Baseball and Tampa Bay Rays return to Tropicana Field four weeks early

Wander Franco #5 of the Tampa Bay Rays prepares to swing in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins during a Grapefruit League Spring Training game at Tropicana Field on March 02, 2023 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Ima

Baseball came early to Tropicana Field this year.

Four weeks before the Rays’ season opener against Detroit, Tampa Bay, and Minnesota took batting practice as rock music played in preparation for a spring training game Thursday inside the Rays’ home ballpark.

The Rays are splitting spring training between the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Kissimmee and Tropicana Field because their own facility on Florida’s Gulf Coast was damaged by Hurricane Ian in September. After workouts and one game at Disney against the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay shifted its operations to St. Petersburg, with the rest of the home spring training games scheduled at the domed stadium.

"It feels good," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "I’m excited to be here, thrilled with how Disney turned out. Hopefully, everybody has taken that mindset that it’s nice to get to spend an extra month in your ballpark, and in your own bed."

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Rays infielder David Robertson noted playing at Tropicana Field provides a "cool" opportunity for players that haven’t been in the stadium. It also gives them a chance to live a major league life at spring training.

"The guy kind of knocking on the door of the big leagues getting a feel for it," Robertson said. "The settings, the roof, the turf. Hey, my goal is to play here at some point."

There was a moment of silence before the game to remember those killed by Hurricane Ian.

Zach Eflin, who signed a $40 million, three-year contract with Tampa Bay as a free agent, started in front of an announced crowd of 2,531. Tickets were $19, with all the fans in box seats.

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"It’s interesting," Eflin said. "I’ve only pitched here two or three times. I know the fans show up, but it was little different today, it felt like crickets. You could hear your own thoughts and stuff, but it’s spring training, it’s early.

Tampa Bay’s average home attendance in 2022 was 13,927, the major leagues’ third lowest behind Miami and Oakland.

There were a series of adjustments to get Tropicana Field ready.

The Rays are using two clubhouses for the nearly 80 players in camp. Team meals are being served in the media dining room, which is an elevator ride from the clubhouse level.

Workouts are also planned at the nearby Huggins-Stengel Field complex, where Babe Ruth of the New York Yankees and Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden of the Mets took part in spring training.

"We will make it work," Cash said. "A lot of moving parts but confident we’ll settle in here pretty quickly."

The stay-at-home allows players to get comfortable with the regular season housing instead of making the transition at spring training’s end.

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"Air conditioning is amazing," Eflin said with a smile. "I’ll never complain about that."

There will be chances to play in the sunshine as palm trees sway during road games.

"I like Port Charlotte and being outside. Certainly like Boca Grande — there’s nice boating there afterward," Cash said with a smile. "But, no, we’re going to play enough at visiting ballparks to get all that in."