By Dan Schlossberg
Trees are down. Store signs are blown out. Street signs are missing.
The Tampa Bay Rays couldn’t salvage their park at Port Charlotte, while the Atlanta Braves spent more than $1 million — and many man-hours — unearthing the debris at CoolToday Park, 10 miles away in North Port.
Nearly six months after Hurricane Ian caused billions in damage to the Florida Gulf Coast, there are still blue tarps on houses, missing and destroyed signs everywhere, and twisted, cracked, and tangled trees.
To the outsider, it’s almost impossible to imagine what this place must have looked like right after the storm went through.
But it did wake up spring training officials, who realized that things could have been even worse — and can be in any future year.
The Rays retreated to their home park, the domed Tropicana Field, for all but one of their exhibition games. That one, against the New York Yankees, was played at Disney’s Champion Stadium, where the Braves trained for 21 years before coming to North Port.
Tampa Bay has also played several in-season games at Disney in an effort to expand the reach of its attendance-challenge franchise.
The Rays need a new ballpark, as Tropicana Field dates back to 1990 and is the only covered park in the majors where the dome is not retractable. Strange ground rules are called into play for every game at The Trop.
In addition, it’s location across the 25-mile causeway to St. Pete creates traffic nightmares at 5:00. The ballclub needs a new ballpark, whether it be in Tampa proper, Ybor City, Montreal, or some other location.
As for future hurricane damage, the 15-team Grapefruit League must depend entirely upon the vagaries of weather.
The Miami Marlins, of course, could follow the example of the Rays and train at home, where their ballpark does have the retractable dome Tampa Bay lacks.
Instead, the Marlins journey to Jupiter, thus becoming the only team to go north for spring training — with the possible exception of the Phoenix-based Arizona Diamondbacks.
Hurricanes have long influenced baseball scheduling. Peak season for American cyclones is June-September but they have occurred long after that.
The Marlins themselves had to move several games out of Miami because no one could get to the ballpark. And it happened more than once.
The reach of Hurricane Ian was widespread. A Hampton Inn & Suites on U.S. 41, also known as Tamiami Trail, opened less than a year before Ian struck, causing both damage and cancellations. Talk about a classic case of bad timing.
So here’s a word of advice: before making plans for spring training in 2024 or beyond, wait til hurricane season is over. The parks and teams you hope to see might not be where they were the year before.
Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is the author of 40 baseball books and thousands of articles about the game. His byline can be found on forbes.com, Latino Sports, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, Memories & Dreams, and other outlets. E.mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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