ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Only in major-league baseball could the sky be falling in a domed stadium.
Welcome to Tropicana Field, the one place where Orioles outfielder Eric Davis might want his raise-the-roof gesture taken literally.
Great park. But make sure to wear a hard hat.
You never know what goodies might start descending inside the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' new home.
Shattered glass? Been there.
Baseballs bouncing off catwalks? Done that.
The roof itself? Hey, that's where the Devil Rays draw the line.
The Trop is a trip, all right, and the Orioles should aim high tonight when they begin their three-game series against their newest AL East rivals.
Camden Yards has the warehouse. Fenway Park has the Green Monster. And Tropicana Field has the catwalks.
"It's like playing inside some kid's erector set," Chicago White Sox broadcaster Ed Farmer told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Just like it, in fact.
You make up the rules as you go along.
The ground rules state that a ball is in play if it hits the catwalk, as long as it lands in fair territory.
But when Frank Thomas hit a mammoth shot that ricocheted off a catwalk into foul territory on April 4, umpire Jim McKean said sorry, home run.
The Devil Rays played the game under protest, but three weeks later, they benefited from the dome cookin', and got their own gift from above.
This time, it was Anaheim's Jim Edmonds who appeared to hit a Tropicana Tater, but his shot clanged off a catwalk and fell into shallow center field.
Edmonds stopped at second with a double.
The two catwalk incidents occurred within the first 10 games at the Trop, but the fun was just beginning.
On April 28, Oakland's A. J. Hinch hit a foul pop that shattered a light bulb and scattered glass on the field, causing a four-minute delay but no injuries.
Did Hinch feel like Robert Redford in "The Natural?"
"Heck no," he said. "He got to circle the bases after he hit the lights. I got to stand there for 10 minutes, and then I struck out."
Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli shook his head as he recalled the incidents yesterday while giving two reporters a tour of the park.
His pride and joy actually is quite impressive, the best and brightest of the domed stadiums, even with its $85 million face lift still in progress.
Just don't look up.
"It's such an aberration," Naimoli said. "Hitting the catwalks is crazy enough. Hitting the light was really strange. The lights in the Metrodome are closer than our lights are."
Still, the Rays won't ignore the problem.
"There's a real simple solution," Naimoli said. "We went back to the manufacturer. There's something that snaps over the lights to prevent that from happening.
"We'll do it. But I'm not sure the lights will ever get hit again."
They're part of what makes the ballpark unique, and once the ground rules are changed, sluggers like Thomas and Ken Griffey Jr. will be swingin' for the roof.
There actually are three catwalks, the lowest of which is 150 feet high, and hangs over the outfield seats. The structures cannot be removed. They help support the dome.
The architects probably didn't consider them an issue when they designed the park in the late 1980s, before the game's sluggers bulked up, the better to feast on dead arms and live balls.
And by the time baseball got around to awarding Tampa-St. Pete a team, it was too late.
Individual clubs make their own ground rules, and the Rays might ask the league to approve a change for next season, so that balls striking the catwalks are ruled automatic homers.
Not that it would ever happen, but what if Tampa Bay made the World Series this season, and Fred McGriff was robbed by his own stadium of a home run?
For now, the umpires apparently can decide what is a homer and what isn't, just like figure skating judges scrutinizing the merits of a triple lutz.
Before long, hitters might start demanding style points for their home run trots, and Rickey Henderson would again be the game's most coveted free agent.
Seriously, the way the Orioles are going, it would be just their luck to get robbed of a home run this weekend.
It already has happened twice this season -- in Anaheim, when the umpires called fan interference on a drive by B. J. Surhoff, and in Baltimore, when Garret Anderson leaped over the left-field wall to deny Harold Baines.
Then again, Brady Anderson might take one look at the catwalks, and declare his shoulder magically healed. Davis, Jeffrey Hammonds, Rafael Palmeiro -- they'll be shooting for the moon.
The sky is falling! The sky is falling!
Welcome to the Trop.
Pub Date: 5/08/98