BRADENTON, Fla. — When pitchers and catchers report in a week or so, it will mark the beginning of the 50th year of spring training baseball for the Pirates in this Florida city.
The Kansas City Athletics had their spring headquarters here from 1963-68 and Bradenton tried to lure another major league club when the A’s left for the west coast. The city talked to the Cleveland Indians, but they had a 10-year lease in Tucson, AZ.
However, the Pirates were unhappy after 14 years in Fort Myers and talks began between Bradenton and the Bucs. They eventually agreed on a 40-year lease, with an option for another 40 years. In 1969, the Bucs began their lease of McKechnie Field. They’ve been here since, but it’s not always been a happy marriage.
With the Bucs threatening to leave, the city decided to renovate the site in 1993. Using tourism tax money, the project cost $3.4 million.
Hoping to prevent more teams from moving to Arizona, there was another upgrade in 2008. Partly funded by the state, a new visitors’ clubhouse and press lounge were built and lights were installed. With lights at McKechnie, night games were played there for the first time in 85 years. There also were improvements to Pirate City — offices, dormitories and a fifth practice field.
The improvements helped the Pirates sign a new 30-year lease that took effect Feb. 1, 2008 and guaranteeing the Bucs to play at McKechnie (now LECOM Park) through 2037.
More renovations came in 2012-2013 in the form of new seating, fan plazas, a boardwalk, tiki bar, concession stands and scoreboard, making it one of the most attractive spring training sites in Florida. It was voted top spring park in 2015 and 2016 and set a spring training attendance record of 106,291 for 17 games in 2017.
Last Feb. 10, the Pirates and Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine reached a naming rights agreement, renaming the venue LECOM Park. The stadium had been named McKechnie Field since 1962 in honor of the former Pirate manager.
Since 2010, LECOM also has been home to the Bradenton Marauders, the Bucs’ advanced Class A team of the Florida State League.
It will be interesting to see how the Pirates’ attendance is this spring with Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole no longer wearing black and gold.
Local update …
Spent some fun time with Altoona buddies Lee and NeeNee Fagley, who also live here several months a year. The Fagleys again hosted a Super Bowl party — even without the Steelers.
Also visited Altoona friends Don and Petey Beichler, who have arrived for the next couple months.
Among local eateries visited this week were Popi’s, Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, Bella Mia and Der Dutchman in Sarasota.
Coming up: Tuesday, Bradenton Pirate Boosters luncheon; Thursday, Southeast Florida Altoona Day in Punta Gorda.
Until next time…
Lane, a retired sports editor of the Mirror, writes from Florida in the winter.