BRADENTON – It wasn’t long ago that McKechnie Field was home to mounds of rubble, and construction trucks rather than short-sleeved baseball fans populated the concourse.
Wednesday morning, however, Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston, with the venerable ballpark’s pristine playing surface serving as a backdrop, stepped to a podium that featured the Pittsburgh Pirates’ trademark P and beamed.
“I can’t stop smiling,” he said.
Few could blame him Wednesday, when the Pirates and the city unveiled the new-look McKechnie Field, replete with a 360-degree boardwalk that spans the entire outfield and 2,000 more seats.
The 19,000 square-foot boardwalk, which also includes a tiki bar, concessions, restrooms and 4Topps tables, was home to a brief ceremony that included remarks from Poston as well as Bob Nutting, the Pirates' chairman of the board, and Manatee County Commissioner Michael Gallen.
“You just walk around and you have to say, ‘Wow,’” Nutting said. “It’s fantastic.”
The $10 million construction on the 90-year-old ballpark - which has served as the Pirates’ spring training home since 1969 - began in August. McKechine will host its first post-renovation event 1 p.m. Friday when the Pirates’ play their Black and Gold intrasquad game. The team plays its Grapefruit League home-opener 1 p.m. Sunday against the Atlanta Braves.
Among the many new features is the boardwalk, which allows fans to see the game from every vantage point. It will be open to anyone in the stadium and home to $10 standing-room only tickets, which will go on sale when all the seats in the ballpark are full.
Packing McKechnie Field will be more difficult than ever before – the inclusion of 2,000 new seats has swelled the capacity to 8,500, making McKechnie the fourth-largest ballpark in the Grapefruit League.
It was ranked 13th last year.
An additional 570 bleacher seats, all with backs, were constructed along the boardwalk in left field, and the ballpark now has 3,516 shaded seats, up from the 2,946 it featured last year.
The new bleacher seats will cost $12.
“It’s a spectacular seat,” said Pirates president Frank Coonelly, who led a media tour around McKechnie Field.
Fans along the boardwalk can also look into each team’s bullpen, now located behind the fences in left field (visitors) and right field (Pirates). They used to be located down the first- and third-base foul lines.
The ballpark’s scoreboard also made a move and is now inside the wall in left-center field. It’s an old-time manual scoreboard, much like the one inside Fenway Park’s Green Monster.
A pair of auxiliary scoreboards have been added to the first- and third-base overhangs, which allows fans in the outfield bleachers and along the boardwalk to see the score, as well.
Down the third-base line is home to the two-tier Left Field Party Deck, which seats a total of 80 guests – 40 on each of the shaded tiers – and features catered food and drinks, as well as a bartender and attendant for each group.
The infield seating has expanded from 146 to 292, and all the physical seats were replaced with new flip chairs that help expand the walkways between the rows.
While McKechnie’s playing surface wasn’t touched, the biggest renovation may be in the fan plaza located outside the stadium. The concessions stands are now located along the back wall, which used to be home the Pirates’ hitting cage, and include 20 points of purchase.
“There shouldn’t be any more lines,” Coonelly said.
Eighteen palm trees have been added to the fan plaza, which also includes the Yuengling Plaza Bar, tables, lounge chairs and expanded restrooms, as well as portable concession carts that will sell Italian sausages and ice cream and the Bucco Grill.
“The balance that’s been found here is so exciting to me,” Nutting said. “It is going to be a brand-new experience for our costumers. The 360 field, it was driven by making sure that the fans come not only to McKechnie, but come to Bradenton and walk away feeling like this is the place to celebrate baseball, this is the place to celebrate spring training.”
And Poston hopes plenty of them keep coming back.
“This is the most fan-friendly place, I think, anywhere in Florida and probably anywhere in major league baseball,” he said. “That was one of our goals, and that was one of things we insisted on. I love it. It’s great stuff.
“Bring your friends. We have a lot of seats we can fill up now.”