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Official Review by Michael Rusignuolo, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Port Charlotte, Florida began hosting Grapefruit League baseball in 1987 with the construction of the Charlotte Sports Park. The Texas Rangers held their spring warm-ups here from 1987 until the mass exodus to the Arizona Cactus League in 2002. After a period in the reeds hosting independent league ball and college tournaments, the Sports Park found new tenants in 2009 with the nearby Tampa Bay Rays, who had ideas for sweeping changes. The Rays completed their $27 million renovation before their first season, but political infighting with Charlotte County (who own the park) prevented a naming rights sale to fertilizer concern, The Mosaic Company. Nevertheless, Tampa Bay moved in for Spring Training, as well as their Florida State League and Gulf Coast League affiliates (the Stone Crabs and Rays), to rave reviews and early gate-busting attendance.
Charlotte Sports Park won the 2014 USA Today Reader's Choice Award for Best Spring Training Facility, but that award may be a bit of an overstatement. It is an above-average facility in most respects, but it doesn't quite lead the league in any one category, and, in certain aspects (such as access to practice fields), it clearly lags behind other Grapefruit League facilities.
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".
The Charlotte Sports Park is above the average fray in its selections of food and drinks at the park, at quite reasonable prices.
The main concession stands are Home Stand (at first and third base on the outer promenade), and the Hot Corner Grill (by the home plate promenade). They serve up ballparks standards, such as hot dogs ($4.50), burgers ($6), brats ($8), pizza ($3), and sausages ($8).
The Metro Deli down by first base concourse delivers wraps and sandwiches for $5 and $8. Additionally, there are Rays-blue stands all along the promenade serving up single-item specialties including cheesesteaks ($9), gyros ($8), fish & chips ($9), and a rather unique chicken pineapple ($9), which is as it sounds, chicken cooked up and delivered in a chopped-open pineapple.
Adult beverages are also affordable. Beer is offered at the main concessions, as well as specialty concessions around the park. Twenty-ounce domestic beers (and all bottled beers) are $7, premium 20 ouncers are $7.50, and 12 oz domestics are just $5. The Bud/Michelob family is the core of the suds, but Stella, Blue Moon, Yuengling, Miller, Landshark, and Guinness can also be found. The Tiki Bar in left-center has additional liquor choices, including wine ($7), frozen daiquiris ($9), well drinks ($7), premium drinks ($9), and Bacardi buckets ($15).
If you're out on a Boardwalk table for an afternoon game, grab a frozen daiquiri to keep you cool, and, if you're feeling glutinous, get a cool chicken pineapple to share with a friend just so you can say you've tried it.
The Rays' Spring Training home mostly hits all the right notes in their up-to-date digs, but the lack of practice field access is a big miss.
Charlotte Sports Park follows a standard minor league layout with three entrances into a large exterior plaza and promenade, with a smaller interior seating walkway. The pathways meet at the outfield and turn into the "Baseball Boardwalk," which winds its wooden way around the entire outfield with party areas and tables and booths for general admissions ticket holders. The stadium itself is elevated (you have to climb up to most entrances), and you walk down to the box seats closest to the field and up to the 200 reserved seats above the walkways. Those 200 sections are thankfully covered with awnings, providing some much-needed shade from the Florida sun.
Sightlines are fine from all areas, and the lone, main scoreboard in left-center keeps everyone informed on the game. While there are some luxury boxes in the press box structure behind home plate, most loom above the Baseball Boardwalk in the outfield. Spacious picnic berms line the areas between the corner bases and the outfield on both sides of the park.
Given that this is a review of the Grapefruit League park, one knock worth mentioning is the lack of access to the practice fields that you get at most other parks. The main playing field is just one of many where the minor and major league staff mingle in the spring, and one of the perks of Spring Training is getting up close and personal with the big league players. But those practice fields are closed off to fans. A bit of walking can get you near to the minor league practice fields, but it seems like a pretty big oversight for a Spring Training park.
Both the Rays' mascot, Raymond, and Stone Crab's mascot, Stoney, make appearances before the game and between innings at the Rays Grapefruit League games. A human dance crew and MC fill out the team that provides your standard minor league frivolities between innings, consisting of contests, races, and dancing.
If you're looking for shade, the first base side is your best bet in the last eight rows of the 200 seats (or only the very last rows of the third base 200 section). If sun is to your liking, the tables on the Baseball Boardwalk are in great demand. Get in on the First Base entrance and go straight back to grab a table as soon as gates open two hours prior to game time and enjoy a sunny, table-seated view of a ballgame for just $10 per person.
Port Charlotte is a picturesque city (technically, an unincorporated community) in southwest Florida at the back of Charlotte Harbor. If all the nautical references didn't clue you into the naval associations, the canals winding their way through the city probably will.
Nearly all your dining options are clustered around route 4, ranging from chain places to more interesting local offerings. Carnivores will probably like PRIME-Serious Steak (on Cochran Blvd at the 771/41 juncture), Whiskey Creek Wood Fire Grill (southeast on 41), or Wally's Southern Style BBQ (slightly further southeast on 41). For dinner and a show, try Visani Restaurant and Comedy Theater (off King's Highway to the northeast), with top-flight Italian fare and nightly comedy stylings, or JD's Bistro & Grille (on 41 towards the juncture with 776), with American food stylings and nightly jazz performances.
