Sports

How McKechnie Field, now LECOM Park, has evolved to the best ballpark in Florida

Just another slugfest at Bradenton's LECOM Park

Elias Diaz crushes one of the five home runs belted by Pittsburgh Pirates players on Friday, March 16, 2018, at LECOM Park in Bradenton as the Bucs beat the Atlanta Braves 12-9. Spring training continues through March 31. and the final home game i
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Elias Diaz crushes one of the five home runs belted by Pittsburgh Pirates players on Friday, March 16, 2018, at LECOM Park in Bradenton as the Bucs beat the Atlanta Braves 12-9. Spring training continues through March 31. and the final home game i

The box seats were folding chairs on a flat, wooden deck, and the press box swayed on a gusty, wind-filled day.

That’s what fans had at the old McKechnie Field, before the third oldest current professional baseball field in America underwent its first renovation in the early 1990s.

“My first year here was ’92, and the press box was just built practically on stilts, and it would sway in the breeze,” Pirates director of baseball communications Jim Trdinich said. “Luckily nothing huge came through here. And then after that, it was rebuilt. So saw that first evolution. And then recently with the boardwalk and everything, it’s come a long way since 1992 in a good way. ... There’s no other place I’d rather be for a spring training game.”

The last series of renovations, which were completed in 2013, brought the facility, now known as LECOM Park, into the 21st century while retaining the old-time charm.

Those two things are a couple reasons why LECOM Park was voted Florida’s top spring training stadium the last two years by fans.

“We have the best spring training facility in the Grapefruit League,” Pirates senior director of Florida and Dominican Republic operations Jeff Podobnik said.

But just quite how did it evolve into such a popular spring training destination?

Well, the answer also lies with how Bradenton has grown since the Pirates arrived in 1969.

The city expanded to where there are now six public high schools and plenty of neighborhoods east of Interstate 75.

Heck, I-75 wasn’t even finished for commuters back in the late 1960s.

“We came from Connecticut, we came down Route 301,” said Pirates broadcaster Steve Blass, who won a World Series with Pittsburgh in 1971 and is a Bradenton resident. “... It was quite a trek. We never took I-95 or 75 or anything. It was a big project getting down here, but the thing was we were getting out of the snow in Connecticut. So it was no problem, no problem at all.”

A couple decades later, the relationship between the Pirates and Bradenton could have come to an abrupt end.

Pittsburgh was looking at Winter Haven as its new spring home in the early 1990s.

Things didn’t work in Winter Haven, and Bradenton ironed out a deal with the Pirates to keep baseball in the Friendly City that later was cemented through a 30-year deal signed just before the 2008 season.

Podobnik, who began his first stint in Bradenton in 1991, said they didn’t have the Marauders occupying LECOM Park during the non-spring training months.

“You’d look down this public plaza area (behind the first base stands), and it would be like seeing tumbleweed in the old towns back in the 1800s,” said Podobnik, whose first stint ended in 1999 when he oversaw PNC Park’s construction. “Because that was it. Spring training was over and it just didn’t get used.”

The first renovation project, in its second year from 1992-93, saw the old Bradenton train station’s architecture make up the structure that faces Ninth Street West, greets fans upon arrival through the main gates, and holds the press box and private boxes.

“It was time to renovate the 1923 facility,” Podobnik said. “Since that point, there was never any renovations done at all.”

The playing surface, outfield wall and infield wall all the way around was renovated during that early 1990s project, too, Podobnik said.

Eventually, the latest renovation project took shape. The first step was adding lights in 2008. Podobnik said that was critical to getting a Florida State League team.

After that, the boardwalk was built to create a 360-degree loop for fans to walk around the entire park. A video board was added to the 2017 spring training season to enhance the fan experience even more.

“You feel like you’re in Florida,” Podobnik said.

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