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Charlotte Sports Park reopens

The baseball gods were smiling on the patient Port Charlotte spring-training fans Saturday, as the Tampa Bay Rays launched their 2024 season at Charlotte Sports Park after spending last spring at Disney and the Trop.

Last spring was a hard one for the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Ian swept through the region in September 2022, wreaking plenty of havoc in the region and causing an estimated $113 billion in damage in Florida alone. That damage was felt particularly hard in the greater Fort Myers area and environs north; the Minnesota Twins saw damage to Hammond Stadium and the Lee Health Sports Complex, but not to the point where spring-training operations were scrapped.

Not so in Port Charlotte, where the damage to Charlotte Sports Park and the rest of the training complex were extensive enough to force the Rays north for spring training, launching initial workouts at Disney’s Wide World of Sports and then game play at Tropicana Field. The decision to move was not hard: Hurricane Ian impacted the entire complex, tearing open roofs on structures, taking down signage and lighting, and causing extensive water damage.

Indoor March baseball sucks the charm out of spring training, and although the Rays have made attempts to move spring ops closer to Tampa, the decision was made to return to Port Charlotte in 2024. An $18 million repair plan launched by Charlotte County paved the way, implementing plenty of upgrades like a new batter’s eye and signage, upgraded clubhouses, new LED lighting and more.A visit to the 2024 opening was really a return to a traditional Port Charlotte baseball game. The Rays moved spring ops to Charlotte Sports Park in 2009 after the former spring home of the Texas Rangers was renovated. Though the ballpark sits on an 82-acre site, most fans will stick to the parking lot and the ballpark, observing the more bucolic aspects of the complex from the large wraparound concourse. It’s not unusual to observe an alligator lounging at the pond past the left-field corner—though, alas, none seemed to be present Saturday—but there’s plenty of other Florida wildlife to be observed at a Rays spring training game. The ballpark seats 7,000, but that’s tallying up all the available spots—grandstand, outfield concourse seating and berm areas. 

It was a happy crowd at the opener, though there was an abundance of fans rooting for the visiting opponent, the Atlanta Braves, who train in nearly Venice. With a large crowd, there were plenty of long lines at concessions, partly due to the inevitable hiccups for an opening game; still, the concessions were very limited, and the ballpark that once was known for higher-end offerings like grouper now features a very limited set of concessions, though the cheesesteak and Italian sausage/brat stands are still in place. 

What was maintained: the old-time Florida atmosphere. There’s been some definite changes in the ballpark vicinity, with Port Charlotte development creeping in from the east; what used to be a totally bucolic experience is now accented with plenty of traffic. But that’s OK: yes, it takes a little longer to get to the ballpark, but a Rays spring game at Charlotte Sports Park is still worth the effort.

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