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Marauders’ arrival stirs fun memories

All the T-shirts have some years on them.

Some paint, too.

The Macon Braves, Reading Phillies and Maine Guides are among them.

I recently added another T-shirt to the collection, and it’s already gotten some mileage at the gym.

The Bradenton Marauders.

Our new Florida State League ballclub.

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ high Class-A affiliate begins play April 8 at majestic McKechnie Field.

The tradition begins, goes the ballclub’s marketing slogan.

Memories to be made, I might add.

Conjured up over the years during lazy summer nights at minor league ballparks in the South, they are enduring.

Like Macon and Savannah, Ga., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., all in the South Atlantic League.

The sights. The smells. The sounds.

Venerable Luther Williams Field in Macon had all those.

Years ago I went there with a former colleague and a Macon native, who pointed out a group of old men sitting several rows behind home plate.

They were regular attendees at the charming red brick ballpark built in 1929.

One of them brought along a trumpet every game.

What a pip.

Who needs the electronic version when you’ve got a fellow who can blow, “Da-da-da-da-da-DAAAAA — CHARGE!”

Neither can I forget the wail of Norfolk Southern freight trains chugging along the tracks beyond the right field fence.

Nor the brilliant harvest moon over left field.

I want to be there the nights it graces games at McKechnie.

Savannah’s Grayson Stadium was another quaint ballpark.

Home to the Savannah Cardinals then; the Savannah Sand Gnats play there now.

I’d gone there in August 1992 to write about Chris Stynes, a third-round pick by the Toronto Blue Jays from Boca Raton High School. He played third for the Myrtle Beach Hurricanes and went on to nine seasons in the bigs, the last with the Pirates in 2004.

Grayson Stadium has a brick facade, invitingly situated in a city park flanked by weeping willow trees that exuded old South charm.

Built in 1926, it is the nation’s oldest and longest working minor league ballpark.

Interestingly, McKechnie was built three years before, but doesn’t have Grayson’s historic distinction.

It’s OK.

That the Marauders will bring the ol’ ballpark on Ninth Street West to life is something I appreciate for so many reasons.

The best: It’s our backyard.

One summer I drove from the Jersey Shore to Reading, Pa., a one-day, 200-plus-mile round trip, hoping to see Gar Finnvold pitch for the Eastern League Double-A New Britain Red Sox.

Finnvold was another Boca Raton prospect I had followed, a Florida State All-America pitcher drafted in 1990 by the Boston Red Sox in the sixth round.

He climbed quickly through the ranks, but his time in the big show was too brief, making eight starts in 1994 before he blew out his arm and was out of ball two years later.

So I made it to Reading Municipal Memorial Stadium, a 1950’s era ballpark that’s been periodically upgraded and remains a major civic treasure.

Same as McKechnie.

Well, I got to see Finnvold, all right.

Only he wasn’t playing.

He’d pitched the night before.

The trip wasn’t wasted.

At least I got a T-shirt out of it.

Mannix About Manatee, by columnist Vin Mannix, is about people and issues in Manatee Count. Please call Vin Mannix at 745-7055, write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, FL 34206 or e-mail him at vmannix@bradenton.com. Please include a phone number for verification.

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