Charlotte County officials reflect on the future of the site

CHARLOTTE COUNTY – Sean Doherty, director of tourism for the Punta Gorda Englewood Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, recalls when the area’s notoriety rose after the Tampa Bay Rays moved their practice headquarters from spring at Charlotte Sports Park.

“I would be on the road selling leisure travel and when I mentioned that I was from the Port Charlotte area, before the Rays came, I often had stares because people didn’t know where we were. ‘said Doherty who started with the office in 2005 as director of sports marketing.

At that time, the sports park – then known as Charlotte County Stadium – had been without a spring training club since 2002, when the Texas Rangers moved to Arizona, after spending 15 years there.

Once the Rays, who started training in Port Charlotte after their first American League Championship in 2008, arrived, Doherty said people would recognize this is where the team is hosting training. of spring.

A fan once again welcomes the Tampa Bay Rays for their first full-team practice in February 2019.

“It has helped us put ourselves a little more on the map with travelers and tourists,” he added.

In recent years, the Rays have considered moving from St. Petersburg to Tampa, and team officials have touted a concept of “sister cities” that would allow the Rays to split the season between new stadiums in Tampa and to Montreal.

The Rays are locked in a lease at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg until 2027, while the lease for spring training at Port Charlotte runs until 2028.

It can be problematic, but not uncommon, for Major League baseball teams to hold spring practice at more than one venue. The Baltimore Orioles, prior to their move to Ed Smith Stadium in 2010, hosted Major League spring training in Fort Lauderdale, while the minor league camp was located at Twin Lakes Parks in Sarasota, which was originally developed by the Kansas City Royals in 1970 as a baseball academy.

Locally, the Pittsburgh Pirates are holding spring training at LECOM Park at 1611 9th Street W., Bradenton, but the Minor Leaguers are training a few miles east in Pirate City.

Pasco County Speculation

More recently, published reports, primarily in the Tampa Bay Times, highlighted part of this effort that would allow the Rays to play their spring training games in a stadium that would be built as part of the development of the Gas Worx. of 50 acres. plot between Ybor City and the Channelside area, with a spring training player development site north of Pasco County.

The latter idea comes from State Senator William Simpson, R-Trilby, current Speaker of the Senate.

A spokeswoman for Simpson confirmed that he and other Pasco County state lawmakers would consider seeking state aid for a proposed training site, “depending on the details.”

The Rays declined through an email from a team spokesperson to comment further.

A spokesperson for Tampa Mayor Jane Castor also declined to comment, noting the city is reportedly not involved in the concept.

Fans scattered across the Berm for a 2014 game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays at Charlotte Sports Park.

Charlotte County spokesperson Brian Gleason said by email that “Charlotte County has appreciated their partnership with the Tampa Bay Rays as part of their spring training camp and development program. of players since 2009.

“We are aware of media reports of potential relocation talks, but Rays management has told us they have no plans to move their spring training location anytime soon,” he said. he continued. “The Rays’ current contract with Charlotte County runs until spring training camp 2028.”

A story in Charlotte County

The Tampa Bay Rays still bore the Devil Rays name in August 2006, when they signed a 20-year spring training lease with Charlotte County for the Charlotte Sports Park, which hosted the Rays for the first time. times in 2009, after a $ 28 million renovation.

In 2014, the new stadium, which featured a promenade food court behind the outfield fence and a grass seating area, was named the # 1 spring training destination by readers of USA Today and 10Best. .

From 1998 to 2008, the Devil Rays played their spring training games at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, a few blocks from Tropicana Field.

As part of the move to Charlotte, the Rays moved their Class A squad from Vero Beach to Charlotte County.

The Charlotte Stone Crabs enjoyed an 11-year run in Charlotte County. The 2020 season has been canceled due to concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, as part of a major reorganization of minor league baseball, the Rays moved their Advanced Class A branch to South Carolina.

Doherty noted that while the Stone Crabs offered family entertainment, the county had been successful in attracting tournaments for young people to collect tourism dollars.

Proximity to the Rays to Port Charlotte – as well as the Orioles and Pirates to the north and the Red Sox and Twins to the south to Fort Myers – was one of many factors when the Atlanta Braves decided to move their quarters to spring training in North Port. There weren’t that many teams near the team’s former spring training home, Lake Buena Vista.

The Rays and Braves played the first-ever game at CoolToday Park, to close the Spring 2019 training schedule.

Related:The brave prepare for spring training after World Series victory

If the Rays played their spring training games – as well as part of the 162-game regular season – at Ybor City, the Rays would likely play the same teams as they do today.

In Charlotte, the team will be missed, Doherty said, but admitted losing the Stone Crabs turned out to be a dress rehearsal for that possibility.

“We would be very sad to see them go. I think we’re a good fit for them, I think they feel the same from the conversations I’ve had with some of their employees over the years, ”Doherty said.

“We’ll see,” he added. “The Montreal thing has come up a few times over the past few years. We’ll have to play the wait-and-see game to see where it goes and we know their deal here goes until 2028, so we’re hoping to have them at least then, but we would like to renew that deal. “

Earle Kimel primarily covers southern Sarasota County for the Herald-Tribune and can be contacted at Support local journalism with a digital subscription to the Herald-Tribune.

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