As Jeff Podobnik stood outside the offices at Pirate City on Thursday, a brief discussion broke out about a seemingly out-of-place concrete picnic table on an otherwise unoccupied lawn inside the fences that surround the complex.
The table sits beneath a tree and up against the fence, its worn stone frame standing in stark contrast with the otherwise modern, window-covered offices only a few dozen yards away. It’s a relic of the past arbitrarily remaining in place more than 50 years after the Pirates’ Florida base opened in Bradenton
“Do you want to hear the story?” Podobnik asked. Pittsburgh’s new director of Florida and Dominican Republic operations proceeded to paint a picture of what the facility was like before its renovations nearly a decade ago.
When he last worked in Bradenton during the 1990s, Pirate City looked more similar to its original iteration than its current one. He previously held the same position — or basically the same one, since Pittsburgh didn’t have an affiliate in the Dominican Republic at the time — from 1991-1999.
The picnic table and a number of others just like it used to sit right outside the cafeteria, which is now on the opposite side of the building. It was a place for players to hang out while they were escaping the Pittsburgh cold for spring training in Florida. Now it’s the only thing left from Pirate City’s original set-up.
Podobnik officially began his new job Thursday after working in Pittsburgh as PNC Park’s senior director of security and contract services for most of the past 17 years. Pirate City and Manatee County were much different places when Podobnik was last in the area. He took time to discuss his return Thursday.
The following has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.
The Bradenton Herald: So, are you glad to be back?
Jeff Podobnik: Yeah, I am. I came down here in 1991 from Pittsburgh — I worked in ballpark operations in Pittsburgh for two years in ’89-90 and then got promoted to Florida ops, and I came down late ’90 and I was here until 1999. When PNC Park was coming on board, I got promoted back to Pittsburgh.
In 1999 we didn’t have the Bradenton Marauders, and we didn’t have the Dominican Republic Academy and Bristol, Tenn., that I have a little bit of oversight on. And it just made sense at the time to take the promotion as the director of security.
This job is a much bigger job than it was when I was in the ’90s, so it really enticed me; it really excited me about the opportunity.
BH: What are you thinking from afar when you see the way the Florida operations have changed?
JP: Oh, it’s awesome. We have a state-of-the-art facility here in Florida. To me, this facility is top-notch, probably one of the best in the state of Florida, if not the best. This training facility, McKechnie Field — McKechnie Field, what it’s turned into, is phenomenal. It’s a smaller version of a major league ballpark, and adding the boardwalk out in the outfield with the tiki bar and the stands out there really brings a different view and different experience.
And then Pirate City— one of the last things that I was responsible for in 1999 was the clubhouse facility — the first renovations and construction, our dining hall and our batting cages. At the time, the old dormitory that was here wasn’t deemed at that time to be renovated, so that was my last construction responsibility and to see what this facility is today, it’s phenomenal.
BH: What stands out as the biggest difference?
JP: Back in the 90s we had a quarter of the staff that is here because we didn’t have the Bradenton Marauders. That’s what’s exciting to me, and the staff is just fantastic down here.
BH: What was your relationship like with the community when you were last down here?
JP: I took pride in getting involved in the community because my wife and, at the time, my two sons — we were part of this community.
There’s been a lot of changes over the last 17 years since I’ve been in Pittsburgh, but, again, there’s still a lot of things that I was involved in in the ’90s when I was still here. I was in the Kiwanis; I was in the Manatee (Education) Foundation. I was really involved in the Chamber of Commerce, Boys and Girls Club. Those organizations are still here and certainly I will look a opportunities possibly to get involved in those organizations again.
BH: You’ve had quite a few different jobs in baseball. Could you elaborate a bit on your background?
JP: I started off in Pittsburgh. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. I’m a graduate of a small school called Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. I started off and I did an internship in 1988-1989 with the Pirates and got my first full-time job in 1989 as the IT coordinator. My degree was in sport management, but we laugh and I laugh about it because back then we had one computer and one printer in the office. Actually two computers — our president’s secretary and our general manager’s secretary. Basically, I was responsible for changing the tape drives back then. IT wasn’t what it is. And I worked in ballpark operations and oversaw our picnic plaza, and then I got promoted to director of Florida operations in 1990. I came down late 1990 and I was down here from 1990-1999. My wife and I started our family down here.
I did the first round of construction in 1991-92 at McKechnie Field and did the first round of the new construction here at Pirate City, and an opportunity came available in Pittsburgh. So then I went back to Pittsburgh as the director of security and contract services for the Pirates, and then became the senior director of security and contract services through this year. From 1999-2016, so basically 17 years back in Pittsburgh.
BH: Is there anything in particular that surprised you most either when you saw the full job description or actually got a chance to see the facilities and community?
JP: We haven’t touched on the Dominican operations. That excites me. I oversee our Dominican academy.
I’ve got a passport now. That’s one of the bigger changes and that’s exciting to me on top of all this development that we’ve got here between McKechnie Field and Pirate City.