Spring training | Pittsburgh Pirates of the past approve of new-look McKechnie Field

Pirates of the past approve of new-look ballpark

jlembo@bradenton.comFebruary 24, 2013 

— It's a scene that plays out every spring at McKechnie Field.

Manny Sanguillen -- donning a pair of shades and gripping a baseball bat, sitting on a bench behind home plate -- watches one Pittsburgh Pirate after another take batting practice.

This time, however, Sanguillen stared into the outfield and saw a boardwalk wrapping around the ballpark. He looked over into left field and saw bleachers, located not too far from a two-tiered party deck and a vintage scoreboard built inside the left-center field wall.

Times have changed since Sanguillen and the Pirates first called McKechnie Field their spring home in 1969.

And the former catcher isn't complaining at all.

"I do love it. I'm really surprised to see how nice they did it," he said Friday afternoon. "Everything up there was concrete. Now it looks like a private country club."

The venerable 90-year-old ballpark is fresh off its most audacious overhaul yet, a $10 million renovation that includes 2,000 more seats, a fan plaza, larger restrooms, new concession stands and a host of other amenities.

McKechnie Field 2.0 hosts its first Grapefruit League game at 1 p.m. Sunday when the Pirates host the Atlanta Braves, roughly four months after construction began.

"This is dazzling," said former Pirates pitcher and current broadcaster Steve Blass, another member of the '69 team. "Just walking around, it is so current now and shiny and new, without getting rid of the retro. They kept the intimacy, which I thought was critical because I thought that's what made it a jewel."

Prior to the moving to Bradenton, the Pirates spent 14 springs in Fort Myers' Terry Park Field, which also served as the southern home to the Philadelphia Athletics, Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals.

Though McKechnie Field looked nothing like it did now, Blass said the Pirates considered it an upgrade over what they had to work with in Fort Myers.

"Anything was better than that, I thought," Blass said. "(McKechnie) was an old, old ballpark. It looked its age. When we got here, we did some minor things. But I was still kind of young, and we were just all happy to be here. We all rented out on the island, so life was good."

Life got better not long after the Pirates relocated to Bradenton. They won the World Series in 1971 over the Baltimore Orioles, with Blass going the distance to get the win in Game 7.

"One of the finest moments I've ever had in terms of baseball, after we won the Series, coming from the (Manatee) Convention Center over toward Manatee Memorial Hospital, there's a billboard on the right," said Blass, who recently purchased a home in Bradenton. "And '72, in the spring, I came over with my family and we had been driving for forever from Connecticut. And that billboard said, "'Welcome to Bradenton, Florida, the winter home of the World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates.'

"I will never forget that as long as I live."

Former catcher and Bradenton resident Mike LaValliere came to the Pirates in 1987 and remembered when McKechnie Field's fence was made of corrugated plastic and the warning track consisted of shells.

He now considers it one of the best facilities in all of baseball, especially after the new additions, and hopes it brings more people this summer to see the high Single-A Bradenton Marauders, set to open their fourth season at McKechnie.

"As a minor-leaguer, when you have 5,000 or 7,000 people at a game, that's a big deal. It gets you a little bit juiced up," he said. "I hope it translates to the changes that were made."

While LaValliere's Pirates didn't win a World Series, they did win three straight division titles from 1990-92 and brought the likes of Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke and Doug Drabek to Bradenton each spring.

"McKechnie was always a great place, after they fixed it (during the original renovation in 1993)," LaValliere said. "Before they fixed it, the playing surface was tough. It just wasn't very comfortable. After that, it's just fabulous. Been a lot of good ballplayers that have crossed home plate there."

More will do so beginning today inside a tradition-rich ballpark that has never looked better.

"I love everything I see. I hope people come out and enjoy it," Sanguillen said. "The number one thing is we have to win. We have a good park and a good team."

Bradenton Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service