BRADENTON, Fla. - Another Florida winter vacation is in the books, and, as always, we're already looking forward to next year.
Two months in the Sunshine State is about as good as it gets. The weather, especially this year, was fantastic. A nice February was followed by an outstanding March, but we're anxious to see our kids and granddaughters and all of our Altoona friends and neighbors.
We've heard good reports about Altoona's winter and we hope it continues. I'm sure Altoona Curve officials would welcome a warm, dry spring. And, a winning one, too.
Even discounting the packing, our final week was a busy one. It began with Pirate FanFest last Saturday outside McKechnie Field where fans were treated to autographs, music and various other activities before witnessing a 3-2 loss to the Houston Astros. The Orioles came to town Monday for the only night game of the spring at McKechnie. Bucs lost again, but the post-game fireworks were great. The Twins and Rays also visited this past week to wrap up the home portion of the Grapefruit League schedule.
Jean wound up her autographing by landing Billy Ripken of MLB, Ben Revere of the Twins, Ronny Paulino, Nick Markakis and J.J. Hardy of the Orioles, Reid Brignac and Desmond Jennings of the Rays.
We were part of a Bradenton Booster Club bus trip to Clearwater and saw the Pirates drop a 5-4, 10-inning decision to the Phillies at beautiful Bright House Field. Cliff Lee pitched the first seven innings for the Phils and Jonathan Papelbon, the ex-Red Sox closer, was the winning pitcher.
Caught up with good buddy Cory Giger at Pirate City where he's preparing for another Altoona Curve season by sending daily reports on the minor leaguers back to the Mirror.
Stan Savran of Root Sports was in town helping with a telecast back north and said he's looking forward to emceeing another Blair County Sports Hall of Fame banquet later this month.
Because of the great weather, we spent plenty of time at the pool and beach this year. This week, we grabbed some rays at Holmes Beach on Anna Maria Island. Also had time to eat at Anna Maria City Pier, Miller's Amish Restaurant and Joey D's Pizzeria.
Several folks from Blair County and Cambria County were seen around the ballpark recently, including Dave Bithell and his wife, Bill and Becky Young and sons Will, Wesley and Wyatt, Jim McMahon, Ron and Terry Reagan and Chris and Patty Skupien.
About those Bucs
I'm not optimistic about what I've seen in camp, particularly the past week or so. Pitching, for the most part, has been OK with starters Erik Bedard, Jeff Karstens, James McDonald and Kevin Correia being relatively efficient. A lot will depend on the health of A.J. Burnett and Charley Morton. The bullpen again will count heavily on closer Joel Hanrahan with Jason Grilli, Evan Meek or Juan Cruz for the seventh and eighth. In the middle, it looks like Chris Resop and Tony Watson.
The outfield should be solid with Andrew McCutchen, Alex Presley and Jose Tabata and Nate McLouth in reserve. Second baseman Neil Walker and new shortstop Clint Barmes should be solid in the middle of the infield, but third baseman Pedro Alvarez and first baseman Garrett Jones were huge disappointments at the plate in Florida. Former Brewer Casey McGehee could help at either first or third and ex-Dodger Rod Barajas should be adequate behind the plate.
According to experts, the Pirates' early-season schedule is the toughest in the majors so they can't get out of the gate slowly. But unless Alvarez and Jones suddenly find their strokes, the Bucs will have little or no power, and that will be a major problem.
Can the Pirates improve on last season's 72 wins? Can they avoid a 20th consecutive losing season?
The guess here is no. How about 75-87?
Lane, a retired sports editor of the Mirror, writes from Florida in February and March.