If they play a regional final at McKechnie Field and you can fit that day’s attendance safely inside a minivan, did it really happen?
According to Richard Buckle it did.
Buckle is a lawyer with a practice in downtown Bradenton. He is also a Manatee High grad who played second base for the Hurricanes won they won the Class 2A state championship in 1963.
En route to clinching the title at Sarasota’s Payne Park, Buckle and the Canes defeated a team from West Palm Beach 16-0 in a regional game played at venerable McKechnie Field.
“I think there were nine people there,” Buckle said.
That’s baseball in Manatee County -- no one knows really just how special it is. And perhaps that’s the best part of the run exhibited by this year’s Hurricanes, who head to Largo Pinellas Park tonight to play for the Class 5A-Region 3 championship and the program’s first state trip since Buckle and the boys went all the way. It forces us to look back and examine the county’s rich baseball past.
“There’s a tremendous baseball history in Bradenton,” Buckle said.
When you talk sports in Manatee County, you usually talk football. You talk about Paul Maechtle manning one sideline and Joe Kinnan the other. You talk about that night in 1985 when Southeast and Manatee hosted state championship games a Hail Mary away from each other. You talk about the 1975 Palmetto Tigers winning the county’s first state football title. You talk about former prep stars Mike Jenkins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie both going in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft.
It’s well-known and well-earned. The baseball, however, ain’t bad, either.
Long before the football Hurricanes scaled USA Today’s prep football poll, the Bradenton High School Golden Wave won four state baseball titles from 1922 through 1949. Less than 20 years later, the Hurricanes ruled Class 2A.
Palmetto won a state title in 1994. Four years later, it was Bradenton Christian’s turn. Then, in 2003, a Lakewood Ranch team that featured Lastings Milledge brought a trophy home from Tampa.
Today, the Canes look to come one step closer toward joining the club. And it’s clear to anyone who has seen the crowds at G.T. Bray park that this year’s addition has solicited more interest than the ’63 model did.
“I’m ecstatic,” Buckle said. “I’m so excited to see Manatee doing this. ... Dwayne Strong is the best baseball coach they’ve had since 1963. He’s a purist and he loves kids.”
It sometimes takes the present to jolt us back into the past, to remember what has transpired, and to realize that these Hurricanes aren’t trailblazers, but stokers of a flame that has been flickering for decades.
It’s been a while, but Manatee baseball is back in the state championship conversation. A win tonight sends the Hurricanes to the final four in Port St. Lucie, where they can pen their own chapter in the community’s storied baseball past while shining some more light on the men who have come before them.
And there’s at least one guy who would love to see the Canes see it through.
“I couldn’t be happier for these kids,” Buckle said, “because I know what a blessing it is to win one of these things.”
John Lembo, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 745-2097.