Tropicana Field: First-hand look at the catwalk "rings"

2:14 PM, Apr 8, 2010   |    comments
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At Tropicana Field, the vast catwalks, also know as "the rings," are unique to a baseball venue, and an engineering phenomenon.  Our Operations Manager Eric Burks takes you on a harrowing trip - all the way up to the top of Trop.

Saint Petersburg, Florida - Ask a dozen people about the future of the Tampa Bay Rays and their home venue, Tropicana Field, and you'll get a dozen different opinions. The majority of them will be that the Trop is obsolete and that a new, outdoor stadium has to be built in order for the Rays to stay in the Tampa Bay area.

That will shake out, probably sooner rather than later. In the meantime, the Rays start the 2010 campaign at the Trop, the quirky, domed stadium in St. Petersburg that opened in 1990 without a tenant.

WTSP and the other local broadcasters cover all of the Rays games. Since there are 81 regular season games, instead of deploying a remote "live" truck every time, we've all installed portable, permanent microwave transmitters at the facility that allow us to do live broadcasts or tape feeds from there. Here's the rub: those transmitters are located in the stratosphere of the Trop, mounted on a catwalk high above the playing surface.

The catwalks, also know as "the rings," are unique to a baseball venue, and an engineering phenomenon. The rings, along with 180 miles of cables, support the roof of the building, keeping the players and fans cool and dry throughout the often rainy central Florida summers.

The 2010 Rays season opened this week, with much anticipation and fanfare. The Rays have what could be their best team ever, even better than the club that played in the World Series two years ago. Sports Illustrated has predicted the Rays returning to the series again this season. The local media all set up shop inside and outside the Trop on opening day to cover the pomp and circumstance. It was then that we realized we had a technical issue with our transmitter.

Unfortunately, there was only one way to find out. The answer was up there.

Photo Gallery: Up in the rings at the Trop

The day after the game, veteran engineer Bob Lenart and I headed to the Trop to see what we can do. Bob was in charge, I was more of a Sherpa, as we had to lug a spare transmitter, antenna, tool bag, test equipment, and cables along the way. The transmitter alone weighs 31 pounds.

Checking in with security, Bob chuckles, because he knows what's ahead. That doesn't make me feel any better about things. Bob and I trudge past the Rays clubhouse, to the elevator, which we take to the 6th floor, or 300 level. This section is also commonly referred to as the nosebleed section. From there, we climb 90 steps up to a small, almost unnoticeable door, which is behind the highest row directly behind home plate.

Behind the door is a metal ladder that goes straight up about 15 feet. We use a rope to haul our gear up the ladder. Bob bangs his head on a metal beam. I hope he doesn't have a concussion, because I'm already worried about too many things. Like life insurance, retirement, my family, my little league team, the places I never got to see. You get the idea. Although I'm not normally arachnophobic, my spidey senses are going haywire.

We're ready to start climbing the stairs to the first ring. The stairs are made of a metal grate that you can see right through. The first set of stairs takes us the bottom, or "D" ring. The next set of stairs takes us to the "C" ring, where our broadcasting equipment is mounted. We are about 160 feet above section 104, on the first base side.

Three things, not including the height, make this experience far more unpleasant. The first is the fact that the rings move as you walk on them. I'm a buck-seventy wet, but if I'm a quarterback, Bob's a defensive lineman, so between the two of us and the gear, the catwalk moves beneath our feet. It's not my imagination - the various appendages attached to the rings, lights, speakers, etc., sway as we walk by. The catwalk is also not even from one side to the other. Although it is a slight angle, when you are looking at the field far below, everything is magnified. Every metallic sound that is made by our footsteps, every slight shift in my footing, seems magnified. Bob's a cool customer. As I proceed like a baby taking his first steps, Bob bolts ahead. He's been through hurricanes, floods, and fires.
And he's been here before.

The next thing that I notice is how dirty it is up here. A layer of soot covers everything. The place is more than 20 years old, and while everything below is spit-shined for the baseball season, I don't think the cleaning people get up to these parts. It's so dirty, you don't want to touch anything. But survival overrides hygiene, and I am grabbing onto dirty railings and cables at every step of the way.

And then there's the heat. This is why the security guard smirked at us. Tampa Bay Trane does an awesome job of cooling this cavernous stadium - the players and fans enjoy a humidity-free 72 degrees, regardless of what's going on outside. But on the way up, we passed the highest air conditioning vents at the top of the 300 level.

Those deliver their refreshing manmade breezes downwards. Heat rises. As soon as you get off the ladder at the base of the first set of stairs, you notice the difference, and the higher you go, the worse it gets. I'm only glad that it is early April and about noon, because I'm certain it gets much, much worse.
Bob starts tinkering with the transmitter, talking on the phone with technicians back at the station who are evaluating our signal strength. It's weak. The transmitter is putting out less than a half watt, way less than it is supposed to. It's no wonder we were having problems.

While he works on that, I look upwards. There are two more rings above us, "B" and "A". I know that if I don't go up there now, I never will, so I head that way.

Someone has written 170' where I stop at the "B" ring. I pause to take some pictures. I'm squatting down, being very deliberate and tentative with my movements. I head up the next to last staircase to my goal, the "A" ring. I arrive there, 190 feet above the pitcher's mound. The grounds crew is working on the infield. They look very small. Hell, Bob looks small and he's just two catwalks below me.

There's one more, unnamed ring above me. I'm not going there. I've achieved my goal. I'm a journalist, not a Great Wallenda. Now I'll be able to sit in the stands below, beverage in hand, point up here and nonchalantly tell my kids, "Yeah, I've been there."

I start back down to assist Bob with the transmitter. Going up is one thing, because you can literally look up as you climb the stairs. "Don't look down!" as they say in the movies. Going down, you have no choice. You have to watch every step, and every step is on a see-through metal grate. There's no getting around it.

Bob's dripping sweat. We've been up here for an hour. We replace the transmitter, but he's still not happy with the new one. Must be the antenna, he says. The antenna is mounted on a pole sticking about eight feet above the catwalk.

Unfortunately, the new antenna won't mount the same way, so it takes some time to disassemble them both, combining the old with the new so that we can mount it. Another series of calls to the TV station, and more tests. By this time, I've gotten somewhat used to the altitude, but my legs are stiff from all of the climbing and squatting, and I'm hot. It's way past lunch time, and my clothes are pretty dirty from scraping along the railings. Just then, Bob drops a small, eight inch long piece of cable that weighs less than a pound. It hits the grate, then slips through the crack. We watch it fall for several seconds, and it hits a seat with a clatter. Bob remarks that things fall at the same speed regardless of what they weigh. I wonder what would go through my mind in that short period of time.

As we're buttoning things up, we hear the unmistakable sound of footsteps coming up the stairs. We have company. We watch as two guys in fatigues ascend to the top of the Trop. They don't stop at the "A" ring, they go all the way to the top. They come back down carrying a large duffle bag. I later learn these are the guys from nearby MacDill Air Force Base who rappelled down as part of the festivities the previous night. They are cajoling each other as they come back down, as if they were walking in the park. They hardly look scared.

Bob and I gather our tools and the faulty transmitter and antenna, lower everything down the ladder, and climb down to the top of the nosebleed seats. Terra firma!

We've been up there for almost two hours.

I realize now that walking around up there is probably nearly as safe as walking around on the city sidewalks, statistically speaking.

We go down to the field level to retrieve the cable that fell and look up. Funny, it doesn't look nearly as high from here!

Photo Gallery: Up in the rings at the Trop

Eric Burks, 10 Connects Operations Manager

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