Pirates rally in Bradenton has a little more pep

jbartolone@bradenton.comFebruary 23, 2014 

BRADENTON -- There was something a little different about this year's Pittsburgh Pirates Pep Rally.

Maybe it was the presence of two marquee guests, reigning National League MVP Andrew McCutchen and Manager of the Year Clint Hurdle.

Maybe it was the perfect weather, noticeably warmer than the chilly temperatures at last year's rally.

Or maybe it was the buzz that comes with a winning season, especially after it followed two decades of losing campaigns.

Whatever it was, it was in abundance at this year's rally on Old Main Street in downtown, where hundreds of residents and tourists dropped by to show their support for Bradenton's springtime visitors and collect autographs from players Saturday night.

The crowd was "the biggest since I've been here," said Pirates President Frank Coonelly, who joined the club in 2007.

Pirates fan Bo Palumbo, a Pittsburgh native turned Bradenton resident who was one of the first in line for players' autographs Saturday, had an easy explanation for the big turnout.

"One good year, everyone decides to be a fan," he said.

But what a year it was -- 94 victories and a playoff appearance after 20 consecutive losing seasons by the once-proud franchise that is proud again.

"Everyone loves a winner," Coonelly said.

Everyone, that is, except for a lone heckler who yelled at the team president to "get some good players!" But for the most part, fans were giddy about the Pirates and their prospects for 2014.

"They're going to the playoffs again," predicted LuAnn McKee, who moved to Bradenton in November from Mercer, Pa.

"I say 94 wins," said Vance Oakes, who came down from Pittsburgh with his wife, Shelli, and their 10-year-old son, Alex.

Alex got McCutchen's autograph during a team workout at Pirate City and had a conversation with Pirates catcher and former Bradenton Marauder Tony Sanchez at Saturday's autograph session.

"He told me to say please," Alex said.

Dave Beltz, a fan since the Pirates' glory days in the 1970s who came to the rally from his home in Lakeland, is cautiously optimistic about this year's team.

"It's scary, like it's gonna go back (to losing) again, like it was a one-time thing," Beltz said. "I was scared to wear a hat" during the Pirates' dark years, he added.

Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston proclaimed Feb. 22 "Clint Hurdle Day" and "Andrew McCutchen Day" in recognition of their accomplishments last season,

Poston said the relationship between the city and the Pirates organization, which has been coming here each spring since 1969, is stronger than ever.

"Other cities would like to have it," Poston said.

Hurdle, who has a home on Anna Maria Island with his wife, Karla, had kind words for the fans in Bradenton.

"Thank you for the way you've embraced my family," he said. "Thank you for embracing our team."

McCutchen, who was serenaded with chants of "MVP! MVP!" had his own message for the crowd.

"Let's do it again next year, but bring a championship back to Pittsburgh," he said.

The Pirates open their spring training slate at McKechnie Field with the intrasquad Black & Gold Game on Tuesday, followed by a 1:05 p.m. game Wednesday against the visiting New York Yankees.

Jason Bartolone, East Manatee Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBartolone.

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