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Rays ready for picture perfect start in park

PORT CHARLOTTE

They opened the gates to the new ball yard Monday and fans flocked to see the Rays workout at the Charlotte Sports Park, the latest edition to the Grapefruit League circuit.

The Rays ran the bases. Fans took pictures.

The Rays hit. Fans took pictures.

The sun was out, the wind became nothing more than a breeze, and Don Zimmer was leaning against the batting cage.

“A beautiful day,” Zimmer said.

Yes it was.

Picture perfect.

It gets better Wednesday when the Rays christen the new park with a game against the Reds.

Major league baseball has returned to Port Charlotte in a way no one but a few dreamers dreamed it could.

Charlotte County Stadium, once one the more dumpier dumps in Florida, has been transformed into Charlotte Sports Park, a state-of-the-art facility that is nothing if not fan friendly. A wooden boardwalk runs along the outfield allowing fans to watch the game from the perspective of Carl Crawford and Gabe Gross while also affording them the opportunity to look down into the bullpen as the pitchers warm up. You can’t get more fan-friendlier than that.

The beer promises to be cold and the hot dogs hot.

The soft pretzels are major league. Trust me on that.

Inside the gift shop you’ll find all sorts of shirts and hats proclaiming the Rays the 2008 American League champions. How neat is that for an area that’s rejoining the major leagues?

The Rangers used to train here, and during their best years they were good enough to win their division and lose to the Yankees in the division series.

During the other years they were a collection of forgettable players even though some of those players had names like Nolan Ryan, Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, Jose Canseco and Alex Rodriguez.

The old place doesn’t have the best of reputations these days, unless you don’t mind players who injected themselves with banned performance-enhancing substances. A lot of guys mentioned in the Mitchell Report passed through Port Charlotte.

But why bring up the past, unless it is memories of Mickey Tettleton moving around the old Rangers clubhouse on in-line skates and shooting a plastic puck at a hockey net defended by Dean Palmer.

Or Ryan running the stairs that used to lead from the second story of the clubhouse to the area behind the Rangers bullpen. It’s now the right field berm and kiddie park.

Or the sign they used to hang on the fence outside the park that read, “Ryan is signing today,” and eventually the future hall of famer would come sit in a chair and sign an autograph for those who waited hours in line. Sometimes Ryan would sign on days he wasn’t scheduled to sign.

That’s spring training history in Port Charlotte. Not as rich as the spring training history the Rays left behind at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, which means the Rays have an easier act to follow.

The organization can really own this town, much like the Pirates in Bradenton and the Tigers in Lakeland. It will take some time, but the opportunity is here.

Years from now the locals will talk about the home runs Evan Longoria drove over the boardwalk in left field and the way David Price’s fastball used to make the catcher’s mitt pop during the first year.

There are memories to be made here.

They start production Wednesday.

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