New Rays Museum takes fans down memory lane

Tropicana Field can’t talk. But the home of the Tampa Bay Rays is telling quite a story these days.

When the Rays opened their season against Baltimore on April 8, the history of one of Major League Baseball’s two newest franchises (the Arizona Diamondbacks are the other) was on full display. And it will be all season.

From Wade Boggs to Evan Longoria to current phenoms Wander Franco and Randy Arozerena, all the great players are there. From Larry Rothschild to Joe Maddon to Kevin Cash, it’s the same for all the team’s managers. Even the Cy Young awards bestowed upon David Price and Blake Snell, Arozarena’s 2021 Rookie of the Year award and Carlos Pena’s 2008 Gold Glove have come out of hiding.

They all help make up the new Rays Museum, which is located in the four alcoves of the left-field concourse. The museum is open to fans (at no charge) during every home game this season. The museum opens when the gates do and closes at the end of the fifth inning.

It’s all part of many ways the Rays are trying to enhance the fan experience. This is a culmination -- in pictures, memorabilia, uniforms, bobblehead dolls, batting helmets, newspaper clippings and cracked bats -- of 24 years of play.

“With our 25th season coming up, we just felt like this was the right time to do it,’’ says Josh Momberg, the team’s Director of Statistics and Analytics. “Last year, a lot of the building wasn’t open due to the pandemic. We wanted to get back to the fun part of it this year and give fans something to celebrate.’’

Although Momberg’s regular job is to crunch the numbers on things like batting averages and earned-run averages and supply his findings to the baseball people, he took on an additional role in the offseason. Momberg served as curator of the Rays Museum, a project that had been in the works for several years.

“I think the idea started around our 20th season,’’ Momberg says. “At that point, we realized that we had put together enough sustained success, especially over the last decade, to put something like this together.’’

Curating curios

Putting a franchise’s history together isn’t a one-person job and Momberg, who has worked for the team in various capacities for the last 10 years, had plenty of help.

Baseball communications director Alex Kryah, who has been with the Rays since 2018, joined forces with Momberg as the point men for the project. They sought out stories and help from employees with longer tenure as they designed the museum.

Momberg and Kryah began collecting team memorabilia such as bottles of champagne from their 2008 and 2020 American League championships, jerseys from past and current players, any Don Zimmer items they could find, a Boggs statue and the ball that Ted Williams threw out as the ceremonial first pitch at the team’s debut game in 1998.

Speaking of Boggs and Williams, they both are members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.  Boggs was with the Rays in their first two seasons and it was with Tampa Bay that he collected his 3,000th hit and hit the first home run in franchise history.

Baseball is a unique game, filled with plenty of quirks and traditions. One of the most significant is that the plaques of players must include a hat for one of the teams they played for (the halls of fame for football, basketball and hockey don’t require such a designation and players can represent multiple teams).

Although Boggs was raised in Tampa, he chose to represent the Boston Red Sox in the Hall of Fame. That’s understandable because Boggs played for Boston from 1983 through 1992 and won five batting titles.

Boggs’ No. 12 (although he wore No. 26 with the Red Sox) was retired by the Rays. But the team still is waiting for its first true Hall of Famer. That probably is a long time in the offing.

The Rays are one of only three teams (the Miami Marlins and Washington Nationals are the others) not to be represented in the Hall of Fame and it’s not like there are many strong candidates coming up soon.

Longoria’s early years with the Rays were very good, but he has become an average player since joining the San Francisco Giants. Price, who spent most of his first seven seasons with Tampa Bay, is a possibility. But Price also has played for five other teams and, if elected, could go in representing one of them.

Or maybe the Rays will have to wait until Franco or Arozarena retire, get elected and choose to represent the Rays in the Hall of Fame. That’s a problem when you’re talking about a team that hasn’t been in existence for long and the Hall of Fame.

But the Rays don’t feel it’s an issue when it comes to having their own museum. In their own left-field corner, they have their own slice of Cooperstown and there is nothing to hide.

Personal treasures

The first 10 seasons, in which the team was called the Devil Rays, weren’t always pretty. In fact, the Rays didn’t have a winning record until 2008, the same season in which they were purchased by current owner Stuart Sternberg. But the museum is filled with items from the Devil Rays years.

“We definitely wanted to recognize our past,’’ Kryah says. “There were many great individual moments early on and we want our fans to be able to celebrate them and enjoy our history.’’

It’s much easier to remember the seven postseason appearances that began in 2008. In the last three seasons alone, the Rays have been to a World Series and appeared in the American League Divisional Series twice.

“Hopefully, the success will continue and that will supply us with a lot more good things for the museum,’’ Kryah says.

The Rays aren’t done building their museum on the field or off it. Although it’s in the early stages, Momberg says -- at some point -- the team will reach out to fans for any personal memorabilia or mementos that have been collected through the years.

“We know there are lots of other items out there,’’ Momberg says. “And every item has a story. We want to share those items and stories with all of our fans.’’

In addition to the Rays Museum, the team is trying to enhance the fan experience in other ways. Multiple new items have been added at the concession stands and fans can use mobile ordering to make the process easier.

The Rays have partnered with technology company VenueNext to improve mobile ordering and payment. The app also can be used to purchase merchandise and upgrade tickets. A chat bot in the app allows fans to get answers to frequently-asked questions about the fan experience. Season members will receive a 20-percent discount on all food, beverage and merchandise purchases made through the app.

The Rays also plan to feature 17 unique items on giveaway days throughout the season. Among the items are a Franco chain necklace on May 27, a Mike Zunino Florida Man Bobblehead on June 21, and a Brett Phillips Devil Rays basketball jersey on July 30.
This story is underwritten by the Tampa Bay Rays in a new media partnership with 83 Degrees. Get your Rays tickets at this link and stop by the museum while you're there.
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Read more articles by Patrick Yasinskas.

Patrick “Pat” Yasinskas is an award-winning Tampa-based freelance writer. He has covered the National Football League since 1992 and worked for The Tampa Tribune, The Charlotte Observer and ESPN. He also has served as a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the NFC South chairman of the Pro Football Writers Association. He also has been an avid baseball card collector since the 1970s.