Arrrrgh you ready, Pirates fans?

BRADENTON -- As he flipped through a binder full of baseball cards, A.J. Pollard eagerly stood in line Saturday for an autograph session with members of the Pittsburgh Pirates at the team’s second pep rally.

The rally helped kick off the Pirates’ 43rd spring training in Bradenton.

“It’s been a tremendous turn out and far exceeded our expectations,” said Rachelle Madrigal, manager of sales and marketing for the team’s Florida operations. “It’s a great southern home for us.”

Pollard attended last year’s inaugural event in downtown Bradenton, too.

“It’s a lot of fun and it’s something different,” said Pollard, 32, who has been collecting signatures since he was 12. “I love baseball. I like getting to know the players.”

He and other baseball fans had the opportunity to hear the club’s new Manager Clint Hurdle, Team President Frank Coonelly, and Pirates great Steve Blass give speeches about the team at the rally.

There were also give-a-ways, food and fun games for the kids.

Just as the fans were excited to meet their favorite players, Pirates pitcher Paul Maholm said he enjoys meeting fans.

“It’s fun. I think this is a good way for people to see us in a relaxed environment,” Maholm said. “We’re normal people with a unique job.”

This year the players weren’t the only ones to travel down from the Steel City to be in Bradenton.

For Pirates season ticket holders Bill and Fran Scherle, the rally was a special way to meet and cheer on their home team.

“We grew up with the team,” said Fran Scherle, 70. “We’ve gone to see them train everyday they’ve been here.”

The Pirates play their first game of the spring at 12:05 p.m. Friday against State College of Florida at McKechnie Field.