When the husband and I first moved to Tampa we were excited to be within spitting distance of Tropicana Field. The home of the Tampa Bay Rays (formerly the Devil Rays), it is a huge domed stadium with air conditioning. The parking is easy and good, and the food inside is okay, if a little expensive, but what stadium food isn’t?
At first we would go and sit in the 300 seats, the cheap seats, far up in the balcony. Then we discovered StubHub and learned about the comfort of the 200 seats, also known as the press box seats. A bit more expensive than the 300 seats but the actual chairs were more comfortable, and the bathrooms were right there without a constant crowd for them.
Sometimes I would win tickets to games on the radio or the school district would offer deals on tickets to teachers and their families. These seats were in the outfield, and once the husband almost caught a foul ball!
At some point we must have gotten a tax return we didn’t have to completely use up or something, and we decided to live large at the ballpark by attending in the all-you-can-eat unlimited drinks luxury club area. For a time it was called the Whitney Bank Club, then it was the Hancock Bank Club, and now it’s just the Rays Club, but tickets here get you access to an assortment of different amenities. You have to take the elevator to get to it, and when you walk up there is a podium with a ticket taker and two stampers. Once you are confirmed to belong there, one of the stampers marks your right wrist with an invisible stamp that can be read with UV light if you leave for some other kind of food and have to come back.
In the past when we’ve gone, the food was top notch. Every station was manned with someone ready to give you unlimited hot dogs, Italian sausage, and several chef offerings on small plates. The dessert table was overflowing with little puddings, brownies, cookies, and candies. There was a make your own sundae bar. Popcorn, peanuts, and pretzels were placed in bags all around for the grabbing.
Even better were the seats. Large and high backed and leather, they come with cup holders and waiters who will bring you whatever you want! It’s important to note here that as long as you’re getting soda or house wine and beer, that shit is all included and you can have as much as you care to have. I got drunk on one of our trips here by tipping the waiter so good to just keep bringing me brownies from the dessert table and a glass of white wine every time I was almost out.
In addition to the traditional seats, there is an entire area set up with tables and chairs, with tvs on the walls playing the tv feed and the radio play by play coming through the speakers in the ceiling. You can sit and see the game happening on the field, on a tv, and hear what’s happening. If you are more comfortable eating at a table before moving to your seats, you can do this comfortably and miss nothing, and the waiters will even come to you here too!
We bought tickets for the Rays Club at the beginning of the summer when we were flush. Since the tickets are nonrefundable we wanted to make sure we prioritized going and didn’t put it off, because if we did it might fall by the wayside to groceries or end of the summer scrambling. We chose a midday game on a weekday to avoid traffic, expensive parking, and a busy stadium. Plus, in place of the chef’s plates offered, the club would be offering brunch items like a waffle bar, an oatmeal station, and a carving station with ham, eggs, bacon, and breakfast potatoes. It was a little weird that there was no omelet station, but any breakfast foods are welcome.
The drive was beautiful but long. We have to drive across Tampa Bay via the Howard Frankland Bridge and there are always pelicans and the water sparkles and it’s just really great. Living near the ocean is so nice; just looking at it relaxes me. There was no traffic at all, and we parked in our usual lot for half the price we usually pay! We never park in the official ballpark lot because it’s a horrible bottleneck after the game. The lot we stay in is a local strip mall lot, and when we turn out of it at the end of the game we can then turn right back onto the highway headed home with no muss and no fuss.
Let’s talk about the Rays Club.
Without a particular sponsorship it was clear to me that the quality of the food has diminished. ULTIMATE NACHOS ended up being a pile of circular tortilla chips in a basket surrounded by a sterno heated tub of cheese, a thing of salsa, and assorted accoutrements that was more like what someone would do at home rather than what you would expect at a luxury box experience.
The cheese and antipasti station was open air and the cheese wasn’t even sliced. It was set there in large pie-like slices that I had to figure out how to cut with the plastic knives that were set nearby. Also people were standing around it since it was separate from the other food, so I guess I was a bit concerned about the cleanliness of the food too. This concern extended to the hot dog/sausage station as well. Once managed at a manned station with a hot grill for keeping things fresh, they were now on gas station type rollers with bowls of grilled vegetables set under a heat lamp nearby. The large pretzels were stale instead of soft, hanging in a gas station-like rotating thing. The best part of all the food was the special offering of brunch. The waffles looked amazing, the scrambled eggs and bacon were great, and the carved ham was excellent.
There were also those Coca-Cola machines where you can make literally any combo of soda you can imagine, but there was only one soda station and it was ALL THE WAY back at the entrance. So anytime we wanted a refill I got like 2,000 steps on my fitbit to get it and get back to our table.
A lot of what the husband and I consider when we think about spending money on experiences outside of the home is whether it makes our lives better in some way. Will the food be better than what we could get and make ourselves? Is the performance/sport more enjoyable live than on the tv? Is it a unique experience that we’ll hold as a special memory?
In the past, this baseball club experience was a once in awhile “treat yo self” opportunity. It felt like luxury. It tasted like luxury. This time it just seemed like they collected a bunch of food from the basic food stands and arranged them in baskets around the room with heat lamps where appropriate. The lack of sponsorship seems to have hit them hard. The most enjoyable part of this most recent trip was the fact that we found a dark, cool corner of the table section to sit and watch the game. It was quiet, we weren’t elbow to elbow with anyone, and all we could hear was the radio coverage of the game. We didn’t ever go down to our stadium seats, we just sat there the whole time, visiting the buffet when we got hungry.
I don’t think we’ll go again. The baseball is already better on the tv when we can pause, rewind, and go to the bathroom or get a snack whenever we want. With the long drive from our house to St. Pete (about 45 minutes), the high ticket price, and low quality of the food combined, I think this experience has tipped in favor of staying home rather than spending the money to go out.