BRADENTON -- The major renovation of McKechnie Field required a delicate balancing act.
There was the need to modernize the venerable ballpark, which is set to celebrate its 90th anniversary this spring, all while keeping the stadium's tradition-rich, intimate charm intact.
"We insisted on that," said Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston.
County and city officials and members of the media caught a glimpse of the progress Thursday during a half-hour tour of McKechnie, which has been the Pittsburgh Pirates' spring training home since 1969 and is undergoing a massive $10 million makeover.
Poston was pleased with what he saw.
"This is about baseball the way it used to be. This is not about the parts of baseball you really don't like," Poston said. "That's what we're
trying to enhance."
Apart from its trademark Spanish stucco facade and the pristine playing field, McKechnie Field was barely recognizable Thursday as construction trucks rumbled and power tools blared.
But by the time the Pirates open the 2013 spring training season at noon onFriday, Feb. 22 with an intrasquad game, the hope is that the ballpark will look fresh but still feel like McKechnie Field, which also is home to the Bradenton Marauders, the Pirates' high Single-A minor league team.
"That was the key when we met with the architects and the city and the contractors -- that we had to keep that existing look," said Trevor Gooby, the Pirates' director of Florida operations, "but add new things to the stadium."
That includes more comfortable seating. The infield seats have all been removed and will be replaced by traditional baseball flip-up chairs. Additional seating in the outfield will swell McKechnie Field's capacity from 6,500 to 8,500. A sample chair was on display Thursday, and Ron Allen, president of NDC Construction, expects the new seats to arrive during the first weekend in January.
The scoreboard that used to sit in centerfield is gone. Fans looking to keep track of runs, hits and errors will now need to look toward the wall in right-center field wall, where an old-time scoreboard, similar to the one used inside Fenway Park's Green Monster, will be installed. And the bullpens, which used to run along the first- and third-base lines, will now be past the outfield walls in right and left fields.
But the centerpiece of the project is a wooden boardwalk that will span the entire outfield and turn McKechnie Field into a 360-degree ballpark, similar to the Tampa Bay Rays' spring home in Charlotte County.
A tiki bar, covered bleacher seats, a building in centerfield that includes a concession stand, and a luxury, two-level party deck in left field that accommodates up to 80 people will be included on the 19,000-square-foot boardwalk, which will sit about 12 feet off the ground and give fans a chance to watch the game from any vantage point.
The boardwalk's skeleton was visible Thursday near the visiting team's clubhouse in left field.
The concourse is getting an upgrade, as well. The batting cages near the Pirates' clubhouse have been removed, and restrooms will be located underneath the bleachers in right field. The concession stands have been taken out of the stadium's foundation, and a new one will be built across the way from the restrooms that will feature 20 points of sale.
In between the concession stand and restrooms will be a fan plaza with tables, lounge chairs and palm trees.
"When people come to spring training, especially the people who come from Pittsburgh," Gooby said, "it's all about the weather."
Allen said the project has been within budget and is on schedule to be completed by spring training.
"We have a great ballpark," Gooby said, "but after 90 years, there are some fan amenities we needed to add. ... I think with this project, we'll be able to add that and continue to be the best spring training facility in all of Florida."
John Lembo, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 2097.