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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.

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My understanding is that the biggest problem with the Trop is that it's a bear to get to, and only a little easier to get away from after the game. Isn't it over a bridge which separates it from where most everybody lives?
Indeed, that is one of the issues. St. Pete is across the bay from Tampa, but a good chunk of that market's population lives.
I went to the Trop once when I was on a trip to Tampa. I was staying in the middle of Tampa and had to make the drive across the bridge and back. As a Dallas area native and Rangers fan, I equated it to driving from Frisco (where Texas AA is) to the ballpark in Arlington in rush hour traffic. It was easier going back because it was not rush hour, but it was quite the drive.
It's funny you mention that. Just talking to a few locals down there, they say the drive feels longer because you have cross water. A few of them insisted that there have been studies done that seem to hint that we perceive time a little differently when we must cross water.

I grew up in the Bay Area and I can say there might be some truth to the theory. Of course, it could all be nonsense.
As a regular attender to the Trop for a dozen years (and having attended at least half of all the MLB ballparks), I completely disagree on all fronts. First of all the Trop is FAR easier to get to than the downtown Tampa venues, which I have attended on numerous occasions. The Tampa venues suffer a 2-3 mile back up and slowdown-to-a-walk during games or concert performances as opposed to the longest back-up at the Trop never being more than 6-7 blocks. As a friend and recent visitor from the NE reminded us, it's FAR easier to access than either Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium. And speaking of Fenway, how about the "strangeness" of that ballpark (i.e. Green Monster and Pesky Pole)or Wrigley's "stuck in the ivy" ground rule? BTW I have enjoyed both parks. However, I have not enjoyed having to crane my neck strangely or contort my spine by twisting to get a look at the action on field, not a problem from any of the Trop seats. Also there are NO obstructed view seats such as are found in many ballparks. As to the catwalk issues, just how many balls actually hit them during a typical season? FAR less than interact with the Wrigley ivy or the Fenway monster or pole. So few, as to be statistically almost negligible. I see two dozen games a season in person at the Trop, I see maybe 2-3 catwalk balls at the most, sometimes less. Oh, and by the way, having had to suffer through August games in both Wrigley and in Atlanta, it is ever so nice to KNOW every day that we will play in ideal 72 degree temps with no rainouts or snowouts as visiting fans from Miami and Minnesota have enviously noted. Add to this that it is a very affordable place to attend with your family, the most affordable MLB venue, perhaps it's not so bad a place to play ball. And, if our local economy were not at or near the bottom of that of many US cities--and if the media and team management stressed the pluses of the Trop rather than harped on the "perceived" minuses--more fans might actually come out. We still get more people attending than a handful of other teams whom no one complains about. The new ownership deserves a lot of credit for making it a rather nice place to attend. I'd rather watch baseball there than many other MLB ballparks.

Doc Fisch
Fascinating to read a defense of Tropicana Field and the location from someone familiar with it since all I hear through the media is the opposite. I've never been to the Tampa Bay area, but now at least I'm curious enough to check it out for myself at some point.
Hey Doc,

According to the Rays' media guide, 111 balls have hit the catwalks in fair territory over the course of 13 seasons. And thanks for your defense of the Trop. I agree, it's nice to know it's going to be 72 degrees and there will be a game, no matter what. And the ownership group does deserve a ton of credit for trying to make it a better experience.
Has anyone actually ever seen a cat on one of the catwalks? If not, why do they call them that?