Here is a great way to regionalize a franchise, and the Tampa Bay Rays did it right – following the departure of the Texas Rangers, they moved their spring training program from their own back yard 90 miles south, poured money into stadium renovations, then lured a FSL team from Vero Beach here to Port Charlotte, Florida. The Charlotte Stone Crabs are the single A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, and the team brand is an integral part of their building here at Charlotte Sports Park.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
They keep all their spring training concessions opened and stocked. The selection here is pretty good. The Metro Deli stand offers specialty sandwiches including the "Triple Play," a concoction loaded with roast beef and ham, and even a lighter vegetarian option ($7). A peanut butter and cheese sandwich sells for $4, with garden salads and Caesar salads for $5. The main stand offers Chick-fil-A sandwiches ($5), hot dogs ($3.75), and BBQ nachos ($6). Draft beers are available for just $2, with bottled beer and Mike's hard lemonade for $5.25. Small soda costs $2.
What makes this place work is the Rays branding - murals of famous players in the concourses, an accompanying timeline of great moments in franchise history, signage and concession canopies done in Rays colors. A lot of thought went into the design of public areas to engage the fans, and they pull it off well.
The scoreboard is pitiful, something that should have been upgraded when the team poured all those dollars into renovations.
What neighborhood? El Jobean Road traverses through tracts of land that were laid out for a massive influx of residences and development which never came, and much of the surrounding area is brush, scrub and swampland. For a great sports bar destination, try Buffalo Wings & Rings in nearby North Port, just a few miles from the stadium property.
Charlotte Stone Crabs baseball is kind of the thing to do around these parts, and they rank among the top half in attendance of teams in the Florida State League. Give the fans a lot of credit for engaging with the team mascot and participating in their own dedicated cheers. A good video scoreboard would help a lot in that regard.
El Jobean Road is the east-west four lane highway which passes by the stadium. Signage is well marked. Public transportation or walking to the ballpark is not an option, as the stadium sits in the middle of nowhere.
Ticket prices run as high as $12, and start at $6. The concession prices and team store prices are pretty reasonable, all things considered. But be prepared to shell out $4 to park! Most peer venues in the FSL, and for that matter, in most minor league venues, offer complimentary parking. And there are no off site options here, so they've pretty much got you.
One star for the terrific exhibits and Rays timelines.
Add another star for the 360 walkability around the ballpark, with plenty of picnic areas, play areas for the kids, and even a tropical bar in the outfield.
The best thing about Charlotte Sports Park is that it gives the community a bit of an identity. This region took a lot of hits and damage during the 2004 hurricane season, and then the departure of the Texas Rangers. The return of baseball via the Tampa Bay Rays fits nicely. It's a pleasant little stadium with plenty to offer in terms of entertainment diversions.
Port Charlotte, a sleepy retirement community located about 90 minutes south of Tampa Bay, has been in the business of baseball since 1987, with the opening of Charlotte County Stadium, the forerunner to today's current facility. Built as what ended up being the Texas Rangers' last spring training home in Florida, it has seen its fair share of superstars play on its diamond; from Nolan Ryan, Alex Rodriguez, and even Michael Jordan's short-stint with the Chicago White Sox. But, with the Rangers becoming more of a dominant force, they vacated the stadium in 2002, and headed for Arizona.
While actively searching for a replacement to bring spring ball back, the unthinkable happened in 2004: Hurricane Charley, which was aimed straight at heavily-populated Tampa Bay, made a hard turn east at the last minute and decimated Port Charlotte and the surrounding communities of Punta Gorda, North Port, and other settlements along Charlotte Harbor. Filling the park became a lost priority while trying to rebuild the area from the devastation.
Enter the Tampa Bay Rays.
Looking for a new home after pitching a plan to leave Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg and replace it with a new Major League park on the Bay, which would have been the successor to Tropicana Field, they offered to rehab the park down in Charlotte County and move their spring operations there. It was accepted, and on February 25, 2009, Major League Spring Training Baseball returned to an area that, while well on the way to returning to normality after Charley, received a much-needed morale boost.
