Bradenton's renovated ballpark attendance keeps on growing

vmannix@bradenton.comMarch 17, 2013 

BRADENTON

The $10 Standing Room Only ticket Jim Sheldone bought Friday was like gold for the recently retired Pennsylvania state trooper.

A fitting 46th birthday present, too.

It gets the Pittsburgh Pirate fan into McKechnie Field for today's St. Patrick's Day game against the New York Yankees for what promises to be a record turnout at the renovated ballpark on Ninth Street West.

"I'm excited," Sheldone said. "I was surprised even to get a ticket this late. For the Yankees? It's perfect."

The Pirates couldn't agree more.

That McKechnie Field record 8,439 attendance set last Wednesday when Toronto came to town?

It'll be history today.

A crowd of as many as 9,000 is anticipated.

Nathan March calls it the perfect storm.

"It's the hot ticket in town right now, it's St. Patrick's Day and the weather is supposed to be gorgeous," the ballclub official said Friday at Pirate City. "It's the Yankees, people will be wearing green, the atmosphere will be so festive. It's going to be tremendous."

Spring training attendance may be down elsewhere, but not at McKechnie Field. Average attendance (5,731) through 11 games is up 4 percent from a year ago and figures to grow.

Today's turnout will boost the numbers, and seating for Friday's game with the Tampa Bay Rays is sold out, too.

"It's going to be a great week with St. Patrick's Day leading the charge," said Kris Koch, McKechnie Field's operations manager.

Having a contender is part of the draw, but McKechnie's $10 million new look makes it a star attraction itself.

The charming ballpark on Ninth Street West has added another dimension.

"There has been so much community enthusiasm ... and the boardwalk and all those new views are a big part of it," March said. "Now that we're in the month of March, we're seeing the payoff of the excitement built by the renovations."

Sheldone could feel it even in wintry Pittsburgh.

After 22 years in law enforcement, he was ready for his first Pirates spring training.

"I read about the renovations online and it was on my bucket list to come down and get out of the cold," he said. "My wife said go ahead. I'm excited about the whole thing."

So is Emil Beran.

The 74-year-old Pirates fan used to buy grandstand seats, but now it's the boardwalk for him.

"You can have a nice seat around the outfield fence if you want to do that. You can get up and have a drink. You can go in the sun or get out of the sun," said Beran, who got tickets to Monday's Red Sox game. "We don't like to stay in our seats. We like to walk around. I love the ballfield."

The word spread to Bob Montgomery, a 65-year-old Pirate fan who drove up from Englewood on Friday to buy tickets to an upcoming game.

"Friends say it's very cool -- the boardwalk, the tiki bar," he said. "That $10 million remodeling shows they're willing to invest in it to attract fans."

Fans such as Bob Martin, who also visited the McKechnie Field box office Friday.

"I like it," the 76-year-old said. "It's nice. It's small. It's friendly."

The Pirates want to keep it that way.

A limited number of SRO tickets will be available today, but ballclub officials are cautious about overcrowding.

"We want to get in as many people as we can comfortably fit, not jam them into every nook and cranny," Koch said. "We want to make it a good experience so they want to come back."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Follow him on Twitter: @vinmannix.

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