Ever since opening its doors in 1990, as the awkwardly named Florida Suncoast Dome, Tropicana Field surely has had its share of pulp knocked out of it. People won’t come to watch baseball indoors, the catwalks attract too many baseballs and Tampa fans won’t drive across the bridge, naysayers said. But when you write the history of sports in Tampa Bay, Tropicana Field deserves its own playbook.
The Trop (or The Pit, as Rays’ former manager Joe Maddon liked to call it) has not only been home to our professional baseball, hockey and arena football teams, but it has hosted soccer games, NBA exhibition games, tennis matches, a Final Four basketball championship, and a college football bowl game. It even did its part to help in the wake of Hurricane Harvey by hosting three games between the 2017 World Champion Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers.
The Florida Suncoast Dome was built in hopes of bringing a major league baseball team to the area, either through expansion or relocation. However, the first professional sports team to make its mark there was the Tampa Bay Lightning, who in 1993 moved across the bay from the Expo Hall to play hockey in the newly named (and more exciting-sounding) Thunderdome. For three years the Lightning set attendance records week after week thanks to cheap ticket prices and numerous two-for-one promotions. A sure-footed fan could even get a free ticket for a Tuesday game by kicking a field goal set up in the cavernous Thunderdome on a Monday.
The Thunderdome set a record for the largest crowd to watch a NHL playoff game on April 23, 1996, when 28,183 screaming fans witnessed the Lightning face off against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals—an attendance record that still stands today. After that remarkable season, the Lightning skated back across the bay, settling into their new Channelside home.
Moments to Remember
In 1996 came another name change, this time to the definitely more Florida-friendly Tropicana Field, named for the Florida-based orange juice company. Three years later the Trop hosted the 1999 Final Four college basketball championship, in which Connecticut downed Duke 77-74.
Five months later, during a Rays game versus the Cleveland Indians, the second most exciting moment in Trop history occurred. Rays’ third baseman Wade Boggs was three hits away from the hallowed and historic mark of 3000 hits. He slapped two singles in his first two at bats. Then in the sixth inning he became the first player in history to smack a home run for his 3000th hit.
The most thrilling Trop moment also involved the Rays. This time it was a mundane ground ball. The 2008 American League Championship Series between the Rays and the Boston Red Sox all came down to Game 7, the winner going to the World Series. The Trop was filled to the gills and the place seemed to be bouncing when the Rays went up 3-1. In the ninth inning with two outs, Boston’s Jed Lowrie hit a slow grounder up the middle. Rays’ second baseman Akinori Iwamora cleanly scooped up the ball, and instead of flipping it to shortstop Jason Bartlett, ran over to second and jumped on the base for the out. The entire crowd seemed to jump with him. The Rays were going to the World Series.
Today, the future of the Trop is in doubt. Will the team move to a new site in Tampa? Will a new Tropicana Field be erected next to the old one? Will they move out of town when their lease is up? No one knows the future of the Trop, but the past certainly has given thousands of Tampa Bay sports fans enough memories to sell the place out.