Baseball legend Ted Williams greets visitors at the Hitters Hall of Fame. (Photo by Darren Garnick)

First-time visitors to Tropicana Field might be surprised to see a Ted Williams Museum across from the concession stands. After all, why would a legendary Boston Red Sox star be celebrated in the home of the Tampa Bay Rays? Doesn’t this museum belong at Fenway Park?

It turns out that Williams, aka “The Splendid Splinter,” spent much of his retirement years in Citrus County, FL, and helped raise funds for a baseball diamond-shaped museum that opened there in 1994. Poor attendance — the rural county is far off the tourist radar — forced the museum to relocate in 2006. The Rays offered to house the 10,000-square-foot facility when it was clear that the Red Sox didn’t have the space.

The quality and rarity of the baseball memorabilia at the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame is on par with the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Williams’ childhood baseball bat and glove are here, as are his fishing tackle box (he’s also in the Fishing Hall of Fame) and artifacts from his service in World War II and the Korean War. Yet, there’s also plenty to see for the fans of the other 29 Major League Baseball teams.

The Hitters Hall of Fame honors the greatest offensive players in history, including both current and retired players. “Kids want to see the stars of today,” explains executive director Dave McCarthy. “Once they get pumped up about players they can relate to, there’s a window for them to get excited about the history.”

The 2013 Hitters Hall of Fame inductees were Darrell Evans, Lou Piniella, Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, Sandy Alomar, Jr. and Sandy Alomar Sr. (Photo by Darren Garnick)

When you first walk into the museum, which is only open during Rays home games, appearances can be deceiving. The first floor is a small group of display cases and a painting gallery by artist-in-residence Justyn Farano, whom on most days visitors can watch in action. But at the back of the room, a staircase leads to an exhibit area 10 times as large.

“A lot of visitors tell us that they enjoy us even more than Cooperstown,” says McCarthy. “I don’t think we have a more impressive collection, but I think people love seeing this stuff in a ballpark setting. For every wine and cheese guy out there, there are 100 beer and hot dog guys — we’re a museum that caters to the beer and hot dog guy.”

Another difference from Cooperstown: This Hall of Fame honors all-time hit leader Pete Rose, who was banned from the MLB for gambling on Cincinnati Reds games while he was the manager. McCarthy says he’s been flooded with compliments for including Rose.

“Most fans feel that he should be forgiven. The crime doesn’t fit the punishment. He didn’t throw games. He bet on his own team to win,” he says. “The steroids era is another story — we’re steering away from that whole mess for now.”

Tropicana Field’s “Touch-A-Ray” Tank looks like it is spilling over the centerfield wall, but that is an illusion. The rays’ swimming area is confined to the observation deck. (Photo by Darren Garnick)

Outside the gates of the Ted Williams Museum, there’s a bevy of family-friendly activities. Kids can pose for their own Topps baseball cards for $5 each and there’s a coloring wall where they are challenged to draw Raymond, the blue furry mascot of the Rays.

There’s also a giant fish tank in the centerfield stands, teeming with real rays of varying sizes. Staff from Tampa’s Florida Aquarium instruct fans how to safely touch and feed the animals without disturbing them. Lines are usually long, so be sure to show up early.

With the Tampa Bay Rays currently fighting for one of the Wild Card berths in the playoffs, the Hitters Hall of Fame could potentially be open for business deep into October. Regardless of how the Rays do, fans planning the ultimate baseball road trip should mark February 1 on their calendars. That’s when the new inductees are officially honored.

In addition to the ceremonies for the Class of 2014, which has yet to be announced, the Ted Williams Museum hosts a fundraising dinner on the Tropicana baseball diamond and invites fans to participate in photo and autograph sessions with up to 2 dozen retired and current stars. So far, confirmed guests include Cy Young Award winner David Price, Grant Balfour, Tony Oliva, Denny McClain, Ron LeFlore, Darrell Evans and Oscar Gamble.

“Players tell me that they’ve never had dinner on a Major League Baseball field before,” McCarthy smiles. “It’s a night when they become little kids again.”

For more information on the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame, visit TedWilliamsMuseum.com.

By Darren Garnick

 

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