While Port Charlotte is near a lot of tourist areas, there's not exactly a ton to do in the locale itself. There's a number of small parks (Port Charlotte Beach Park, Ollie's Pond Park), and, not surprisingly given the watery environs, there are a number of boat tours, boat rentals, and fishing charters. Duffers can make use of the Riverwood Golf and Country Club, the Kingsway Country Club, and the Deep Creek Golf Club.
Given the touristy area, there are fewer hotel options than you'd imagine. The closest to the stadium is the Days Inn on 41 to the east of the ballpark. Southeast of the park on 41 are a Microtel Inn & Suites and Knights Inn, and out by the river are the kitschy themed Tropical Bay Motel and Banana Bay Waterfront Motel. Across the bridge in Punta Gorda are the Four Points by Sheraton, PG Waterfront Hotel & Suites, and the Wyvern Hotel. Out by the golf courses on I-75 twenty minutes or so away are a further cluster of another half dozen hotels.
Although the park opened to league-topping attendance, recent years have not been as kind. Despite (or perhaps, because of) having the shortest distance from Grapefruit League to the home club (by a matter of miles over Miami), Tampa Bay is currently at the bottom of Grapefruit League attendance, even with the stadium's current accolades.
Even at a low-key weekday game, however, the fans make a good showing, at least half-filling the stadium, though visiting fans are also out in force to bolster the numbers.
Spring Training crowds are often vacationing families from the team's big-league hometown also taking in a game, but the almost non-existent travel time from Tampa to Port Charlotte means that unlike most other teams, the fans are mostly local. They enjoy the Spring Training extras and access, but are into the game itself at least as much as the other Grapefruit followers from further afield.
Port Charlotte is located in southwest Florida, on an inlet off the west coast. I-75 runs through the north-east of the town, and state route 41 runs through the middle, closer to the park, which lies a short distance away of county 776.
Port Charlotte only has a number of on-demand services for disabled or elderly residents, so, as with most of Florida, driving is your sole choice to get to the park. The regional Charlotte County Airport is to the southeast of the park, but it is nearly equidistant from three major airports: Tampa in the north, Palm Beach in the east, and Miami to the southeast.
Spacious parking is available at the park for a league-average $10. Getting in and out can be a little hairy on the county road getting out to 41 and 75, especially on weekday games that end a little late. Plan accordingly.
There are three entrances to the park. The main entrance is at home plate by the ticket office, and there are two further entrances at third base and first base. The Home Plate entrance, closest to the parking lots, are where the crowds mostly congregate. For shorter lines, take the longer walk to the first base entrance.
Getting around the park is easy, and the boardwalk in the outfield makes it possible to circumnavigate the park. The spacious outside promenade and infield walkways make getting around easy, although it can get congested on the narrow sections of the boardwalk in the outfield.
From tickets to grub, Charlotte Sports Park can be an affordable afternoon out for anyone. You can have an all-in experience for under $35, including the game, parking, eats, and drinks.
Tickets are very reasonable, with all coming in under $30. Field boxes goes for $29, Field Reserved $24, Baseline Reserved $19, and General Admission berm or Boardwalk seats are just $10. Group tickets and three-pack plans get $2 off each ticket, and a season ticket plan gets a host of benefits and prizes, as well as a per-ticket discount.
Food and drink are very reasonable, with nearly all food and drink options (except for whole pizzas and Bacardi Buckets) for $9 or under, with most under $8. Parking is a league-average $10, and the program is a slightly pricey $4.
Perhaps the most obvious extra is the outfield Baseball Boardwalk, part of the Rays early renovations of the park. Luxury boxes peek over the top, and it is a sunny place to watch the game near the bullpens. Championship pennants adorn the walls out towards center.
An oversized, two-level team store is found at the main Home Plate entrance plaza, and Kids Clubhouse play area is on the promenade between first base and left field. Guest Services (to sign up for games and contests) is on the outer promenade on the first base line.
The park is absolutely covered in posters marking Rays historical moments, as well as smaller signs about Rays firsts. The posters largely line the outer infield promenade, while the "firsts" signs are all along the park, including the Baseball Boardwalk.
Charlotte Sports Park is an above-average Grapefruit League facility in the backyard of their parent team. Although it is a modern facility with a lot going for it, it suffers from poor attendance, an unexceptional locale, and a lack of fan access to practice fields.
Member Review by Gunnar on Apr 18, 2015
Design does not allow you to get food or drink and still see the game happen. Very hot and not much shade when I was there for a spring training game. Didn't seem to be much around the area beside the ball park. Probably drives more people to skip spring training and wait for regular season to see the Rays in an indoor a/c'd location.
Member Review by hhuntley17 on Apr 19, 2015
It's a little out of the way, but this is a can't miss Spring Training park for me. The outfield's boardwalk is a great spot to see the game, but you can just as easily sit in the shade in left field.
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