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Spring Training returns to St. Pete, temporarily

Mark Parker

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There's a lot of room to shelter hurricane victims at Tropicana Field. Photo by Mark Parker.

Due to the lasting effects of Hurricane Ian, the month of March will bring Major League Baseball to St. Petersburg, for the first time since 2008.

Tampa Bay Rays officials announced Tuesday that the team would open Spring Training’s first phase at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in the Orlando area. Tropicana Field will then host the majority of the Rays’ Grapefruit League games.

Spring workouts at the Disney complex begin Feb. 14, when pitchers and catchers report. The rest of the squad will follow, and the Rays will host a Feb. 28 “home” game at the facility.

Team operations then head west, and the Rays will play the bulk of the spring home games at the ‘Trop. According to the release, baseball officials will release ticket information in January, and expect the relocation to cause minor changes to the Grapefruit League schedule.

“We are thankful for Disney’s willingness and ability to accommodate our unexpected Spring Training needs,” team president Matt Silverman said in a statement. “ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex will provide our players and coaches with first-class facilities for their annual ramp-up to the season.”

Spring Training is ingrained in St. Petersburg’s culture. Ric Vaughn’s recently released book, 100 Years of Baseball on St. Petersburg’s Waterfront: How the Game Helped Shape a City (The History Press), highlights the area’s storied history with the annual rite of spring in great detail.

Vaughn noted that the Sunshine City first hosted Spring Training in 1914 on a dirt diamond near Coffee Pot Bayou. However, former Mayor Al Lang (1916-1920) transformed the city into a Major League Baseball hotspot.

He recruited the New York Yankees in 1925, and Vaughn said, “the city exploded.” The St. Louis Cardinals began calling what was then known as Waterfront Park their spring home in 1938, and city officials remodeled the facility and renamed it to honor Al Lang in 1947.

Last pitch at Al Lang Field: March 28, 2008. Photo: Zeng8r/Wikipedia.

Baseball legends like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron made the annual trek to St. Petersburg’s waterfront, as did 186 other Hall of Famers. The Cardinals played their last season at Al Lang field in 1997 to make way for the region’s first permanent MLB franchise – the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Rays played their spring home games at AL Lang Field, which turned 100 this year, from 1998-2008. Team officials then moved training about 90 minutes south to Port Charlotte to expand their regional presence.

However, Category 4 Hurricane Ian caused widespread destruction to Southwest Florida in late September. Rays’ leadership announced Dec. 1 that damages to the Charlotte Sports Park would prevent the team from conducting Spring Training in the city.

“We are all disappointed for the residents of Charlotte County and the fans there,” said team officials in a statement at the time. “The Community is in the thoughts and hearts of the Rays, and the team will continue to support recovery efforts.”

While Tropicana Field can host Grapefruit League games, the team needs multiple fields to adequately hold workouts. Rays and Charlotte County officials agreed to relocate Spring Training until cleanup and repairs are complete. According to MLB.com, the plan is to return to the area in 2024.

According to MLB.com, team officials expect to return to Charlotte Sports Park in 2024. Photo: charlottecountyfl.gov.

The team is somewhat familiar with the Disney facility, winning all three regular season games there against the Texas Rangers in 2007. The following year, the Rays also swept a three-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays.

“We are thrilled to be bringing Major League Baseball back to Walt Disney World Resort,” said Faron Kelley, vice president of Disney Sports, in a statement. “We’re always looking for top-tier events, like the Rays’ Spring Training, for our guests to enjoy at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.”

Minor league workouts and games will continue at the Disney facility when the ballclub returns to St. Petersburg in March. Opening Day of the team’s 25th-anniversary campaign is March 30 at Tropicana Field.

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