Rays set to say farewell to Al Lang

Rays set to say farewell to Al Lang

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- The Rays will play their final game in St. Petersburg at Progress Energy Park, home of Al Lang Field, on Friday, marking the end of the historic ballpark's 83-year tenure.

The site has been home to seven Major League teams, including the Boston Braves, Yankees, Cardinals, New York Giants, Mets, Orioles and the Rays.

The Rays, who will relocate to Port Charlotte, Fla., next February, spent 11 straight Spring Trainings at Al Lang.

Friday's game vs. the Reds comes on the heels of Thursday's contest at Chain of Lakes Park, where the Rays faced the Indians for the last time at that site. For Spring Training 2009, Cleveland will move to a complex in Goodyear, Ariz.

For self-described baseball lovers like manager Joe Maddon, the mood on Thursday was bittersweet.

"I'm looking at this place, and it's the essence of Spring Training," Maddon said of Chain of Lakes Park. "I'm all for progress, as you all know, but there's a part of this you want to maintain somehow."

Maddon said he was driving to Al Lang Field on Thursday morning, and was thinking about the first time he saw the field, as a 20-year-old freshman at Lafayette University.

"We were down in Tampa," he said. "I hitchhiked from Tampa to Al Lang to watch the Mets and the Cardinals play."

Maddon said he snuck out alone since no one was else was as "crazy" a Cardinals fan as he was.

"I had no idea how I was going; I don't know how many rides it took me to get there," he said. "I get over there ... look down at Al Lang, and it was an incredible moment for me."

Maddon called his initial visit a "once in a lifetime" experience, and although he doesn't remember the score, what stuck with him were the teams playing.

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Rays' senior baseball advisor Don Zimmer echoed the sentiment, noting the likes of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Lou Gehrig all spent springs at Al Lang at one point in their storied careers.

"A lot of great players played at Al Lang," Zimmer said. "I think those things are what you remember more, getting to see them play."

St. Petersburg has been the crux of Spring Training for the last century, hosting more Major League spring games than any other city in the country. This year's camp spawned a franchise-best Spring Training record for the Rays, and also sealed for them a winning all-time record of 72-69-5, as of Thursday, on Al Lang's waterfront.

While Maddon acknowledged that he understands the demands and the need for upgraded facilities, he was equally adamant about preserving the park's legacy.

Last fall, the Rays announced plans for a new 34,000 seat, retractable-roof, open-air ballpark at the site of Al Lang. The initial designs draw upon the 100-year history of baseball and Spring Training in St. Petersburg.

"I really wish they wouldn't tear these places down," Maddon said. "At the same time, if you can do something like at Al Lang, where you turn around and make it into this super new ballpark, I think that's pretty cool."

While Friday's game will likely invoke nostalgia among players, coaches and fans alike, Zimmer, who has been involved in baseball for 60 years, was eager to look on the bright side.

"How sad will it be if you get a brand new ballpark?" he said. "Hopefully I'll be alive to see it."

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.