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Beneath the Dome

I was unfair to my old hometown of St. Petersburg earlier this week [1] — turns out there's a lot more going on downtown than when I lived there, complete with core-city lofts and their attendant cafes, boutiques and what-not. Not bad for a city chiefly known not so long ago for the advanced age of its population, and stuck with the cruel nickname God's Waiting Room.
Oh, and now they have a ballclub. If you're a reader of this blog, you know that means…everything.
Yes, Jace, there are Tampa Bay Devil Rays fans, of all shapes and sizes and genders and types. Slouchy college kids with variant-color TB hats and Crawford tees. Little boys and girls decked out in obviously beloved replica gear. Fathers and mothers pointing to the field to explain a point to sons and daughters.
Honesty compels me to report that those plucky Rays fans seemed outnumbered by fans of the visiting Indians, and both teams' fans were outnumbered by empty seats. But the Devil Rays deserve to be graded on the curve when it comes to fan ardor. Witless, negligent, stingy — almost any nasty adjective you can think of fits the way Vince Naimoli and Chuck La Mar treated this franchise and city. (The way St. Petersburghers say “Naimoli,” it ought to be represented in the paper by dashes or a bracketed “expletive deleted.”) A decade's worth of standings tell you all you need to know about the acumen of whatever plan produced what you see on the field; Rays fans told me horror stories about the team's relationship with its home city, with the D-Rays bungling the few efforts to reach out so badly that it would have been better if they hadn't bothered. Considering what they've been through, those little kids proudly wearing their Kazmir and Upton tees might well be braver than I had to be when I was proclaiming my love of the Doug Flynn-era Mets to the sniggering, dirt-bike-riding Yankee fans of Setauket.
Naimoli and La Mar are gone, happily, and the Devil Rays have promise — Carl Crawford is so freaking fast I thought he'd teleported himself to second base. But turning that promise into reality? Better be patient. The Devil Rays are awfully youthful, and youthfully awful. Delmon Young works a count like he heard strike one meant you're out, and he's not the only Devil Ray to whom controlling the strike zone seems like a foreign concept. The Indians won, 4-3 [2], but it didn't feel that close: You knew the D-Rays were going to make the kind of quietly awful little mistakes that kill teams, and they did. (And not everything can be blamed on youth: Old friend Ty Wigginton, who ought to know better, got thrown out trying to steal third with two out.)
But here's the thing: There are a lot of reasons the Devil Rays were every bit as bad up close as I'd imagined, but the obvious one turned out to be a red herring. Because the Tropicana Dome, shockingly, wasn't nearly as bad as I'd expected.
Yes, it's a dome — my pal Will and I kept shaking our heads over the fact that we were willingly leaving a perfect spring evening for air-conditioned sterility. (Though in fairness, that transition would be a relief in August.) The Trop looks horrible from the outside, like a giant spaceship designed by an alien species that's built a society around beige, and all kinds of weird on the inside. The roof is canted forward, like it's sliding off the building, and the famous catwalk rings aren't where your mind thinks they should be, giving the Trop an oddly seasick feeling. The field looks tiny amid all that concrete, the seats are uncomfortable, the uppermost rows have been covered with tarps as a toupee for irreversibly bad attendance, and the sound system may be the worst I've ever heard in a stadium. When the Rays showed one of those Get to Know the Team video features, I could understand maybe every 10th word.
The dome itself is set amid remnants of industrial St. Pete — cuts for old railroad tracks and canals — and while that sounds odd, it works, giving fans natural paths across what would otherwise be featureless asphalt plains. There's a wonderful sports bar close by (Ferg's) that has a huge choice of things to eat, drink, watch or do, and was friendly instead of fratty even in the boozy, crowded hours after a depressing loss. Well, except for the drunk out-of-towner screaming vile epithets at Derek Jeter. Because I'm classy that way.
And the Trop has a suprisingly nice rotunda, wide concourses, good food and lots of choices, many beer choices at reasonable ballpark rates (i.e., merely exorbitant), friendly staffers, clean bathrooms, and even some surprises — the Mets game was playing on the far right of a trio of flat-panels just steps into the concourse from our seats. (I rejected the idea of spending my entire evening at the Trop standing in a hallway watching SNY, though by then it was obvious the game was a horror show [3].)
The Trop has a horrible field and stands surrounded by some surprisingly nice amenities. As the game went on, I realized that I'd had a lot of experience with the opposite — and I kept thinking about things that hadn't happened at the Trop. For instance, I hadn't picked my way across a fetid lake to pee, been exhorted to join the Dallas police while doing so, and wound up throwing a paper towel in the corner where the trash can should be. I hadn't trudged cursing up a broken escalator or been barked by an ancient, grubby usher before he resumed the sleep of decades. I hadn't been left to perch on the edge of a broken seat while some unidentifiable hideous something dripped on me. I hadn't turned my head to the side to peer out at a thin horizontal slice of field for nine innings while fearing my feet would skate out from me because the concrete was covered in some slick God knows what. I hadn't been made to feel like I should apologize to a surly employee for wanting a carbonized hot dog or a mushy pretzel delivered at a pace marginally speedier than continental drift. I hadn't had to say, “Yeah, let's drink some beers after the game. Go across the parking lot toward the highway, if he cops will let you — oh, if you hit unpaved streets with feral dogs you went the wrong way — cross the overpass, turn right, then walk a long way down that street and, um, there's a crappy hotel with a lousy bar.”
Shea Stadium has real grass, sits under the sky, and has an apple that has a certain high-school-production charm. But that's all it has over the much-maligned Tropicana Field. (And even that sky is frequently filled with scary close-ups of the silver bellies of large airplanes.) I've got countless great memories about Shea, and room for 13 months' more. But all of them have to do with the baseball I've seen there and the people I've seen that baseball with. The rest? If anything, it's an impediment to those memories. I know Shea's going away, and Citi Field won't magically make pretzel vendors nice or ushers awake. (Or our less-civilized fans any better behaved.) I won't pretend I ever had much sentiment for doomed Shea. But I think my visit to the Trop has killed the little that was left. When you're cheered by the average — “The toilet hasn't overflowed! The hot-dog lady doesn't need to be timed with a sundial! There's something besides chop shops across the street!” — you realize you've come to expect and accept the dismal.