The Pittsburgh Pirates may have opened their 50th spring in Bradenton with workouts at Pirate City, but Saturday’s home opener at LECOM Park is part of the real attraction for baseball fans this spring.
One the first day of 2018’s big-league action in Bradenton, there were late-inning heroics to witness when New York’s Billy McKinney smashed a three-run home run in the top of ninth to break a 1-1 deadlock in front of 7,814 fired-up fans, and the Yankees beat the Pirates 4-1.
Pittsburgh played New York in one of 16 spring games at LECOM Park, which was voted the best in Florida, according to Ballpark Digest’s fan vote, the past two years.
So what makes LECOM Park stand out from the rest?
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Well, here are five reasons why you should check out a game this spring, beginning with the next home game on Monday:
It was 48 degrees and raining in Pittsburgh on Saturday. In Bradenton, it was 81 degrees and partly cloudy when Nick Kingham delivered the first pitch against the Yankees. Simply put, the year-round warm weather attracts the snowbirds, and those tourists bolster the economy. Spring training is a big part of that, and the good weather in February and March is usually a staple baseball fans can depend on for a vacation away from the dreary winter weather elsewhere in the country.
Through renovations and a name change, LECOM Park retains the old-time park vibe with a modern twist. The boardwalk addition, lights and video board brought the park, which was built in 1923, into the 21st century and gave fans a 360-degree walking access around it.
There’s also the comfort of being right up on the action.
“It’s the charm. Ever since this place was built in 1923 and our 50 years we’ve been here, we’ve tried to keep that intimacy that this ballpark creates for our fans,” Pirates’ senior director of Florida and Dominican Republic operations Jeff Podobnik said.
The atmosphere is top-notch, with the Cool Today lounge, live music and lounge chairs giving LECOM Park a distinctly Florida feel.
“We wanted to keep the old-time Bradenton feel from the architectural design to the Florida experience that our fans get to experience,” Podobnik said.
Saturday’s opener saw a 50th anniversary video tribute and past legends receiving some pregame honors. The Pirates are celebrating that history throughout this spring and have a historical exhibit set up behind the grandstand seats along the first base line.
One of Pittsburgh’s living legends is Bill Mazeroski, who hit the game-winning home run in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series against the New York Yankees.
“You want to honor the past,” Podobnik said.
All baseball parks have similar concession items. There’s also specialty items, and LECOM Park gives age-appropriate fans several choices when it comes to local beer. Darwin Brewery Company concocted a golden ale to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Pirates in Bradenton. The brewery, which is located across LECOM Park on 17th Avenue West, has additional selections on game days at the park. They include the Circa 1926, which is a pale wheat ale, and a couple India Pale Ales, which are more commonly referred to as IPAs. Pittsburgh’s Iron City features a light beer and lager for purchase behind the left field wall, while the Kona Brewing Company’s bar on the boardwalk in right center field is a popular destination with multiple selections.
From the Buffalo, N.Y., area comes Southern Tier’s various IPAs and there’s a craft beer concession area with many more choices for the beer enthusiasts. Those really push LECOM Park to another level than the standard fare.
With players such as Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole traded in the offseason, fans will look to the opposing teams’ travel roster for some star power at games this season without having to travel to other Grapefruit League destinations. That said, getting a glimpse into a future Major Leaguer or the current crop is always a treat, especially when it’s in the laid back time of the year here at Bradenton’s LECOM Park.