In April of 1923 — ninety years ago — Warren Harding was still president; the dance known as the Charleston hasn't taken the country by storm yet (that started in October of '23); Al Capone had just recently moved from New York to Chicago, where he would run the bootlegging empire that would make him, and Prohibition, both infamous and deadly; and the Manatee County Fairgrounds would be redeveloped into an unsuspecting, yet important ballpark known as City Park. Before this park, built at the urging of retail magnate Robert Beall and St. Louis Cardinals owner Sam Breadon, no baseball team, MLB or otherwise, played any games south of St. Petersburg. After this park, that all changed.
Now known as McKechnie Field, this park is currently the fifth-oldest active ballpark in the United States, behind (in order): Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts, Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois, Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona Beach, Florida, and Bosse Field in Evansville, Indiana. (Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama, is the overall oldest ballpark in the U.S., but is no longer used in daily competition.) Major League teams utilize only three of those above, with Fenway, Wrigley, and McKechnie on that list. Throughout its history, McKechnie has played spring host for the St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox, Boston (and eventually Milwaukee) Braves, and Kansas City (and eventually Oakland) Athletics, before finally having their current spring tenant, the Pittsburgh Pirates, open up shop in Bradenton in 1969.
The park, once considered by Royals' and Cardinals' Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog as "the closest thing to a cow pasture I've seen," received its first renovation in 1993, when the field was completely re-sodded and leveled, the wooden benches and antiquated seating were replaced, and the now-signature press box and roofs were installed. A small renovation was done in 2008, highlighted by the addition of stadium lights, making McKechnie the last professional field in the United States to add nighttime illumination; its first night game took place in the spring of 2008. The addition of the lights made it possible for the stadium to gain a regular summertime tenant in 2010, in the form of the Bradenton Marauders, a High-A Florida State League team purchased by the Pirates from the Cincinnati Reds, when the Reds moved their spring training from Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota to Goodyear Ballpark in Goodyear, Arizona, making the former Sarasota Reds no longer necessary to the Reds' organization.
The latest renovations, though, came in the 2012–13 offseason, when everything was virtually gutted yet again. All the seats, which were plastic-formed, static seats, were replaced with traditional stadium seating. The temporary tarp coverings over the First and Third Base stands were replaced with the familiar, yet modernized, hard roofing seen in the 1993 rebuild. The First Base Plaza was expanded, with the players' batting cages moved behind right field. However, the most prominent aspect of the renovations is the addition of an outfield boardwalk. In the ninety years of the ballpark's life, never before has any spectator been able to watch a game from beyond 300 feet down the first and third baselines, let alone in the outfield itself. With this now a 360˚ ballpark, the park, once renowned for its quaint, neighborhood charm, is poised to go headfirst into the 21st Century. How well is dependent upon some key factors.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
This is probably the most unexpected and disappointing aspect of the renovations. What was added in overall areas to purchase food (sixteen permanent stalls, not counting semi-mobile carts and roaming vendors) seems to have balanced out the loss in quality of food. I remember when I reviewed the stadium for the Marauders' season in 2011 when I raved about the food, featuring the fact someone could buy one, two, or three pounds of fries, with overall quality matching quantity, even if the lines were a bit longer to get that food. Now, the only things I would truly recommend for your dining pleasure would be the cheesesteaks (which, by the way, are bigger and meatier than Delco's at Bright House Field for the same price), barbequed pork and chicken sandwiches, and Italian sausages. Hot dogs, provided by Kayem, are good, but the burgers and chicken fingers are marginally below-average for a ballpark. The once-glorious fries are now very hit-or-miss, depending solely now on how quickly they go from frier to your hands. What would make this score skyrocket would be better quality stadium-typical products and getting a deal with one of the Pittsburgh-local food purveyors (Primanti Bros., perhaps?) to operate a stall in the park.
Not all is bad news, though, because the renovations made the beer and liquor selection way more exciting. From the new Yuengling Plaza Bar in the First Base Plaza to the Kona Brewing Co. Bar on the boardwalk, alcohol is not in short supply. Fancy one of Pittsburgh's famous Iron City brews? Look in the food court under the home plate stands. Malibu Rum also has carts available across the complex, along with traditional Anheuser-Busch products of Bud and Bud Light.
Now, this is where the renovations get really good. This is now only the third non-MLB ballpark in Florida that has a 360˚ concourse. Accessible by a ramp along the third base side and stairs/elevator on the first, the boardwalk houses numerous new features, such as a new seating section, the Left Field Bleachers, that reuses the old tarp coverings utilized in 2012; viewing perches over both the home (right field) and visiting (left field) bullpens; the aforementioned Kona Brewing Bar, and over 300 "first come, first served" high-top tables and chairs. Add to that the lawn chairs, cornhole boards, and picnic tables of the First Base Plaza, and the atmosphere couldn't be better.
Also in the spirit of recycling, most of the old scoreboard was reused in creating the new one, which is located on the left-center wall. For fans on the boardwalk who probably won't be able to see the board, small auxiliary boards showing the score, inning, and strike/ball/out count have been placed on the edges of both the first and third base roofs.
