McKechnie Field from Baseball Pilgrimages
Ah, Valentine's Day, when every man's fancy turns towards...baseball! On February 14, the Buc's pitchers and catchers report for their physicals at Pirate City and the clock on another season starts to tick.
On February 27, the Bucs open against their traditional rival, the Manatee Community College Lancers, and the next day the Grapefruit League begins in earnest against the Phils. Ever since 1969, they've been playing spring ball at McKechnie Field in Bradenton.
The old ballyard was built in 1923 and is named after former Bucco skipper, Hall of Famer, and Bradenton native son Bill McKechnie. He first managed the Newark Pepper of the Federation League, and was the Pirate leader from 1922-26, winning the World Series in 1925. He went on to coach the St. Louis Browns, Boston Braves and Cincinnati Redlegs during a 25 year career that saw him win nearly 1,900 games and another series with Cincy in 1940. His ticket to the HOF was punched in 1962.
McKechnie left the Bucs after clashing with former manager Fred Clarke, another Hall of Famer, who was an assistant GM and also served as a bench coach in 1926. Some of the players thought Clarke was undercutting McKechnie and wanted him removed. Did the Pirate's bend under the pressure and return Clarke to the pressbox? Heck, no.
Barney Dreyfuss canned McKechnie and three player ringleaders, Babe Adams, Carson Bigbee and Max Carey, in what became known as the ABC incident. They were all vets that were on the downside of their careers (Carey would end up in the HOF and hang on 4 more years with the Brooklyn Robins, while Adams and Bigbee found themselves out of baseball the following season), so Dreyfuss made his point without hurting the team very much. But back to Bradenton...
McKechnie's namesake stadium is a charming little place in a Ponce De Leon kinda way, seating 6,600 in its' stucco Alamo-looking confines, surrounded by palm trees. It's a mile from downtown, smack in the middle of a gritty neighborhood, much like Forbes Field was in Oakland. And like Oakland, there's no real parking there, but for a five or ten spot, the locals will gladly find a spot for you to safely leave your car.
The tickets cost $16 for a box seat, $15 for reserved seats (and neither of the green monsters was designed with the comfort of a wide bootie in mind) and metal bleachers along right and left field that go for $9 a pop. The Bucs also tack on a surcharge of a buck or two when they play the primo draws, this year the Yanks, Red Sox, and Tigers.
But it's still priced below most Florida ballparks. And you're virtually guaranteed a seat. The record for attendance was set in 2006, when it averaged 4,950 fans per game. Though it's come close a couple of times, McKechnie Field has never sold out for a game.
The staff may be the friendliest bunch of galoots you'll find in Florida. Since 1979, the Bradenton Boosters have volunteered as ticket takers, security, ushers, press box attendants and concessionaires for the field. They are knowledgeable and glad to be there, two traits often found wanting in major league park employee profiles. They even fund raise!
There are some little quirks about McKechnie, too. The dugouts are so small that the manager and coaches sit on benches outside it. The outfield flags are color coded white, gold and black for years the Bucs won the division, the NL, and the World Series. And the atmosphere is so relaxed that a couple of dozen players who weren't scheduled to suit up against Manatee CC pulled up lawn chairs and plopped themselves on the warning track to catch the game and some rays.
It's used almost exclusively for the 15 or 20 home games on the Grapefruit League schedule. Even the GCL Pirates play at Pirate City, five miles away (which is newly renovated, too, just getting the finishing touches added on this year.)
In the early 2000s, the Pirates made some noise like they might move on. Pirate City, as you may recall, had to be torn down because of a mold problem in the buildings. But the state came through with a $20M grant (it had been held up before because it was attached to a bill to give the Marlins a new stadium, and that piece of legislation wasn't going anywhere.) So now the Bucs, committed to Bradenton through 2037, have a spiffy new Pirate City complex and lights at McKechnie. Boy, how the mosquitoes and other flying critters will love it when those babies come on!
They left lucky Fort Myers in 1968 after a 14 year stay to come to Bradenton. Lucky because every team that trained there won a World Series during their stay - the Philadelphia A's, Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, Minnesota Twins and the Boston Red Sox. But we won a couple of championships coming out of Bradenton, too, so it seems like a fair enough trade.
Do you wonder where they hung out in the spring before settling on those two vacation havens? Well, hold your breath - here's the list from 1900 - 1954: Selma, Thomasville, Hot Springs, Dawson Springs, Jacksonville, Birmingham, Paso Robies, San Bernardino, San Antonio, Muncie, Miami Beach, Hollywood, Havana, and Fort Pierce. Some they used more than once - San Bernardino leads the list with four different visits covering 12 years. And you thought being travel secretary was an easy job!
Ah Bradenton, where hope springs eternal...
McKechnie Field seating from Baseball Pilgrimages