Boys of summer start in the spring

They are four of the most anticipated words in sports: pitchers and catchers report.

Four months after the World Series, baseball’s best are back at it, reporting for spring training at warm weather venues, and pre-season play in leagues that even sound sunny: cactus and grapefruit.

These warmups to the regular season are more than a training ground, where seasoned veterans shake off the dust and young prospects look to prove themselves. And it’s more than a welcome break from the wind, snow and ice of the northeastern winter.

Spring training is a fun and friendly baseball tradition, where fans enjoy up-close access to their favorite stars as well as new faces; it’s a preview of the months of competition to come; and a promise of the new year, new goals and new opportunities for every team in every league.

For the Pirates, spring means setting up shop in Bradenton, Manatee County, in Florida where they’ve been welcomed by locals for more than half a century.

When the boys of summer are not there, a big attraction is the South Florida Museum, where visitors can explore the skies, earth and universe at the Bishop Planetarium, or witness rehabilitation efforts for endangered manatees at the Parker Manatee Aquarium.

Just as the museum reflects the region’s passion and commitment to science and conservation, the Pirates’ relationship with the town reflects the love of and appreciation for baseball, and the business it brings to the area.

Formerly called McKechnie Field, now LECOM Park combines the best of the old and new: the 1920’s ballpark has been updated to provide a classic but state of the art setting for both fans and players. The special ballpark offers the intimacy of a minor league facility with the bonus of big-league talent.

While back in Pennsylvania, baseball teams are practicing indoors and heading south or west for college games; in Florida, the grass is lush and green, the sky blue, and the palm trees inviting, a stark contrast to the leafless trees of a frozen central Pennsylvania.

In just a few short weeks, the Pirates open the home season with an April Fool’s Day match-up with St. Louis, the beginning of another hopeful campaign; one that fans dream of continuing into the playoffs.

Only time will tell if the optimism of the pre-season will last through the all-star break and down the stretch toward fall. But for now, the pressure of the months to come are not as important as the fun of opening training camp, where spring has most definitely sprung.

Goodman Shaffer can be reached at kellie@bedfordcountychamber.org.