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.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
This is a foodies' paradise. On top of the standard fare, pulled brisket and barbeque sandwiches are welcome surprises. Freshly-made kettle corn is abundant, and, with just the right amount of salty and sweet, it is probably some of the best I've had. And the biggest surprise I've found in any park thus far: Chick-fil-A sandwiches are readily available at any concession stand. Be forewarned, however, that just like the chain, they don't serve those on Sundays, so don't think you can get your fix on their day of rest.
Due to the popularity of the Stone Crabs, every single fixed stand is opened for business, a rarity usually reserved only for spring ball. This allows queues to be non-existent and food to be fresh. The prices are really good, and you can eat here on-the-cheap.
The stadium was just rehabilitated in 2009, so everything is still gleaming with that new-park sheen. From the comfortable chairs to the clear and clever signage (men's and women's bathrooms are the standard silhouettes, but depicted as hitters with batting helmets and bats), everything glows with a certain pride. The sound is superb and clear throughout the park, no matter where you are.
There is, however, a solid point off for two things that bother me: the lack of a video board and the batter's eye. The rehab cost more than $30 million and brought about quite a few new features that weren't available in the old park (more on those in a moment), but with that money, you'd think a standard staple of new parks (especially Steinbrenner Field and Bright House Field) like a video board would be a must. Also, the batter's eye's translucent black sheet looks more like an afterthought than a necessary element to all ballparks.
Is this a trick question? It's in the middle of the woods on a desolate road to the Gulf beaches. If the planned community of Port Charlotte would have panned out as planned in the 1950s, this would have been a heavily-populated residential community. As it stands now, though, you either need to drive 4 miles east on El Jobean Road or north on Toledo Blade Boulevard to get to anything resembling nightlife. Walking, unless the Charlotte County Fair is running across the street, is a no-go.
The game I went to was almost rained-out. A cold front came through and even had me worried the day prior, enough to contact the stadium, to which they assured me that the game was still on. So, when I arrived at 6pm (game was scheduled for 6:30pm, but delayed to 7:15pm), it was still drizzling, so I expected to be the only one there. Honestly, I wouldn't have blamed people for not showing; who wants to sit in rain, unsure if a game will end-up being called?
I couldn't have been more wrong.
Not only were they there, but they came in droves. Granted, it wasn't a sellout like I think it would have been without the rain, but they were still there in full-force and quite raucous. There was a specific section that cheered and chanted for shortstop prospect Hak-Ju Lee, as well as march the opposing players who struck-out off the field ("left, right, left, right...SIT DOWN!") and other random, fun chants. It has all the feeling of a major league game, something I've found hard to accomplish in any other FSL parks thus far.
There's only one main access road, El Jobean Road, to and from the stadium. However, with a little creativity, there are a few back roads to take when a big game makes the team-suggested route of Toledo Blade Blvd a parking lot.
Parking's not free, but at $4, it's not terrible; still not free, though, like Steinbrenner Field, McKechnie Field, and Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, something I personally believe should be the norm in FSL ball.
The concourses are more like courtyards, with no problem walking around for any reason. There weren't a lot of places for shading, but otherwise, they were simply great. Bathrooms are plentiful, clean, and nicely-sized.
Tickets are decently priced, though you can save a dollar by buying more than 24 hours in advance. Tickets range from $6-$11, depending on where you want to sit, and there's not a bad seat in the house. Factor in the price of food and parking, and it's not unreasonable for a family of four to spend $40-$50 for a night. When it's a lot closer than the Trop (though only marginally-cheaper, as that would be about $70-$80), it makes this become a bargain.
This park shares a few extra-special things in common with Bright House Field, namely the tiki bar and the outfield seating. The tiki bar sits in left-center and has a perfect shot of the action, and with its full-service ability, is a popular watering hole before, during, and after the game.
This is only the second "little park" in Florida I've been to that has a wrap-around, walkable outfield, and while this doesn't offer much of a berm in the outfield - it's mainly located the far reaches of 1st- and 3rd-base lines, with a small portion wrapping around the foul pole in left - there are plenty of high-top and picnic tables available on the boardwalk.
The night I went, the world's smallest Elvis performed every other half-inning, and "the largest fireworks display in Charlotte County since 1987" took place after the game. There are specials almost every night of the week, so the attractions are more than just on-the-diamond here.
There's even a special kid's play area, equipped with jungle gyms and other kid-friendly activities when running around the berms starts to bore them.
The Charlotte Sports Park and its Stone Crabs epitomize the area perfectly: resilient and adaptable to a changing world. After the Rangers left and Charley took its toll on the area, both the Park and the area have come back and, in some ways, are better than ever before.
Sure, it's not particularly classy, nor the absolute best facility I've been to, but it really is one of the more fun times I've had at a ball game in quite some time, and in the end, that's what's most important. I might even be willing to drive the 90 minutes one-way from St. Petersburg to visit on a more regular basis - it's just that good.
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.
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