All good things must come to an end, as the saying goes, even another baseball season at LECOM Park.
First, it was back at the tail end of February that the unmistakable sound of bat meeting ball could be heard at LECOM Park, as the Pittsburgh Pirates christened their 2023 spring training schedule. The Baltimore Orioles made the quick trip over from Sarasota for the first of 16 home games at 9th Street West.
Before the Pirates would start their regular MLB season on the road in Cincinnati, on March 30th, the National League club would play its final exhibition game at LECOM Park with the visiting Minnesota Twins two days earlier.
Just 10 days (about 1 and a half weeks) later, bam, there was action in the old ballpark.
The Bradenton Marauders left the starting line of their Florida State League schedule on April 7, with a three-game homestand with the visiting Clearwater Threshers. 64 home games later, and now the grounds crew gets to start on their off-season projects.
This week, Bradenton plays their final half dozen games of this season on the road, at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, against the Minnesota Twins’ Class-A affiliate.
I’ll admit it: I’m baseball spoiled. 64 Marauders games to follow, before that, six weeks of Pirates’ warm-up games, nearly seven months of box scores to digest.
A half dozen months to sweat out, and the baseball cycle starts all over again. I know, patience is a virtue.
There’s a very personal reason why I value what the Marauders bring to our community.
While living in Central New York for most of my life, there was a time when three minor league clubs cleaned out their clubhouses and moved away for good. Yep, three. The New York Yankees, New York Mets, and then Florida Marlins all left our local communities high and dry.
Particularly for weekend entertainment, with no longer going to the ballpark for a few hours of affordable fun as an option, from businesses to baseball fans, such departures stung like a bee.
First, the Mets pulled their Class-A affiliate from Little Falls, New York in the since-disbanded New York-Pennsylvania League in 1988, after a dozen seasons. Professional ball has yet to return to Veterans Memorial Park.
Next up, 23 miles west of Little Falls is where the Utica Blue Sox used to call home. Since the end of 2001, when after a half dozen seasons serving as the then Florida Marlins’ New York-Pennsylvania League representative, no other MLB clubs have invested in putting a minor league team in the city.
Then, there were the Yankees (1967-1998) and Detroit Tigers (1999-2009) who were rivals to Little Falls and Utica that picked up their affiliates and went elsewhere. Baseball in Oneonta, N.Y. seemingly was there every summer forever. Most fans in the area couldn’t imagine not having the option to attend a game.
In December 2020, MLB decided to disband the New York-Pennsylvania League, in its restructuring of its minor leagues.
Like so much in life, not limited to professional baseball, once gone, it becomes increasingly more difficult for the product to make a return. So, in a nutshell, this is why I support summer ball at LECOM Park. I know the value of a team in our community. I know what it looks like to watch grass grow, uncut, in empty minor league ballparks.
The excitement of combing over the Marauders’ pocket schedule, checking dates to check off when certain teams are coming in for six-game visits, this is fun. Eight of the other nine teams in the FSL that travel to LECOM (only St. Lucie Mets didn’t appear in Bradenton this season), for me, are a must-see. Lakeland, Dunedin, Jupiter, and Palm Beach are among the crop of minor league clubs that MLB owners entrust some of their most highly touted prospects. Seeing the stars of tomorrow, today at LECOM, is invigorating.
Getting to see the top draft picks and free agents selected by the Pirates, particularly for me this season, was special. Termarr Johnson, who was Pittsburgh’s top draft selection in 2022 (MLB fourth overall pick), saw action in 75 games this season with the Marauders, before graduating to the next level of Class-A ball with the Greensboro Grasshoppers.
Just weeks back, it was Paul Skenes, the College World Series star with LSU, who attracted larger-than-normal crowds to LECOM for his two appearances on the pitching mound. Skenes, the Pirates and MLB’s top draft pick in July, started two games at LECOM, before being shipped off to Double-A Altoona Curve in central Pennsylvania.
While at LECOM, before the game, and in between innings, when making a run to the concession stands, the employee faces become so familiar. Rarely did my transactions occur without a minute or two of chit-chat, growing longer with each game attended. I searched for Marty, the Marauders’ team mascot, shortly after entering the front gates.
Hometown, friendly, familiar faces brought an instant calm to me, and I trust many others bringing their friends and families for a night of baseball.
For now, I’m reflecting on many wonderful memories from this past spring and summer down at LECOM Park. I should survive my baseball withdrawal. There’s the upcoming MLB playoffs and World Series to hold me over. The Pirates will be back at it, at LECOM Park opening their spring tilt on February 25, as the Orioles make their way to Bradenton.
Until the first spring training game, I’ll continue working on getting better at that patience thing.
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