren't vastly improved overall. "We used to come in here and we'd score almost 10 runs every game with the Rangers," Anaheim first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "Now they have great pitching. If you can hold a team down and have a chance to win at the end, any home field is going to have an advantage. Being that it's a dome, they have a little more of an advantage." Rays closer Troy Percival agrees. "I can only imagine that teams have been coming in here for a lot of years and beating up on the Rays, and I think early on this year, they got caught by surprise and found out that, hey, we're pretty good," he said. The Trop has no shortage of quirks that visiting players don't see every day - from a white ceiling that offers little contrast from a baseball to the four catwalk rings that support the roof, lights and speakers. The catwalk rings, which can give or take home runs, don't play favorites. But the peculiarity can make it a disconcerting stop for the unfamiliar. "The Trop is an unusual place," Rays first baseman Carlos Pena said. "For us, it isn't because we're used to it." A Unique Place Visiting outfielders generally downplay the difficulty of following high fly balls against the ceiling, saying the trick is to never lose sight of the ball. Rays veteran Jonny Gomes says that isn't so easy for anyone, because "the lighting is off." He points out that visiting teams have had more misplayed fly balls. "You see some balls drop, mostly into short center, where our center fielder gets them," he said. "Going into the gaps in left-center and right-center is where the lighting is heavy. It's almost like it gets lost in the sun." The Trop also is the only stadium in the majors with artificial turf and all-dirt base paths. Only four other artificial turf ballparks have featured all-dirt base paths, with all of the others instead using "sliding pits" around the bases. The turf-to-dirt field suits the Rays' speed, although the new FieldTurf surface installed in 2007 has been bothersome to four-time American League stolen base champion Carl Crawford's hamstrings. "They look a whole lot faster on this turf," Baltimore Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "I mean, they're quick, but I think they look quicker here." The Rays will enjoy home sellouts for Games 1 and 2, and a potential Game 5 is sold out, too. They can win their first playoff series by taking care of business at home. Their record says they can. "I think not many people like to come into domes and play indoor baseball," said Rays pitcher James Shields, who will start Thursday's opener. "It's not a good baseball atmosphere, as far as the way the game should be played. But we're taking advantage of that this year."
Tribune reporter Joey Johnston contributed to this story.