Destination number three on my Sunshine state sojourn was Port Charlotte, a comparatively sedate town about midway between Clearwater (to the north) and Fort Myers (to the south). Port Charlotte is home to the Stone Crabs, the Class A Advanced affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, and the team plays at the unimaginatively named but very nicely appointed Charlotte Sports Park.
In my haste to get into the stadium and conduct player interviews, I somehow neglected to take exterior shots of the stadium. But here’s the view from just outside of the facility’s upper-most level. Plenty of room for all!
One of the pre-game player interviews I conducted was with Stone Crabs closer Chris Rearick (it will be uploaded shortly, as soon as I am in a hotel with a reliable internet connection. That has been easier said than done here in the Sunshine State). Rearick came across as a thoughtful and good-humored individual, and these traits soon manifested themselves atop the first base dugout.
Rearick, you see, had been recruited to read to members of the team’s “Kid’s Club” prior to the ballgame, with the book of choice being The Very Busy Spider. He did so into the microphone, his voice reverberating throughout the stadium.
Sample line: “‘Maa! Maa!’ said the goat. ‘Want to jump on the rocks?’ The spider didn’t answer, she was very busy spinning her web.”
This all must of have been very amusing to his fellow Stone Crabs, who were (not so) covertly watching from right field as they warmed up for the ballgame.
Rearick is a brave man, as any slip-up whatsoever would surely be seized upon by his teammates. (Right-hander George Jensen is now known as “Curious George” after he read that particular book upon the dugout, and was further made fun of due to an inability to pronounce the word “beluga.”)
With storytime over, I embarked on an extensive tour of the facilities with general manager Jim Pfander. (This was the second time in as many years I spent an evening at the ballpark with Pfander, as last year he oversaw my dunk tank and whipped cream-enhanced stint in Akron). Charlotte Sports Park is a quarter of a century old, but underwent extensive renovations prior to the 2009 season. That was the year in which the Rays made the stadium their Spring Training home, and in a corresponding move the Stone Crabs re-located from Vero Beach.
The main focus of the renovations was the addition of a large structure just beyond right field, which serves as the base of operations for the Rays during Spring Training. The organization’s head honchos have seasonal offices here, and clubhouses, weight rooms, training facilities, and dining areas can be found as well.
It’s a one-stop shop for all your Grapefruit League needs, in other words.
Entering from right field, the first room one comes to is the office of Rays GM Andrew Friedman:
Beyond the offices are clubhouses galore (“clubhouses upon clubhouses,” as Pfander put it).
The Minor Leaguers are on one side…
kept at a safe remove from MLB royalty.
But here’s the thing: once the Rays head back to Tampa for the start of the regular season, the Stone Crabs are free to take over the Major League clubhouse. These are pretty nice digs for guys who are still three levels away from “The Show.”
Meanwhile, Stone Crabs manager Jim Morrison gets to set up shop in the Joe Maddon’s office. (And, yes, Maddon’s office features a huge photo of him getting thrown out of a game.)
“Well-equipped” would be a way to describe the general scene around here, from the trainer’s area…
to the weight rooms.
But there’s still room for personal touches. For example, players can sign up for a homecooked meal courtesy of right-handed reliever Victor Mateo.
It would have been easy to get lost in this maze of Major League-quality amenities. Without Pfander’s guidance I’d probably still be in that building, sleeping under a bench in the trainer’s room, but soon enough we emerged back into the light.
And wouldn’t you know it? A baseball game was going on.
It was a sleepy Sunday evening atmosphere, very pleasant environment in which to wind down the weekend. On the concourse, kids in bathing suits were taking advantage of an inflatable water slide set up for a “Splash Day” promotion.
In the “Hit and Run” club, season ticket holders enjoyed an Asian-themed menu.
One of the park’s most popular food options is the cheesesteak stand in right field, which is mobbed during Spring Training games. (It’s called “Cheese and Steak,” though, perhaps out of a desire to remove the item from its ingrained Philadelphia connotations).
I already had my dinner plans all mapped out, but first things first: a sumo match against the undefeated “Colby-ashi.” As you can see, the odds were against me. Colbyashi was in a whole ‘nother weight class.
This wasn’t my first time in the suit, as last year in Bowie I suited up as “Bennyhilla” and quickly went down in defeat. This time was no different. A painfully slow walk down the stairs was the prelude to a thorough on-field beat-down.
The main event was still to come, however: My battle with the Stoney Dog!
In case it’s not clear, the Stoney Dog is a jumbo bacon-wrapped hot dog topped with pulled pork and fried onions. I asked food and beverage director Corey Brandt what inspired him to create such a thing and he had a quick answer.
“Pork! Pork’s good,” he said. The Stoney Dog was a spontaneous creation, he went on to explain, as opposed to an endlessly re-jiggered offseason obsession. It just sort of happened.
And now I had one in my hands.
My professional dignity, already tenuous, was reduced even further by eating this thing.
It was an unwieldy beast, the Stoney Dog, and unhealthy to a degree that I’d rather not think about. But it was really, really good.
I’m not sure if consumption of an oversized concession item constitutes “victory,” but after losing the sumo match it felt like a redemptive act. Basking in the glow of this accomplishment, I took a seat down the first base line and watched the final inning of what turned out to be a 3-0 loss to Palm Beach.
Our good friend Chris Rearick appeared in the ballgame, allowing a run over 1 1/3 innings.
I asked the spider what she thought of Rearick’s performance, but she didn’t answer. She was too busy spinning her web. But closure was provided when the same kids whom Rearick read to were among those who ran the bases post-game.
Kids running the bases, CCR playing on the PA, and the sky turning a beautiful purplish hue as day turned to night. It was truly a beautiful scene.
And that will be all from Charlotte Sports Park. Don Zimmer and friend wish you good night and safe travels.