BRADENTON – As you walk down Ninth Street West in Bradenton, you get to enjoy a little slice of old Florida. Miles from the beachside concessions, having veered from the heavily traveled streets, sits a tiny strip of what used to be. The businesses are locally owned and tactfully weathered. The décor is unintentionally nostalgic. Walking north from 26th Avenue, you continue on the slightest arc that eventually reveals the fitting white stucco walls and hunter-green frame of McKechnie Field.
I'm always surprised when it appears on the horizon, despite the fact that I've walked it enough to know how many steps you take past 22nd Avenue before the beautiful structure creeps into view; 14, just as you pass under the tree. The stadium is period specific and not just because renovations in 1993 and 2008 took great pains to make it so. It's Spanish-mission design is just what you'd expect for a building built here in 1923. It dwarfs everything around it, yet fits perfectly. The flatness of the green paint on the metal and the narrow booster-style seats are reminiscent of Fenway Park or Wrigley Field and you are quickly transported to a simpler time, a time when "America's pastime" was more than a marketing slogan.
Named after Bradenton resident, Bill McKechnie, a former major leaguer who went on to manage two World Series champs, the park sweats character from its concrete pores. It was originally built for the St. Louis Cardinals, but since 1969 has been the spring training home of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Pirate treasure it will forever be. Bill Mazeroski and Roberto Clemente played here and Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig are just some of the other legends who've graced its hallowed ground.
I grew up in Pennsylvania, a coal town in the middle of nowhere, yet for a baseball fan it was a geographic marvel. The diamond gods blessed my father and I with four minor league ballparks within a one-hour radius of our home in Frackville. The Double A Phillies were in Reading; Triple A Yankees in Scranton; High A Mets in Williamsport; and Double A Expos on City Island in Harrisburg. Two hours got us to Veterans Stadium in Philly and three to the Bronx or Oriole Park, so we never found cause to make it to Three Rivers, where the Pirates played, four hours due West.
We saw plenty of the Buccos though. My Dad and I loved the Yankees and despised the Phils, but it seemed he preferred to save an hour to root against his least favored team than drive one more for his most, especially since it was the 1980's, when the Yanks were suffering a rare dry spell, a World Series loss to the Dodgers in the strike shortened '81 season the highlight of the decade; that and the injury hampered career of Donnie Baseball, who we both adored. The Phils were a little more competitive, with two World Series appearances, which made them all the more easy to hate.
|photo by Dennis Maley|
We always watched the Sunday games at my "Pappy's" after family dinner. He liked Philadelphia, having played for their minor league team after the war and seniority ruled. It seemed like the Pirates played the Vet on the Sabbath more often than the odds would suggest. I don't know if I'd call my father a Pirates fan, but he always seemed even more eager for the other PA team to top the Phils. My Dad's Pirates were the Pirates of Willie Stargell, and at the Vet he liked to point out the painted seats in the upper deck, commemorated to show where "Pops", a giant among men, had hit some of the longest home runs of any man who'd ever walked the Earth. My Dad's Pirates were the pirates of Dave "The Cobra" Parker, the sweet swinging Bill Madlock, and the submarine-style delivery of Kent Tekulve. My Father's Pirates wore the pill box-hats and the brighter yellow that always made me think of the giant bumble bees that haunted our yard that time of the year.
With WWOR broadcasting the Mets, WPIX carrying the Bronx Bombers, and WPHL airing the Phils when they were on the road or home on a Sunday, we had baseball options every night, even in the days of basic cable. When the "hot box" was working, we could even steal the Phillies on Prism the rest of the time. But as I remember my Dad saying, "even a good game on TV doesn't compare to a bad game live." So we watched baseball whenever economics and a break in my little league schedule allowed.
That sort of childhood has left me with a deep affection for the game as I remember it, and McKechnie field stokes the fire in that passion like no other park I've known. There's nothing pretentious about it. A sporting facility couldn't be less assuming, less commercial. The food is comforting and affordable. The park doesn't exist to milk revenue from every square inch. No corporation owns the naming rights. The ushers welcome you like your visiting their home for a Sunday meal and every fan is a friend.
"I grew up near Philadelphia and this place reminds me going to Connie Mack Stadium when I was a kid," says uber-fan Mike Sullivan. "It's a truly great ballpark."
For me, it always calls to mind pictures of the old Polo Grounds. I think it's the pitch of the grandstands and the green wall in center field. Mike's keeping score, armed with a trove of statistics he'd printed off the Internet that afternoon. He's a regular; a season ticket holder with a box seat along the first base line. He travels up from Siesta Key for every home game and even follows his team on the road sometimes as well.
"You really can't beat this. These kids are great. I never really got up to Bradenton enough before, but I've really enjoyed it. I try to come up early and get dinner when I can. There's some great restaurants in the area, Fisherman Joe's and Mattison's over on the water. There's the beautiful riverfront. I wish more people would come up from Sarasota. I think some of them are hesitant, because they don't know Bradenton and for a long time there was no parking, but now you've got plenty of parking and it's free. It's safe, the food's priced right. It's a great night out, especially if you're bringing kids."
For all of its storied past, the park's been dormant more often than not. Prior to the 2010 season, McKechnie Field had not hosted a minor league team since 1926, when the Bradenton Growers called it home. After spring training, it would sit idly by while the prime months of the baseball season rolled on, resting its old bones for the following spring. That's why this season is so special. Every night a bunch of starry-eyed kids get to make history. They get to play for the love of the game, on the real field of dreams.
Few of them will make it to the show, but each will play with an intensity that betrays their knowledge of the long odds. Then one day, even the ones that don't play another game after this season will realize that it didn't matter; that they made history by being in a special place at the perfect time. Every fan will remember the way the grass looked a little greener in the summer months; the way the later sunset made it feel special when the lights finally came on; the year that Minor League Baseball finally returned to Bradenton, Florida and we all fell back in love with the game of our childhood, recapturing a little bit of the magic of youth.
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