BRADENTON, Fla. - Another Florida vacation is in the books. We had a little bit of everything this winter - good baseball, bad baseball, good weather, bad weather.
There is one constant, though: good times, and this year was no different. We've made many friends in Florida since we've been coming here, but they just add to our numerous Altoona friends who join us each year for "some fun in paradise."
Whether it's at the ballpark, at the beach, at one of the area's many great eating establishments, or during a friendly game of sequence or dominoes, the laughs always prevail.
From Pirate president Frank Coonelly to the ushers at McKechnie Field, everybody seems to know the "Altoona gang."
Despite a record three rainouts, the Pirates drew huge crowds at McKechnie, including seven sellouts and the park's largest crowd in history - 8,566 for the Phillies game March 22. The average attendance was 7,587 for 12 home games.
Spring training is an opportunity to see some of the game's outstanding players. The Yankees played here twice with CC Sabathia, Ichiro Suzuki, Brian McCann and Jacoby Ellsbury, the Rays brought AL Cy Young winner David Price and AL Rookie of the Year Will Myers, while Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard suited up for the Phils and Joe Mauer with the Twins.
Of course, many of the stars don't travel as the teams are required to take only three or four regulars to road games. Derek Jeter, Evan Longoria and Jose Bautista were among the no-shows, which didn't sit well with Pirate fans.
I was pleasantly surprised and happy to see former Curve manager Tim Leiper coaching first base for the Toronto Blue Jays. Leiper, who managed the Curve from 2006 to 2008, toiled in the minor leagues for more than 20 years as a player, coach and manager before getting his first shot at the big leagues this year.
"I'm having fun," said Leiper. "It's a good fit. The guys are great."
Jean wrapped up her autographing by landing Rollins, Howard and Larry Bowa of the Phils, Melky Cabrera and Edwin Encarnacion of the Blue Jays. It was another banner spring for Jean who landed well over 100 signatures.
Over 500 people attended the Pirates' annual season-ticket holders' bash at the Manatee County Convention recently. Speakers included Coonelly, GM Neal Huntington, manager Clint Hurdle and announcers Greg Brown and Steve Blass.
Optimism and enthusiasm have been the dominant themes in Bradenton this spring training. After the Pirates ended 20 years of frustration by winning 94 games and advancing to the NL divisional playoffs in 2013, most fans think they're capable of doing it again. Of course, that remains to be seen.
For the Bucs to take another step forward they'll need another MVP-type season from Andrew McCutchen, who has had a terrific spring, and another 30-homer season (and hopefully fewer strikeouts) from Pedro Alvarez. The starting pitching and bullpen must repeat their 2013 successes, too.
Do they have enough offense, though? They won several one-run games last season, but, as of this writing, the club had not done anything to improve shaky situations at first base and right field.
Of course, only time will tell, but, all in all, it should be an interesting and exciting season in Pittsburgh.
Lane, a retired sports editor of the Mirror, writes from Florida in February and March.