Rays arrive at Disney for Spring Training

February 14th, 2023

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When Rays catcher was a young backstop coming up in the Braves’ system, he spent his springs at Atlanta's long-time facility in Disney World. The Rays usually don’t. But months after the impact of Hurricane Ian left the club without a viable Spring Training home, it is turning to the self-proclaimed “Happiest Place on Earth” for a solution.

Which is why the Rays this year have the novelty of being one of the few teams to head north for Spring Training -- and why Bethancourt is doubling as a de facto tour guide for his teammates who this week find themselves filing into ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex for the first time. 

“I was at this complex for like nine years, so I’m pretty familiar with it,” Bethancourt said. “This is like the first day of school for us.”

The new year doesn’t come with many new faces for the Rays, who -- besides free agent addition Zach Eflin and a few notable departures -- return much of the same roster that reached last year’s American League Wild Card series. But the new year does bring new expectations and new surroundings via the club’s new (temporary) training digs.

Tampa Bay will spend its first two weeks of Spring Training at the Disney complex, which served as the Braves’ spring home from 1998-2019, before moving to Tropicana Field for the exhibition schedule next month. Pitchers and catchers’ first official workout is slated for Wednesday, with the first full squad workout set for Monday.

“It’s different, but I like change,” ace left-hander said. “It’s cool to have this opportunity to come here and play baseball here. … Hopefully everything resolves itself in Port Charlotte and people’s lives get back to normal. We’re lucky Disney took us in, and we’re going to make the best of the situation.”

The Rays consider themselves lucky to have ended up at a location with the facility quality and field space to suit their needs during this important period, especially with eight rostered players slated to miss a sizable portion of camp participating in the World Baseball Classic. At Disney, they have access to five full fields and an extra infield, as well as plentiful pitching mounds and batting cages not dissimilar to their setup in Port Charlotte. The Rays did need to build their own weight room in a large parking tent; otherwise, Disney installed new lockers, carpeting and other amenities with an eye toward welcoming its first big league spring guests in three years.

"We're so appreciative of Disney for accommodating us,” manager Kevin Cash said. “They've worked hard, and we had a lot of people within our organization work hard. It's been a very joint effort on both ends. I'm excited about it. I think we hit a wall every Spring Training, when you're competing, and the games don't mean anything, it's tough to keep the energy going. But having a transition after two weeks being here, and then the addition of being in our beds for an extra month, I think the players are gonna welcome that.”

Said president of baseball operations Erik Neander: “As excited and thankful as we are to Disney and ESPN Wide World of Sports, we also haven't forgotten why we're here and we are continuing to think about Charlotte County and the surrounding areas that were affected by Hurricane Ian and continue to be affected by Hurricane Ian. That will remain in the front of our minds for the foreseeable future.”

It’s been a while, but this technically isn’t the first time the Rays have stepped foot in Disney -- they played six regular season games here between 2007 and 2008 (winning all six). They’ll play another this spring, a Feb. 28 exhibition against the Yankees, before returning to St. Petersburg for the rest of camp. Meanwhile, their Minor League camp will remain in Disney and run through the end of March.

“We really hope that game is packed here,” McClanahan said. “We want there to be no empty seats. We have a really good group of guys, and we want to showcase that.”