Series will be first regular-season games in Orlando
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Regular-season major-league ball is headed to Disney World.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays' effort to bolster fan support and make themselves a regional franchise will include playing a three-game series against the Texas Rangers at Disney's Wide of Sports complex next season.
Kissimmee, about 90 miles from the Devil Rays' home in St. Petersburg, has been the spring training base for the Atlanta Braves for the past decade. Disney also hosted part of the inaugural World Baseball Classic this year.
"We hope these games whet the appetite of fans from Central Florida and they'll take us up on our offer to come sample Rays baseball and our fan experience at Tropicana Field," Devil Rays president Matt Silverman said.
Silverman reiterated that shifting the May 15-17 series was part of principal owner Stuart Sternberg's desire to transform the team into a regional franchise rather than an attempt to gauge the Orlando market as a potential site for relocation.
Sternberg took control of the perennial last-place team after the 2005 season.
"He expects that with the full support of the region, we'll be able to thrive in Tampa Bay," Silverman said.
The Rangers have a history of not drawing well on visits to Tropicana Field, including last season, when six dates against Texas attracted an average of 8,241 fans. Announced attendance ranged from 7,147 to 9,701.
The stadium at Disney seats about 9,500. With temporary stands and outfield berm seating, capacity can be expanded to about 13,000.
Silverman is confident Orlando-area fans will respond.
"The event is already a success for us because were starting to generate interest in Rays baseball throughout Central Florida," Silverman said. "Attendance is an obvious barometer of success, but this is just one of many efforts that we will continue to do to expand our fan base."
Texas spokesman Gregg Elkin said the Rangers support moving the series, noting the team is not new to playing regular-season games at neutral sites.
In 2001, Alex Rodriguez made his debut for the Rangers when Texas opened the season against Toronto in San Juan. Texas also played a three-game series against the Montreal Expos in Puerto Rico in 2003.
"We're excited about coming here and playing and being a part of growing the sport of baseball and helping the Devil Rays increase their fan base," Elkin said, adding that the Rangers are examining the prospect of organizing fan trips for season ticket-holders and possibly team employees.
Elkin said some player with young children plan to bring their families.
To become a reality, the switch required approval from the commissioner's office, the players' association, the umpires' union, the Florida State League and the Class A Lakeland Flying Tigers minor-league club.
The St. Petersburg City Council is also expected to grant its permission.
"We will make the city of St. Petersburg whole financially for this," Silverman said, adding that Devil Rays season ticket-holders will also be compensated for games moved away from Tropicana Field.
Another move the Devil Rays hope will increase exposure outside the Tampa Bay area is the projected relocation of the team's spring training home from St. Petersburg to Port Charlotte in 2009.
Tampa Bay currently is only major-league club that conducts camp in the same city where it plays regular-season games.
The Devil Rays averaged 16,901 fans for home games last season, 29th among the 30 major-league teams, ahead of only the Florida Marlins (14,372). Tampa Bay, which has never had a winning record, went 61-101 last season and has finished last in the AL East in eight of its nine seasons.
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press