BRADENTON -- One of the perks of being a Pittsburgh Pirates spring season-ticket holder is you get to pass through the gates 30 minutes before everyone else.
So at a little past 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, the day the Pirates played their final game of the year at McKechnie Field, Betty Ann Price walked down the concourse and toward the flight of steps leading to the outfield boardwalk.
Wearing Pirates earrings and a black Pirates visor while carrying a cup of coffee in one hand and a black baseball glove in the other, Price took quick strides toward her destination, the boardwalk railing overlooking center field.
Then she proceeded to watch the Pirates take batting practice in preparation for their game against the Minnesota Twins.
"Love it," said Price, a Palmetto resident. "The changes they have made with the new outfield and this deck have (made for) a completely different fan experience."
Many seemed to agree.
The Pirates drew 93,433 fans this spring, the most ever to pass through the gates of the 90-year-old ballpark, which has been the Pirates' spring training home since 1969.
That total would have been higher had rain not washed away a home game against the Baltimore Orioles on Feb. 26.
A crowd of 7,141 was on hand Wednesday to watch Pittsburgh's 7-4 loss to the Twins.
"Our record attendance this spring is a testament to the tremendous fans we have," Pirates President Frank Coonelly said in a statement released by
the team. "The support we have enjoyed from our fans, whether they have been coming to McKechnie Field for 45 years or if they made their first visit this spring, is why we are so proud to call Bradenton our Southern home."
The boffo numbers came in the wake of McKechnie's $10 million renovation, which was completed prior to the start of the Grapefruit League season. At the core of the project is the stadium-spanning, 19,000-square foot boardwalk, which also is home to a tiki bar, party areas, concessions and souvenir stands, restrooms and a new set of left-field bleachers
That's where Price and her friend, Bob Hahn, spent most of their mornings this spring before making their way to their seats behind home plate.
"It's nice to see the new seats weren't wasted," Hahn said. "Everybody who said, 'Ha, they're not going to fill those up,' they were wrong."
The addition of more than 2,000 seats stretched the ballpark's seating capacity from 6,500 to more than 8,000. And when all those were sold, fans could by $10 standing-room-only tickets and spend their afternoons on the boardwalk.
The sun-splashed boardwalk was a popular hangout this spring, especially Wednesday, when temperatures hovered in the 50s and fans didn't want to stand or sit in the cool of the shade.
Price and Hahn came prepared; those gloves were more for protection than for snagging a big fly during batting practice.
"It requires more attention. When you're behind the screen, you can look away," Hahn said. "We've seen a couple people beaned (on the boardwalk) and we don't want to join them."
Chilly temperatures coupled with many of the game's biggest stars competing in the World Baseball Classic struck a blow to attendance this spring, according to story earlier this month by The Associated Press that said crowds were down 14 percent from last year.
Bradentonians and tourists helped buck that trend. An average of 6,229 fans attended the Pirates' 15 home games this spring.
The St. Patrick's Day game against the New York Yankees drew 8,541 fans, a single-game McKechnie Field record, while games against the Toronto Blue Jays (8,439) and Boston Red Sox (7,804) were sellouts.
The question is if the boardwalk will prove as infectious for the Bradenton Marauders, the Pirates' high Single-A team set to begin their fourth season next week.
Price and Hahn have been Marauders' season-ticket holders since the team's first year in 2010. In fact, it was the Marauders who turned them on to the Pirates. Now Price hopes more follow suit.
Maybe McKechnie Field 2.0 will make that happen.
It has worked so far.
"Hopefully so," she said.