Bradenton Marauders

Goodbye Pirates, hello Marauders

BRADENTON — It wasn’t the best day for baseball.

The sky was overcast. The whipping wind sent a chill through the stands.

There was no need for layers of sunscreen.

But there was baseball. And there will be more baseball at McKechnie Field even after the Pittsburgh Pirates wrapped their 42nd spring in Bradenton on Monday with a 13-1 win over the Houston Astros.

This time, McKechnie won’t sit empty for 10 months, waiting for next spring, waiting for the Pirates to head south again.

The Bradenton Marauders, the Pirates’ high Single-A affiliate in the Florida State League, will debut April 8 against the Fort Myers Miracle. It will be the first of the team’s 70 home games this summer.

The Pirates officially purchased the Cincinnati Reds’ Single-A franchise in November — roughly five months before the team’s first scheduled game in McKechnie.

Consequently, Marauders’ general manager Dan Wolfert said it was crucial for the team to ratchet up its marketing campaign during spring training.

“We got a late start, so it definitely helped to get as much done as we could,” Wolfert said.

Marauders’ marks were sprinkled throughout McKechnie this spring. The team’s full 140-game schedule hung on a wall along the ballpark’s concourse, and a sign located just past the foul pole in right field featured the team’s logo as well as a phone number to purchase season tickets.

Marauders T-shirts and hats were for sale in the Pirates team store and merchandise booths, and an information stand was set up near McKechnie Field’s main entrance.

Roughly 200 individual tickets were purchased during Saturday’s Pirate Fest, the first day they were available, and pocket schedules were found all over the park.

It didn’t hurt that the Pirates drew 68,183 fans this spring, an average of 4,870 per home game. FSL games rarely bring in that much — the Charlotte Stone Crabs drew a league-leading 2,855 fans per game last summer — but Wolfert was happy to get a chance to spread the word to so many people.

“This was invaluable, using this crowd,” Wolfert said. “Not all these people are going to be here, obviously, but there are a lot of Bradenton people that come to these games.

“Having our booth out there and all that stuff, it all helps. You can’t put a price tag on it for advertising.”

The high Single-A club was previously based in Lynchburg, Va., and competed in the Carolina League before the Pirates decided to move it to Bradenton.

“Lynchburg was just a great spot for us, and they treated us so well, and if it wasn’t Bradenton, we weren’t leaving Lynchburg,” said Pirates general manager Neal Huntington. “But to be able to utilize this facility, to be able to share resources with the Gulf Coast League or extended spring training, is outstanding.”

McKechnie Field is located four miles away from Pirate City, the Pirates’ minor-league complex and home to the organization’s GCL team, making Bradenton a logical spot for major leaguers looking to rehab from an injury.

“We get a warm-weather city all year around,” Huntington said. “It will encourage coaches and staff and players to move here and to live here, and it will really enhance the year-round elements of the facility. So we’re very excited, and it’s a great opportunity for us.”

But McKechnie Field won’t be limited to hosting the Marauders.

“We might have concerts, and we might have other baseball tournaments and things, because we’re going to upkeep the field the whole time, too,” Wolfert said. “It’s going to help us draw more events other than just baseball.”

Wolfert knows the area well — before joining the Pirates, he was the general manager for the Reds’ affiliate in Sarasota.

He knows McKechnie has more to offer than a handful of spring games.

Now he hopes local baseball fans agree.

“It’s almost like it was a sin for this not to be used the rest of the year,” he said. “It’s going to be great that we get to utilize this beautiful park.

“You’re not just shutting down the doors and saying, ‘See you next February or March.’ ”