Admittedly, I'm being a bit generous on this one. The surrounding neighborhood is low-end commercial/residential. Down the road about a half-mile is a sewage treatment plant. Directly across the street from the main entrance is, I kid you not, a car dealer that also sells assault rifles and handguns. Honestly, not much more needs to be said, as I'm still trying to process that juxtaposition myself.
The only reason this neighborhood doesn't score a "1" or "2" ("0" would have to be the middle of a field at least 10 miles wide) is both the promise of an upcoming rehabilitation to the neighborhood (with the expanding "Village of the Arts", the "Renaissance on 9th" complex, and Bradenton's first microbrewery, Motorworks Brewing, opening by the beginning of summer in 2013) and the proximity to downtown Bradenton (less than a mile away).
As of April 2013, the Pirates have not had a winning season (over .500) since 1992. In that time period, they have lost more than 90 games nine times, and 100 or more twice. Other than 1997 and 1999, they have finished 4th or worse in the NL Central since that division was created. So, no one jumps on the "bandwagon" to be seen in the iconic black-and-gold "P".
Yet, somehow, they have a large base of dedicated, hardcore fans, at least here in Bradenton. Most games had more than 6,000 people attend during the 2013 spring season, and the biggest crowds ever at the stadium (only possible this year in large part to the expansion of the capacity from 6,602 to 8,500) even exceeding capacity (8,542 on March 18, for example) a couple of times. The overall average attendance of 2013 was more than the capacity of the pre-renovation McKechnie, showing the resolve and dedication of the fans that made their way down Interstates 79 and 95 to the park every year.
Parking is the largest issue at McKechnie, even more than the Food and Neighborhood. Other than a small lot left by a recently-demolished building, McKechnie has none of its own public parking. The stadium relies heavily on the Boys & Girls Club of Manatee County to provide the main parking facilities, with the neighboring businesses (including the "guns and cars" dealer) taking advantage of the situation by gleefully offering their lots as acceptable substitutes. Parking ranges from $5-$10, but make sure you check the business whose lot you choose for their rules and regulations before parking.
Otherwise, once inside, the concourses are expansive, the bathrooms are clean and abundant, and having 360˚ access around the facility makes this park a joy to maneuver around...once you get your car parked, that is.
With ticket prices ranging from $12-$24 and food cheaper than some stadiums, even if parking is hard to come by, this is one of the bargains of the Grapefruit League. Stadiums during spring training can go as high as $50 for some seats (I'm looking at you, jetBlue Park!), so it's refreshing to know that one can simply walk up to the box office in this day and age and spend less than $50 for two seats up against the backstop.
While the immediate neighborhood is lackluster (to say the least), you're only a mile away from downtown Bradenton, 15 minutes from the Gulf beaches, 30 minutes to both downtown St. Petersburg and St. Armand's Circle in Sarasota, and less than an hour from Tampa, so there is no shortage of extra things to do in the vicinity.
Along with Bright House Field and Charlotte Sports Park, these are the only three parks in the Grapefruit League that allow 360˚ access, and as a person who despises being told I have to backtrack to get where I need to go, this is a very large extra for me.
Also in the renovations, the addition of the Kona Brewing Bar, the Yuengling Plaza Bar, and the batter's eye (which is actually a building with a breezeway that has a couple restrooms and concession kiosks) makes this park a joy and adds to the overall character.
There's a reason this park has been in the same spot 90 years. There were renovations, but only when necessary. The "cow pasture" and wooden benches morphed into the plastic-formed chairs and Spanish Mission façade, which lead into the lights and boardwalk we see today. While it wasn't always the darling of sports, it became rightfully known as the "Fenway of Florida" for a reason. It's intimate, unique, and a throwback to a bygone area, while still embracing the 21st Century and beyond. Even before the boardwalk, this was a cool little park. Now, it's one that must be on your to-do list.
Of all the stadiums in which professional baseball teams currently play — Major League, the Minor Leagues, and even the Independent Leagues — only four are older than McKechnie Field: Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Bosse Field, and Jackie Robinson Ballpark. It's small wonder, then, why McKechnie, located near the heart of downtown Bradenton in a residential neighborhood, is considered "The Fenway of Florida" by numerous media outlets, including USA Today. With its Spanish Mission-style façade and compact location, it certainly does exude a certain history that is unparalleled in the vast majority of small parks, and rightfully so.
Opened in 1923, when Manatee County wanted a piece of the action St. Petersburg had been experiencing every spring for almost a decade, the founder of the Florida-based department store, Bealls, who was a friend of the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, convinced them to come to this new ballpark and play during the spring. Since then, the Phillies, Red Sox, Braves (when in Boston and Milwaukee), and Athletics have all called 9th Street Park (as it was known before the Athletics moved in) home. The latest, and longest-serving by far, resident in March is the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have called Bradenton and McKechnie home since 1969.
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