Along with a return of spring training, the Rays' Florida State League single-A team, the Vero Beach Devil Rays, moved to this new stadium and changed their name to the Charlotte Stone Crabs. This proved to be a popular move, as the Stone Crabs have been in the top 5 of attendance in the FSL since 2009, and have also won the FSL South Division title in both 2009 and 2010.
We visited to see an Orioles v Rays game during Spring Training 2012. Just a couple of things to add that weren't mentioned in the official review.
--no food and drink is allowed to be brought into the stadium. While this is the norm at professional sporting events, as Oriole fans we are a bit spoiled, since both Camden Yards and Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota allow this. It slipped our mind and we had to quickly eat our packed lunch outside the gate before we entered.
--one "Florida ambiance" attraction is that there is a pond beyong the left field fence. Its reachable, especially since the prevailing winds seem to blow out to left. While walking back to our car after the game, we spotted something in the pond. Turned out to be an alligator. Does he live there? Does he migrate from somewhere else? How many BR home runs is he protecting? Not being from Florida, we thought this to be a cool attraction.
--Alternative parking is at the Charlotte County Fairgrounds (although this requires a sprint across a four-lane divided highway to the stadium) or the Harley Davidson dealer next to the ballpark. They jacked parking costs during Spring Training (which left me jacked.) to $10. We parked at the Harley place for $5.
We had a very nice visit to a very nice ballpark; I don't have anything negative to say (other than the inflated parking prices)
Opened in 1987, the Charlotte Sports Park originally hosted the Texas Rangers' spring training facilities before they moved to Arizona for the 2003 season. After sitting empty for six springs, the stadium was renovated and the Tampa Bay Rays took over the complex in 2009. The renovations are impressive; I thought the stadium was recently constructed rather than being 25 years old.
The ballpark is located off El Jobean Road with nothing in the immediate vicinity. Parking is $4, the most expensive in the league. Tickets are also relatively costly, ranging from $11 down to $7 for the berm seats. Buy those cheapies and sit where you want though as there are 7,000 seats and about 1,000 fans. As a sign of how empty the ballpark is on most days, there are cobwebs between seats in the upper rows.
This is not a complaint, just the way it is in the Florida State League. Ballparks here are too big for the small crowds that turn up for these minor-league affairs. Concourses are huge but empty and there are only a few concession stands open. As you walk around the concourse, you can hear the radio broadcast from speakers scattered around and there are certain seats in the stands that are close enough to these speakers if you prefer that option.
Hot dogs here are just $2 and there were some non-standard items too such as a turkey sandwich combo for $7.50. However, I wasn't able to buy the sandwich as a single item, and as the combo only included a bag of chips, I went for the cheap hot dog instead. There was also a picnic area serving a set menu, but you needed a special ticket to enjoy what looked to be a very tasty meal.
You can make your way around the entire ballpark along the Baseball Boardwalk, which begins in the right field corner. Note the historical markers that are essentially meaningless since they refer to spring training events.
There's also a tiki bar behind the left field fence, with a small pond lying just beyond. These bars seem to be the norm in the FSL, and are probably quite popular during the spring, but I didn't see many fans partaking during the game I attended.
There is little else to note here. The Rays have added the same pennants and "famous moment in Rays history" posters that decorate Tropicana Field. The main scoreboard is basic and there is a small video board in the fence that shows a picture of the batter, but no stats.
The sunset was quite nice from the top rows along the first base side. As the park is out in the open, a nice breeze was blowing throughout the game and it kept things very comfortable all night long.
Overall though, the least enjoyable FSL park for me.
This stadium isn't hard to find at all, the only problem is there is nothing really around it at all. There is plenty of parking available. The stadium itself is nicely laid out and you can walk all the way around it to check out the views. We sat on the 1st base side and had a great view. Really good food as well.
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