On the Road: Setting the Scene in Bradenton

This season, my “On the Road” blog posts from each ballpark I visit will be split up into several installments. To see all of my Bradenton Marauders posts, click HERE. To see all of the posts from my April 2015 Florida trip, click HERE. To see all of my “On the Road” posts (going back to 2010), click HERE.

You may recall that, in 2012, Pirates senior director of Florida operations Trevor Gooby helped deliver a baby at the Bradenton Marauders’ home of McKechnie Ballpark. This memorable moment even inspired a Marauders bobblehead giveaway:

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I bring this up for a reason, which is pretty much the only reason I ever bring anything up: to make a belabored, needlessly convoluted point. As I was walking around McKechnie Field prior to April 11’s ballgame — the Marauders’ home opener — broadcaster Nate March said the following.

“That baby is older than all of these seats.”

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The larger point that March was making was that, despite being a very old ballpark, McKechnie Field — pronounced Mc-Keck-Nee — is also a very new one.  The ballpark was built in 1923, but has undergone many renovations through the years. The most recent, in 2013, included the installation of 2000 new seats as well as the addition of a outfield boardwalk which includes a tiki bar (de rigueur in the Florida State League) and party deck. Then, prior to this season, an expansive new 22,500 square foot clubhouse and a two-story “performance center” was built just beyond right field.

McKechnie Field, then, is in a good place. It’s served as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Spring Training home since 1969, and the Marauders, the Pirates Class A Advanced affiliate, began play in 2011 (a development made possible thanks to the 2008 addition of field lights, which McKechnie Field had never before had). The Pirates, who own the Marauders outright, signed a 30-year lease extension prior to the 2008 season, so the current arrangement is poised to continue into McKechnie’s second century of existence.

I failed to get any exterior shots of McKechnie prior to entering the stadium. This was my first ballpark stop of 2015, and I was clearly not yet in midseason form. I did, however, get this picture of the area directly beyond the outfield. It at least gives some idea of what the surrounding area is like.

It is surrounded by automobiles:

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Meanwhile, looking in the other direction, this new outfield boardwalk includes some primo field views:

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Here’s the Kona Tiki Bar, which as I mentioned before while providing no supporting detail, are de rigueur in the Florida State League. I’m still waiting for teams to start selling expensive handmade baubles so that they can brag about having a “Boutique-y Bar.”

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And if you like the stark, sleek look of metal on (synthetic) wood, then you’re really in for a treat here in the Boardwalk BBQ area:

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The Marauders retired #53 after the tragic, unexpected passing of outfielder Evan Chambers in 2013. This sign, located on the boardwalk above where his retired jersey hangs on the outfield wall, memorializes his all-too short life.

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Here’s an external view of the new clubhouse (internal shots will be included in a future post). 22,500 square feet is a lot of square feet.

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The concourse behind the grandstand is spacious, to say the least.

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At this juncture in the evening, the gates had opened and the fans were streaming — or, at the very least, meandering — in.

016 I briefly ducked away from the throngs to document one of the most intriguing species in the McKechnie Field ecosystem. While I originally thought this was a Pi-rat, the world’s most knowledgeable Pirates fan later informed me that it is, in fact, Frogberto Robertoad Clemente. I neglected to ask why — and when — Robertoad came to live in the ballpark. Again, I wasn’t yet in midseason form.

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I then meandered down to the field so that I could meet the one and only Marty Marauder, caster of the thinnest mascot shadow in Minor League Baseball.

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One ballpark denizen that I was unable to capture photographically was the terrified feral cat that darted across the field at a speed of approximately 120 miles an hour.

“We have a little bit of a cat problem,” said Gooby, who was not engaged in the act of delivering a baby at the time.

Some players passed the time before the game signing autographs…

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…while others writhed spasmodically in front of nonplussed teammates.

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Fiending for more vantage points, I traversed back to the far corner of the right field bleachers and entered into panorama mode.

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It really was a beautiful evening. (Posting this picture reminds me that I need to enjoy beautiful evenings WHILE THEY ARE HAPPENING as opposed to retroactively while sitting indoors in an office.)

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Ever restless, I made it back down to the field in time to witness Marty the Marauder catch the ceremonial first pitch while using a comically oversized glove.

029In the Florida State League, Opening Day doesn’t feel quite as significant as it does in other leagues. Nearly all of the teams in the league had just hosted Major League Spring Training, so baseball isn’t so much “back” as it is “returned from a week-or-so hiatus.” But, nonetheless, Opening Day is Opening Day and Opening Day isn’t Opening Day without the requisite pomp.

The players were introduced one by one as they ran out onto the field, which was followed by a moment of silence for Chuck Murphy. (Murphy died in February, after serving as Florida State League president for 25 years.) And, then of course, it was time to rise and for the gentlemen to remove their hats as we honor our country with the singing of the National Anthem.

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With the game about to begin, I made my way back to the stands. But not without encountering one final reminder that I was in a ballpark hosting a Pittsburgh affiliate.

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And thus concludes part one of this Bradenton blogging saga. Coming soon: PART TWO

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

instagram.com/thebensbiz

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