Rays to make return to Charlotte Sports Park after a year away

February 6th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Adam Berry’s Rays Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. PETERSBURG -- A few days after Hurricane Ian made landfall and raged through Southwest Florida on Sept. 28, 2022, Dan Moeller made his way to the Charlotte Sports Park complex in Port Charlotte, Fla.

He couldn’t believe what he saw.

Metal panels, ripped from the main ballpark’s roof, wrapped around palm trees. Light towers bent, stadium lights broken, signage destroyed, awnings twisted and mangled. The clubhouse building sustained substantial water damage, mostly from roof leaks that wrecked ceiling tiles, carpet and lockers. The dugouts on the back fields were demolished, their backstops badly damaged and steel batter’s eye structures flattened “as if a giant just stepped on them.”

“All you could do was just look around and go, ‘Oh, my,’” said Moeller, the Rays’ special projects and field operations director. “It was just crazy to see something like that -- and I’m a Floridian. I’ve been through hurricanes before, but I’ve never seen anything of that magnitude.”

Two months later, the Rays announced they wouldn’t be able to use Charlotte Sports Park, their Spring Training home since 2009. They pieced together a plan last year that required an early spring move from Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex to Tropicana Field and the local Huggins-Stengel Field. Their Minor Leaguers started the year at Disney, then their extended spring group, Rookie-level affiliate and instructional league camp found temporary homes at the Twin Lakes complex in Sarasota.

Next week, after 16 months and more than $17 million in repairs, the Rays will return to Charlotte County. After a year away, they’re thrilled to be back.

The Rays started holding Minor League minicamps at Charlotte Sports Park the second week of January, and things should be back to normal when pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 13. Tampa Bay’s first full-squad workout will take place Feb. 19, and the ballpark’s Grapefruit League opener is set for Feb. 24.

“It feels like it’s been forever since we’ve been back there, even though it’s only been 15, 16 months,” Moeller said. “But it’s been a long year and a half.”

Moeller, who spent 23 years as the Rays’ head groundskeeper, got a sense of the scale in the days after the storm struck.

One example: All the facility’s batting practice “turtle” shells had been chained and secured to the backstops on the back fields. Most were “twisted into pretzels,” Moeller said, but one seemingly disappeared in the storm when the backstop was leveled. They found it eventually. It had been whipped across the entire diamond, then over a 6-foot fence and a neighboring pond, before landing about 100 feet into the woods well beyond the field.

The infield clay washed out and into the outfield grass, with some of it flung as far as 200 feet. They had to replenish much of the clay in the infield and warning tracks, strip all the infield grass, plus whatever the dirt damaged in the outfield, and resod the fields.

The repair work included a few necessary upgrades that fans might notice, like new batter’s eyes and LED light fixtures atop bigger light poles. But the work was mostly about getting the facility, including the clubhouse buildings and the back fields, back in working order after the damage and destruction caused by the deadly hurricane.

“For the most part, everything is pretty much as it was back in 2022. Feels like forever,” Moeller said. “Everything should be put back the way it was. A lot went into it.”