BRADENTON -- Wearing their favorite jerseys, jackets and caps bearing the gold "P," Pittsburgh Pirates' fans battled the crisp evening air Saturday to pose for photos and get memorabilia signed by their favorite players.
The fun was all part of the fourth annual Pirates Pep Rally, a joint effort by the baseball organization and Realize Bradenton, that brings fans from near and far to Old Main Street.
The Oakes family traveled all the way from Pittsburgh to attend the rally, the Black and Gold game Friday and the away game against the Tampa Bay Rays ON Feb. 23 in Port Charlotte.
"This is our first trip to Bradenton," said Shelli Oakes, adding that they "definitely" plan on returning. "It's a lot more relaxed."
Alex Oakes, who is turning 9 during the trip, got a baseball painted around his left eye at the event.
"We went to about 20 home games last year in Pittsburgh," Vance Oakes said.
Rich Bigi, accompanied by Angelina, 12, Gavin, 8, and Connor, 4, had a bit of a shorter trip, traveling from Ocala.
"This is our second time coming to the pep rally," Rich Bigi said. "In fact, Connor is on the pep rally flier this year."
The boys of the Bigi family have been Pirates' fans "since they were born," Rich said.
The group of four, dressed in black and gold, kept circling through to get autographs.
"This is our third time in line," Rich said. "We're not looking for anybody in particular, just everyone who is there."
Gavin, who had signatures on his cap and baseball thought meeting the team was "pretty cool."
Fernando Massanet, 10, waited in line for about 30 minutes to get his glove signed. The Massanets regularly attend Bradenton Marauders' games, and Fernando plays baseball in the RBI League.
"He takes that glove everywhere he goes," said Aileen Massanet. "He loves it. He loves baseball."
Laura McKeithen, creative services and community building specialist for Realize Bradenton, said the organization spends about a year planning the pep rally event.
"It's a great downtown event that kicks off the spring and spring training," McKeithen said. "It's what Realize Bradenton is about -- bringing people downtown to appreciate the history, arts, businesses and sports we have to offer."
At the event, Mayor Wayne Poston proclaimed March as Pittsburgh Pirates month, encouraging everyone to attend a game. Pirates personnel also addressed the crowd.
"It's great to back in Bradenton," said President Frank Coonelly. "We're excited to kick off the season and couldn't be more excited to show all the renovations at historic McKechnie Field."
For the first time since 1993, improvements have been made to the stadium. The multimillion dollar project includes new and additional seating, party decks, a boardwalk and outdoor bar.
"It's a good time to be a Pirate," said manager Clint Hurdle. "We could not appreciate the support from the city of Bradenton more. We're excited about the opportunity in front of us in 2013."
Spring training kicks off with an intrasquad game at noon Friday. The Pirates open at home Feb. 24, against the Atlanta Braves. Tickets can be purchased at the box office in advance or on game day or online at www.pirates.com.
Elizabeth Johnson, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041.