Whistle while they work

The Rays hope the labors to prepare the Disney site pay off.

By Marc Topkin, Times Staff Writer
Published May 15, 2007

LAKE BUENA VISTA - There are so many little things the Devil Rays had to take care of in staging the three-game home-away-from-home series with Texas that starts tonight at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex.

Renting a portable 30-by-22 foot video board that will be positioned beyond the rightfield fence. Making sure they bring enough game-quality baseballs. Plotting the safest path for mascot Raymond to scale the dugouts. Navigating conflicting corporate sponsorships to get Pepsi signs (and products) into a Coke-only facility. Borrowing couches to furnish the clubhouse. Buying soap and shampoo for the showers.

And then there are things they'll just have to figure out on the fly - like what to do if it rains.

"Really, for the first time in organization history, we're watching the weather, " Rays president Matt Silverman said. "We've had games affected by hurricanes in the past, but we've never been concerned about normal precipitation affecting regular-season games at home before."

Moving three games 90 miles east has turned into a massive relocation project as the Rays seek to present a major-league experience to the Central Florida fans they hope to attract.

So along with their 25 players with bats and gloves, the Rays will also bring their home and visiting clubhouse staffs, bat boys, team doctors, dozens of ticketing, marketing and public relations officials - as well as their game-day entertainment crew of announcers, dancers and a furry blue creature - to the 9, 500-seat stadium.

"We're exporting the game-day atmosphere of Tropicana Field to this stadium, hoping the fans in Central Florida will get a taste of what it's like to watch a game there, " Silverman said.

The work started months ago, when Rays officials first considered moving a typically poorly attended series against Texas to the Orlando area in an effort to broaden their appeal.

They then embarked on a meandering course of negotiations, discussions and compromises that included Disney, Major League Baseball, the players union, the city of St. Petersburg, corporate sponsors (theirs and Disney's), season ticket holders, umpires, Rays and Rangers players and even the Atlanta Braves, who have minor-league teams at the facility.

The actual heavy lifting started Sunday, when assistant clubhouse manager Jose Fernandez and staff moved everything from the team's white uniforms (which usually don't leave home) to drinks, chewing gum, a clubhouse stereo, detergent and other items that are usually standard at a major-league park.

It continued Sunday night when, after returning from the weekend series in Toronto, Rays equipment and clubhouse manager Chris Westmoreland came straight from the airport in another truck loaded with the usual equipment the team carries on the road.

"It's going to be interesting, " Westmoreland said. "It's going to be unique. It's something that has never happened."

Teams have played regular-season games at unusual sites before, but not always of their own volition. The A's, for example, moved six games to Las Vegas in 1996 due to construction delays in Oakland. When the Rays gave up two home games to open the 2004 season in Tokyo against the Yankees, MLB took care of most of the details.

In this case, the Rays willingly surrendered three of their 81 home dates, although Silverman said it doesn't put them at a competitive disadvantage.

"It's not one we think will have a major effect, " he said. "Our players are close to home in a world-class hotel and facility with family and friends close by and able to attend these games, " plus have the opportunity for unique family experiences with "insider access" to the Disney parks.

But - assuming an afternoon spin on the Mad Tea Party isn't the cure of Rocco Baldelli's slump - others aren't as sure as they are busing east this morning, staying two nights in a hotel and eating all meals out (while getting their usual $85-a-day per diem).

"It's basically like three road games, " leftfielder Carl Crawford said. "We can't look at it as home games because we're not doing our regular routine. Whenever you're knocked off your regular routine, it's always going to feel different. You just have to make the adjustments and go along with it. ... I don't know if it's going to go smoothly or roughly."

Manager Joe Maddon, who supports the concept, acknowledged there will be some unknowns, such as how much of their usual extra pregame drills they can get done. And, for example, there are no batting cages underneath the stands, so players can't pop in for a few swings between at-bats as they would in other parks.

The stadium has hosted the Braves for 10 springs and World Baseball Classic games, but it doesn't have the creature comforts of most major-league stadiums, such as an expansive clubhouse with big-screen TVs or a players lounge.

"We've recommended they don't plan on spending too much time there because it's not a really comfortable place to hang out, " Westmoreland said.

As the Rays are moving in, the Disney crews have also been busy taking down and covering up Braves signs and putting up custom-made banners for Rays sponsors - some of which conflict with their own, such as Bud vs. Coors and Pepsi vs. Coke.

"Our idea, " Disney event manager Patrick Logan said, "is to replicate as much as possible Tropicana Field."

And the Braves, who have 60 players in their extended spring program, are moving out.

"It's pretty basic: They get the facility and they get the walls, " Braves equipment manager Nick Leto said. "It's going to be a little bit different for these guys. Disney's kind of fortunate it's the Devil Rays. They can get away with things a little bit. If it was the Red Sox, you know they'd be knocking down walls."