Day One of Year Last

Today marked the beginning of the end for this historic ballpark, as the Rays will move their preseason efforts to Port Charlotte in 2009, about two hours south the Sunshine City as the team looks to spread their wings to a potential new fan base, says Ted Fleming of Rays Digest.

Many of us were not alive when the first spring training game was played on the hallowed grounds called now called Progress Energy Park, Home of Al Lang Field.

Today marked the beginning of the end for this historic ballpark as the Rays will move their preseason efforts to Port Charlotte in 2009, about two hours south the Sunshine City as the team looks to spread their wings to a potential new fan base.

The Rays will once again play three regular season games in Lake Buena Vista at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex, however, there has never been a more grand stadium on the Grapefruit League circuit to catch some rays until it fell into disrepair over the last number of years.

Baseball may rise from the ashes on this plot of land as the Rays are attempting to build an open-air stadium although there is still much debate on the benefits of it coming to the downtown area, but for now there is one more season to enjoy.

Despite many seats being in the sun, no luxury boxes and metal benches taking up approximately 35% of the seating area, there is the magnificent beauty of watching baseball with the Bay used as a backdrop.

Boats of many varieties dot the waterfront, light planes take off and land out in the distance and the palm trees that have been there for decades wave in the Florida breeze.

This is no ordinary spring and it is not just because the stadium will eventually come down for one reason or another. Today could be the first day of the rest of the Tampa Bay Rays baseball life.

It is game one of year eleven and with the new decade there is a sense of hope for area fans. Only the anticipation of the first spring training, the first regular season game and the first year, 1998, was there more excitement and with a real chance to put up a significant number of wins, the new Rays' blue can be seen everywhere.

The clubhouse distractions are gone and you get the sense that Stuart Sternberg and the entire organization are stressing character instead of characters. Add that to a sizable dip into the checkbook and the Rays embark on a new generation of Tampa Bay baseball.

And one more thing that may be overlooked as being just a small part of preparing for 2008 - The Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is later than in years past the Rays will not have to compact their home exhibitions into three weeks. It will be a good old fashioned spring, just like everyone else.

"It doesn't change things that much," said Rays skipper Joe Maddon about having a more spread out schedule. "I haven't really looked at it from that perspective. It's not big deal for us, right now."

That right now may not mean very much at this point in time although that could change in week four when you do not have to play six or seven straight away from Al Lang before moving the entire operation to Tropicana Field.

The Rays have the smallest contingent of players in camp, ever, so many will get a longer look for the few spots that are open.

It will be an interesting March in Rays land for many reasons and the first of a precious few left in a ballpark that brought so much joy to many area residents and visitors over the years.

From the Boston Braves to St. Louis Cardinals, Yankees to Mets, New York Giants to the Phillies, the Browns, Orioles and now Rays, Al Lang Field and the city of St. Petersburg have served the sport well.


DIAMOND DUST:

THIS JUST IN: Veteran newscaster Sam Donaldson, a survivor of melanoma, threw out the first pitch. He is the chairman of Moffit's Board of Advisors and today marked the first of nine dates on the Spring Swing-Moffitt's Sun Safety Tour where free screenings for skin cancer will take place two hours before game time. Go to moffitt.org for more information.

GETTING WARM: The Rays will travel to Bradenton Sunday to take on the Pirates at McKechnie Field. Schedule to toe the rubber for the visitors are Jeff Niemann, Jae Kuk Ryu, Scott Munter, Kurt Birkins and Wade Davis The game will be broadcast on the Rays flagship station, 1250-AM WHNZ. Monday it is on to Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland against the Tigers with Matt Garza, Jake McGee, James Houser, Grant Balfour and Chad Orvella going to the hill.

AND ON THIS DAY: On this day in Al Lang history the St. Louis Cardinals began their spring training in 1948 with 55 players in camp. Eddie Dyer was the manager as the team held morning and afternoon workouts. Hall of Famer Stan "The Man" Musial was unsigned and not on the field that day but would go on to have the best season of his 21-year career hitting .376 with 39 HRs and 131 RBI.

BATTER UP: The Rays have painted a home plate in medium right-center field to approximate where it will be should the plans for their new stadium come to fruition.

HIGH FIVE: The Rays will don their new home whites in the final five games at Al Lang Field this spring. Those games are on March 16, 19, 22, 24 and 28.

TURN ON, TUNE IN: The Rays will broadcast a dozen games this year via their radio partners, 1250 WHNZ and 620 WDAE. There will also be two games telecast by Fox Sports Net Florida. Here is the schedule - ALL GAMES AT 1:05pm UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED:

• March 2 @ Pittsburgh - WHNZ

• March 8 @ NY Yankees - WDAE --- 1:15pm

• March 9 vs. Cincinnati - WHNZ

• March 15 @ Atlanta (ss)- WDAE, or

• March 15 @ NY Yankees (ss) - WDAE --- 1:15pm

• March 16 vs Detroit - WHNZ / FSN

• March 21 @ NY Yankees - WDAE ---- 7:15pm

• March 22 vs. Pittsburgh - WHNZ

• March 23 @ Reds - WHNZ

• March 28 vs Reds - WHNZ / FSN

• March 29 @ Reds - WHNZ

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