LECOM Park named top spring park in Florida and draws record crowd this year

Fans take their seats as players warm up during the Pittsburgh Pirates spring training game against the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday evening at LECOM Park in Bradenton.
Fans take their seats as players warm up during the Pittsburgh Pirates spring training game against the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday evening at LECOM Park in Bradenton.

The name change to the park sparked some anger, but it didn’t dissuade fans from voting it the favorite spring training spot in Florida.

For a second straight year, fans tabbed LECOM Park, formerly McKechnie Field, as Ballpark Digest and Spring Training Online’s Best of the Ballparks for 2017.

“If you just look at the ballpark, the charm, the Florida - this just exudes spring training,” Pirates senior director of Florida and Dominican Republic operations Jeff Podobnik said. “The boardwalk out in the outfield, the tiki bar out in right field, it’s just absolutely gorgeous. And to be here at LECOM Park as a fan and how close you are to the playing surface, it’s just an intimate environment to watch baseball at it’s best.”

Those fans responded during three online voting rounds to determine their favorite Florida spring training venue.

In the final round, LECOM Park defeated Fort Myers’ Hammond Stadium, the spring home of the Minnesota Twins, with 67.9 percent of the vote.

“We are thankful and humbled by this great recognition of LECOM Park, and even more so by the incredible fan support all spring,” Pirates President Frank Coonelly said in a news release. “We have what truly is a model partnership with the City of Bradenton and Manatee County. It is our shared vision, along with the support of our new naming rights partner, Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM), which has allowed us to continue to improve upon the fan experience and ensure that this historic ballpark remains the gem of the Grapefruit League.”

In the past few years, renovations to the Pirates spring training home included a right-field boardwalk with a tiki bar, new seats, new grandstand roofs, expanded concessions and a new video board.

The latter was unveiled in time for the 2017 Grapefruit League opener in late February.

“I didn’t even know we had it this year,” Mercer said. “The first time I walked out there was the first time I had seen it. It’s nice to see who is up, the lineup, who is coming up next and things like that, that you can see in most Major League parks but not in spring training because it’s really not that big a deal. But now that they have it here, it just tops it all off it seems like.”

While it’s the second straight year for LECOM Park getting honored as a fan favorite, the Pirates other facilities also have received accolades.

Major League Baseball selected PNC Park in Pittsburgh as the top MLB ballpark a couple years ago, and the Pirates’ academy in the Dominican Republic was rated the No. 1 Dominican academy last year.

“Facilities are a big deal,” Mercer said. “It definitely helps when you have a nice locker room, where you have your space and you can breathe a little bit and have some time to yourself. Nice fields to play on, nice practice fields, can get a lot of stuff done in the whole area and it’s nice.”

LECOM Park also generated a total attendance record for this spring. The all-time attendance record for one spring at LECOM Park was set in 2015 when 106,038 fans took in 15 home games.

That record was made possible when the park expanded its seating from 6,600 to 8,500 in 2013.

A rain out last year prevented the 2015 mark from getting shattered.

This season, there were more home games with 17 Grapefruit League games to draw from as the World Baseball Classic saw spring training starting early for Major League Baseball franchises.

A total of 106,291 fans flocked to 94-year old LECOM Park this spring.

“I think fan interaction is big,” Mercer said. “We do all of our stuff here and we come out, and all the fans are on the boardwalk looking at us. ... Spring training plus the fan interaction is big just because you can relate to the fans a little bit and they can relate to us.”