Growing up in Port Charlotte, Florida, I often would make my way to venue now known as Charlotte Sports Park and watch the Charlotte Rangers play minor league baseball. As a kid, I didn’t care that these were some great prospects on their way to Major League Baseball, I didn’t realize that seeing Mark Teixeira, Sammy Sosa, C.J. Wilson and Ivan Rodriguez playing at the 5000 seat stadium down the road from the shopping mall was a big deal. I just loved the atmosphere, the fun music and crazy sound effects. But in 2002, when I was a jaded high schooler who was too cool for minor league baseball games, the Rangers left town and Charlotte County Stadium was empty. The place where Alex Rodriguez‘s massive contract was unveiled, the place where Michael Jordan once took to the field, and the place that Nolan Ryan officially announced he was retiring sat empty, a building full of nothing but memories for most of the 2000′s.
Then the Rays brought baseball back to Port Charlotte and made me realize what I was missing. I had since moved away from Southwest Florida, and eventually out of the state entirely, and grew to miss Spring Training. The excitement and hype surrounding the start of baseball season was more than college baseball could replace. So when I finally made my way back to Port Charlotte, I got the chance to visit Charlotte Sports Park and check out a game first hand. The Charlotte Stone Crabs put on a great show, the atmosphere was a bit quiet, but still fun, and the pride of having baseball in Charlotte County brought me back to my childhood.
Fine, I have the personal connection, but why is it a great fit for the Rays in general to have Spring Training and their High-A affiliate in Port Charlotte, a quite, little known community in Southwest Florida? As it turns out, because Port Charlotte lies within a battleground area for Tampa Bay sports. Growing up in Charlotte County, I was one of the only Buccaneer fans at my school. In fact, when the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl, I was congratulated by my friends, who were all fans of other teams. The Devil Rays had very few fans in the area, only the most hardcore Tampa Bay sports fan would be seen publicly supporting the upstart franchise.
People from Port Charlotte are often children of elderly folks who move to the area to retire. So there’s a lot of northern influence in town, as a quick drive around town spotting New York, Michigan, and Canada license plates would reveal. There are Yankee fans, Red Sox fans, and even some fans of Midwestern teams. There are definitely fans of baseball in Port Charlotte, the concern of the Rays should be making sure they become Rays fans. There is no hiding the fact that the Rays are having attendance issues in St. Petersburg, so building up a strong fanbase in Southwest Florida will help expand the footprint of the team, and turn more Florida-born baseball fans into Tampa Bay Rays fans.
Having Spring Training in the Tampa Area would be a benefit for the hardcore Rays fans who can’t get enough of their hometown team. But that’s not who the Rays front office need to concern themselves with. There are sports fans in Florida who need to become Rays fans, and Port Charlotte is one of those areas. So while the ballpark isn’t the most state-of-the-art and Port Charlotte isn’t the most exciting city in Florida, the Rays are in the right place holding Spring Training in Southwest Florida. We’ve seen that having roots in St. Pete alone is not quite enough to sustain a Major League Baseball team for the long term. Any move to help expand the Rays brand should be embraced and encouraged, and the emphasis on bringing Southwest Florida into the Rays family is a perfect fit.