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July 27, 2011

Clubhouse Confidential

Dome Alone

by Marc Carig

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.—The contrarian in me wants to love Tropicana Field, or what one player last week derisively called “The Pinball Machine.” I am a sucker for endangered species, and the Trop is the last of its kind, a baseball stadium with a fixed dome, a throwback to the bad old days of ashtray-shaped ballparks.

While most celebrated the stadium-building craze that began in the 1990s, I've viewed the era as one of missed opportunities. For every jewel like Camden Yards, there's a Great American Ballpark, a nice enough place that's guilty of the same unremarkable blandness as its circular predecessor, Riverfront Stadium.

For better or worse, there's no mistaking the Trop and its infamous suspended catwalks for any other venue in the game.

The problem, of course, is that Rays manager Joe Maddon was right when he said recently that “this ballpark is improper for Major League Baseball.” And no matter how the Rays try to liven the place up—whether it's creating an entire department devoted to bettering the fan experience or pouring money into sprucing up the building itself—the efforts all feel like a lost cause.

It's a point I'm reminded of every time I come to the Trop. On my walk in from the parking lot, I like to look at the baseballs and bats that have been bolted onto the stadium's exterior in a feeble attempt to give it a little warmth, and I think about how they still don't do much to buffer the coldness of the gray concrete shell. It's a pointless exercise, like hanging a pair of fuzzy dice on an old tank.

Yes, the Rays are trying to make the best of their situation. But no, there's not much they can do to hide the flaws.

The place is easy to dump on because it feels like an empty warehouse. The dome even manages to obscure something as pure as the crack of the bat. During batting practice before games, bat-on-ball contact sounds more like cannon shots, with the sound echoing off the empty plastic seats and concrete walls. It's the opposite of aesthetically pleasing.

But that's a minor point compared to how ill-suited the facility is for baseball.

In the beginning, the mystery of how Tropicana Field would eventually play hinged not on what hovered above, but what lurked below. Despite an AstroTurf playing surface, the Trop featured traditional all-dirt basepaths instead of the sliding pits. It was only the fifth venue to feature the all-dirt, artificial turf combination, joining the Astrodome, Candlestick Park, Three Rivers Stadium, and Busch Stadium, which became the last to adopt sliding pits following the 1976 season.

Larry Rothschild, the original manager of the Devil Rays, said the stadium's catwalks didn't create much buzz.  That changed after less than two months under the dome.

Consider the ground rules, which have evolved in both language and scope since the Trop hosted its first game in 1998.

With four rings of catwalks to worry about, the ground rules were complicated enough that the American League insisted Rothschild review them with opponents before every game. Not surprisingly, two of the first three rule changes approved in May of '98 addressed how to handle catwalks. Originally, batted balls that hit the catwalks in foul ground were live, with fielders allowed to catch the ball for an out. The rule was essentially no different from when batted balls struck catwalks in fair territory. But the rule change turned those foul balls into dead balls and called strikes.

The other change involved what was referred to as the “lower catwalk,” or the lowest and outermost of the four rings of catwalks at the Trop. Originally, only batted balls that struck the lower catwalk in fair territory beyond the outfield fence were considered home runs. But under the new rules, batted balls that struck either of the lower two catwalks in fair territory were now considered homers.

The rules remained unchanged for years, even though the terminology evolved to better describe the special challenges of the Trop. The lower catwalks came to be known as the D-ring and the C-ring, while the upper catwalks came to labeled as the B-ring and the A-ring, the innermost and highest of the four rings.

But before the 2010 playoffs, the rules changed again. Any ball that hit either the A-ring or B-ring, even in fair territory, was ruled a dead ball, while the pitch would not count. Earlier in the season, the Rays lost a game to the Twins because Jason Kubel's ninth-inning pop-up struck the A-ring and dropped near the pitcher's mound for a hit, allowing the go-ahead run to score.

The new rule change would have made Kubel's pop-up a dead ball. But the switch lasted only until last March. That's when the ground rule reverted back to its original status: “Batted ball that is not judged a home run and strikes a catwalk, light or suspended object in fair territory shall be judged fair or foul in relation to where it strikes the ground or is touched by a fielder. If caught by fielder, batter is out and runners advance at own risk.”

Once again, the Trop was set up to be The Pinball Machine, improper for Major League baseball.

"You shouldn’t play with all these obstructions,” Maddon told reporters. “And all these caveats.”

The other shoe
In 2002, Eric Chavez played for an A's team that set the American League record by winning 20 consecutive games, so he's qualified to speak about long streaks. But the third baseman said he couldn't fathom what the Mariners are going through. They have experienced the opposite extreme, losing 17 consecutive games.

“You feel bad, because you know it's not from lack of effort,” Chavez said, after he helped the Yankees send the Mariners to a 4-1 defeat last night. “There's got to be a lot of bad luck involved. You feel bad for them. You want to go out there and win, but it's one of those things, you can't put your finger on it.”

Chavez said some streaks defy explanation.

“When you have streaks that are just out of the norm, a lot of things have to happen,” he said. “The team that we won 20 with wasn't that good, and they're not that bad. It's just one of those things.”

Marc Carig is in his third season as the New York Yankees' beat writer for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. He previously covered the Baltimore Orioles for the Washington Post. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Carig once believed Dennis Eckersley to be the greatest closer of all time, though seeing Mariano Rivera every day has forced him to reconsider.

Marc Carig is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Marc's other articles. You can contact Marc by clicking here

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