BRADENTON -- The Pittsburgh Pirates are scheduled to play their final Grapefruit League game of the spring Thursday at McKechnie Field.
That typically meant the venerable ballpark in downtown Bradenton that first opened its gates in 1923 would sit empty for another 11 months, waiting until the Pirates, its spring tenants since 1969, returned.
That's no longer the norm. The Pirates brought minor-league baseball to Bradenton in the form of the Marauders, the franchise's high Single-A affiliate that began play 140 games per year -- including 70 at McKechnie -- in April 2010. The franchise celebrates its five-year anniversary when it opens the Florida State League season April 3 at Port Charlotte against the Charlotte Stone Crabs, and plays its home opener on Saturday, April 5, also against the Stone Crabs, an affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays.
"When we put the lights in, we envisioned having a minor-league team, and we also envisioned having a stadium renovation," said Trevor Gooby, the Pirates director of Florida operations. "It's all kind of worked out perfectly. It's gone by really fast."
Lights were installed at McKechnie for the 2008 season, eliminating the main obstacle that stood in front of Bradenton playing host to a Pirates farm team. Two years later, when the Cincinnati Reds decided to
move their spring training headquarters from Sarasota's Ed Smith Stadium to a new stadium in Arizona, the Pirates purchased their high Single-A team.
And the Marauders were born.
"Bradenton didn't have that year-round baseball, so when they got that Florida State League team, I was excited; my family was excited," said Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez, a Miami native and a member of the Marauders' inaugural team. "I had family who lived in Tampa, and I talked to numerous people who expressed their genuine enthusiasm about watching baseball from February through September."
The 2010 season marked Sanchez's first full year as a professional ballplayer after the Pirates made him their first-round pick in '09. Affable and accommodating, Sanchez was an immediate hit with fans, especially after his season came to an abrupt close when he took a pitch to the jaw.
"Everyone was like, 'Oh, my God.' Everyone felt so bad for me," said Sanchez, who made his big-league debut last season and will make this year's Opening Day roster as the back-up to Russell Martin. "They look at that injury and what happened, and they look at me as more than just a player -- they think of me off the field."
Sanchez still garners some of the biggest cheers when he steps into McKechnie's batter's box during a Grapefruit League game, reaffirming a bond that can be built between a community and its minor-league team.
"A lot of times when I see people and I sign (autographs) for them, they're like, 'I remember watching you with the Marauders,'" he said. "And the reason why I bring up the injury was because everyone was like, 'I was there at the game when you took that fastball in the face. It was awful.'
"They come to all our spring training games, they come to the Marauders games -- they look forward to it all. They have the opportunity to develop a relationship with us."
It was a special group, beginning with opening night, when the Marauders throttled the Fort Myers Miracle 18-3 on April 9 in front of 2,369 fans at McKechnie Field.
The first hit came courtesy of Greg Picart, now a member of the Marauders' coaching staff.
"I remember a lot of offensive fireworks," said Pirates reliever Bryan Morris, who started for Bradenton that night and later became the first Marauder promoted to Double-A Altoona. "There was a little buzz going on. ... People were excited."
Ten players from the 2010 Marauders made the major leagues, including pitcher Jeff Locke, who last year became the first Marauder to make an All-Star team, and Starling Marte, who was considered baseball's best defensive left fielder in 2013.
Sanchez, Morris, Locke and Marte all played a role in the Pirates making the playoffs last year for the first time since 1992.
"It was a great way to kick it off, good community guys," Gooby said. "The fans adapted to them very quickly, and they liked playing here. The fans that come here are great. They really take care of our players and cheer our guys on."
The Marauders made the Florida State League playoffs that season and returned to the postseason in 2011. Buoyed by McKechnie's $10 million renovation project, a franchise-record 109,845 fans came to see the Marauders play last summer.
This summer marks another watershed moment for the team when it hosts the Florida State League All-Star Game for the first time on Saturday, June 14. And the Marauders new manager, Tom Prince, is a Bradenton resident who spent the last six seasons managing the GCL team at Pirate City.
So things are looking up for the franchise that played its first game five springs ago.
But there is one box Gooby really wants to check off.
"Now our next goal is to win the Florida State League championship," he said. "That's the one thing we haven't done. ... Our goal is to get guys to the next level; that's the ultimate goal. But if we could win as well, I think that would be great."