Fans flocking to McKechnie Field

BRADENTON, Fla. – The first sell-out at McKechnie Field, the first extra inning game of the spring and a pair of come-from-behind victories by the Pirates highlighted this week’s action on the baseball diamond.

When the Pirates beat the Blue Jays, 5-4, in 10 innings Wednesday afternoon, the game provided a couple of firsts for the 2013 Grapefruit League season. The game attracted 8,439 fans to McKechnie Field, marking the first time the newly-renovated ballpark was sold out, and the first time an extra inning was needed to determine the winner.

The Pirates also used late-inning rallies to edge the Orioles, 4-3, earlier in the week. On both occasions, stars in the comeback wins were former Curve standouts Josh Harrison, Alex Presley and Jordy Mercer, as well as Carlos Paulino, a 23-year-old catcher who is expected to start this year as the Curve’s catcher after playing the past two seasons at high Class A Bradenton.

The Toronto crowd was unkind to Russell Martin on Wednesday, booing the Pirate catcher each time he batted. The Canadians are upset because Martin backed out of an early commitment to play for Canada in the World Baseball Classic.

Incidentally, the WBC is being blamed, in part, for lower attendance at exhibition games this spring, both in Florida and Arizona. Grapefruit League attendance is down 14 percent this year for other reasons, too, including the early start of the season, higher ticket prices and cooler temperatures. Pirate attendance is actually up 4 percent, thanks to an additional 2,000 seats at 90-year-old McKechnie Field. With the Yankees coming to town on Sunday and the Red Sox visiting on Monday, the Bucs’ attendance figures could climb even more.

On the autograph trail, Jean and Joan added Pirate star Andrew McCutchen, manager John Gibbons and ex-Pirate Andy LaRoche of the Blue Jays, outfielder Joe Benson of the Twins and Tiger skipper Jim Leyland.

Besides the Pirates games, we also traveled to Lakeland on Friday to catch the Tigers host the Blue Jays at Tiger Town’s Joker Marchant Stadium, one of the neatest spring training sites in Florida.

The Altoona contingent attended the annual banquet for season ticket holders at the Manatee County Convention Center which featured remarks from Pirate president Frank Coonelly, GM Neal Huntington, manager Clint Hurdle, players Andrew McCutchen and Clint Barmes and announcers Greg Brown and Steve Blass.

Curve owner Bob Lozinak was in town for a couple of games last weekend, and is expected to return, and Joe Shuta is here, picking up some interviews for his show, Leading Off, which airs Wednesdays at 6 p.m. on WFBG.

There was plenty of other activity off the field as well. Jean and I had a nice visit/lunch with former St. Francis College basketball coach John Clark and wife Marcia. We reminisced about the old Frankie teams of the mid-60s – Norm Van Lier, Larry Lewis, Bill Snodgrass, etc. – when they were playing at the Jaffa Mosque under Clark’s tutelage. The Clarks have lived in Sarasota for several years and catching up with them is always one of the highlights of our time here.

We made our second trip to the Strawberry Festival where rising star Hunter Hayes played before 8,000 people and entertainer-of-the-year Blake Shelton drew a sellout crowd of 10,000 to the Plant City fairgrounds.

Jean and Joan, as well as a couple other Altoona gals, attended a baby shower for Tom and Andrea Lane’s daughter, LeeAnne, who lives in the Lakewood Ranch area with husband Kory and son Samuel. We also spent an afternoon at the famous St. Armand’s Circle in Sarasota.

Eating stops included Hooter’s, Olive Garden, Longhorn Steak House, Cracker Barrel and Troyer’s Dutch Heritage.

Until next week

Jim Lane is a retired sports editor of the Mirror. He writes from Florida in February and March.