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Commentary: AAC should consider alternative site for baseball tournament

There was something unique about USF’s most recent AAC Tournament appearance in Clearwater.

Well, in addition to the fact that it won three games during the AAC Tournament — a feat the Bulls had not accomplished in the five seasons the AAC has existed.

The games USF won featured no advertising, no music, no PA announcer and, perhaps most noticeably, no actual stadium structure.

Due to the threat of impacts from Subtropical Depression Alberto potentially turning the weekend into a washout, the AAC was forced to move games up from their original time, while also playing multiple games at the same time.

When USF lost its first game of the tournament to Wichita State, the Bulls were essentially relegated from Spectrum Field — a major league-quality ballpark that serves as home to the Philadelphia Phillies during the spring — to Robin Roberts Field —  a practice field located toward the back of the complex.

The Bulls weren’t  the only team that was forced to play at the bare-bones field, complete with an outfield wall that ends at each foul line. Every other team in the tournament wound up playing at least one game at Robin Roberts Field.

While Robin Roberts Field was only a few steps away from Spectrum Field, the drop-off in amenities made it feel thousands of miles away. Robin Roberts Field offered very little protection from the sun, few areas for fans to sit, portable toilets and only a single concession cart.

For USF fans, the drop-off in quality might be easy to chalk up as no harm, no foul — the trip to the Carpenter Complex, which is the larger complex that consists of Spectrum and Robin Roberts fields, was a day trip at worst.

But imagine being someone who traveled for the tournament and expecting the same amenities that Phillies fans get during March, only to wind up watching your team at a field less complete than a little league field.

The AAC should be commended for doing what it took to get all the games in. The conference did a wonderful job getting in front of the problem before it ever truly became one and it was extremely transparent in the process.

It should also be pointed out that this was the first time any games were ever moved from Spectrum Field in the decade the tournament — which originally belonged to the Big East — has been played at the Clearwater stadium.

But this does point out a huge flaw in contingency plans that could easily happen again in the future. Heavy, non-stop rain in late May is far from uncommon weather in Clearwater. What happened this year was not a matter of if, but a matter of when – and it is now a question of when it will happen again.

If the AAC wishes to continue to host its tournament in the area, it should explore the possibility of working with the Tampa Bay Rays and Major League Baseball to use Tropicana Field.

The case for the much-maligned dome in St. Petersburg is stronger than one might initially think.

The most noticeable difference playing at Tropicana Field would bring is the lack of a natural grass surface, but four of the nine teams in the AAC already play on artificial turf at their home ballpark.

It might not be an ideal situation dealing with the low-hanging catwalks over the Trop’s outfield, but a backup plan of playing incredibly meaningful games in a park with an incomplete outfield wall is probably worse.

Tropicana Field is a major league-quality ballpark that can do everything Spectrum Field can do — only the Trop can do it in almost every kind of weather.

No fan would have to suffer in the heat or use portable bathrooms. Players would be able to use major league-quality dugouts and clubhouses. Most importantly, games would almost always take place when originally scheduled and at the field they are supposed to be played on.

Spectrum Field is a wonderful facility to watch baseball. It is frequently mentioned as fans’ favorite ballpark in the Grapefruit League, Florida’s spring training league.  Moving the AAC Tournament from it would be a shame, but playing half the tournament at a back field that clearly was not designed for meaningful baseball was an even bigger shame.