Bucking the trend of new and extravagant stadiums, McKechnie Field near downtown Bradenton has stood the test of time and is approaching its 90th birthday, making it the 2nd-oldest stadium in the Florida State League (behind only Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona Beach), and the oldest park used in Major League Baseball spring training.
Having been the spring home of the St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox, Boston/Milwaukee Braves, and Kansas City/Oakland Athletics through the years, the current spring tenant, the Pittsburgh Pirates, moved-in in 1969 and have become the stadium's longest tenant. This union between the Pirates and the city-owned park has recently been extended another 30 years, placing it, along with the Detroit Tigers and Joker Marchant Stadium, as the longest one-stadium teams in spring ball, and one of the longest-such relationships anywhere in the country.
Extensive renovations, with the grandstands rebuilt and roofs added, were done in 1993, and more renovations - which added lights - in 2008, have made this park much more on-par with the younger counterparts it is trying to compete against. In fact, with the additions of those lights, it finally held its first night game on March 19, 2008.
Despite all this, only five years out of those eight-plus decades had summer action in the FSL. The Bradenton Growers were playing ball from 1923-1926, with a year skipped in 1925, before they folded and the park would grow silent after every March. That changed in 2009, when the Cincinnati Reds left neighboring Sarasota's Ed Smith Stadium for Arizona, and its FSL team was transferred to the Pirates' organization. Thusly McKechnie Field, began play with the Bradenton Marauders in 2010.
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There are not a lot of unusual or exotic choices, but what is here is done with gusto. Above the norm, you have cheesesteaks, kettle corn, pizza, a cup full of cookies (a "cookie cup"), and something called a "Mexidog", which is a Mexican chorizo (though, their signage misspelled it "chourizo") topped with cheese and salsa.
However, their specialty is not what you can eat, but how much you get. Fries are not served as "small", "medium", and "large", but in one, two, or three pound increments. You can get a double cheeseburger, three pounds of fries, and a 32oz drink deal for $11.50. If you love to eat - and who doesn't? - expect to have copious amounts for reasonable coinage. If you leave hungry, you might need an intervention.
The history is well-accentuated around here; look in the outfield, and you'll see flags flying for the Pirates' NL pennants (1901, 1902, 1903, 1927), and World Series championships (1909, 1925, 1960, 1971, 1979). The renovations were actually built along the specs of retro-modern movement, but with old Florida, and not Camden Yards, in mind. The elevated, stand-alone press box; the open concourses; and intimate seating adds that-much-more charm to the already great park.
My only complaint would be with the seats themselves. Instead of the traditional flip-seat seats with some degree of pitch in the backing, these are plastic-molded seating that, while charming to look at and seemingly-comfortable at first, started to hurt my back by about the 4th inning. Unless you practiced the perfect posture your mother would preach, you'll grow to dislike those seats pretty quickly.
On a side-note that I must mention, when I arrived, I noticed eight green poles in the seating areas along each the 1st- and 3rd-base lines where the roof appeared to be located previously. I just assumed they were taken down for the spring to take advantage of the fantastic weather, but right before I started writing this review, I noticed this article in the Bradenton Herald saying the poles were starting to lose their structural integrity, so they had to remove the roofs until they could be fixed, probably by the end of the 2011 season. I personally liked the openness of the stadium, so no points off here for this, but just something to keep in mind if you attend a game during the 2011 campaign.
Directly around the stadium is an older, mostly residential-and-industrial neighborhood, but you're very close to other, more-lively locales. A short 3-minute drive north and you're in the heart of downtown Bradenton; if you go south, DeSoto Square is a 5-minute jaunt, and the beach is less than 20 minutes away. Could you walk to these places? Maybe, but it's just easier to drive. Though it's not a bad neighborhood, there's just really nothing to do that I could see, unless the Bradenton Sanitation Department is something high on your to-do list.
I was quite surprised to see the turnout I did; kids of all ages, couples, families, and every walk-of-life were all well-represented. Even with the Charlotte Stone Crabs, the Tampa Bay Rays' High-A team, and their fans present, the Marauders' fans outnumbered them 4 to 1; I thoroughly expected, with St. Pete and Tropicana Field 30 minutes away, the Crabs/Rays fans to have at least 50/50 representation.
I'm glad to report the Marauders are well-loved in Bradenton, and they should stick around much longer than their (long-removed) predecessors in the FSL.
McKechnie Field is very easy to find, though parking is kind of a nightmare; there is a free parking lot at the Boys and Girls Club across the street from the ballpark, but the signs announcing numerous $5 parking lots at neighboring businesses seemed to obscure this fact, as I didn't discover this lot until after-the-fact. I did find free on-street parking (which is limited), but make sure you follow the parking signs, or the city won't be afraid to tow your car..
Something interesting to note: The stadium's 3rd-baseline grandstand abuts 9th Street W, the main thoroughfare into the park from the north. It's so close, in fact, that there were two foul balls that night that went into the middle of the street. If you see the lights on while driving down 9th St, proceed with caution or you'll get a free souvenir in your windshield.
The concourses are wide and airy and can accommodate the large crowds that were there that night, and the bathrooms - though only two sets - are clean and large, so two sets is needed.
With general admission throughout the park, tickets of $7 for adults and $5 for kids aren't that badly priced, though you can have a reserved seat if you buy season tickets, so make sure you don't sit in their seats. Parking of $5 (unless you're lucky), and food priced pretty reasonably for what you get, and you're looking at, for a family of 4, about $40-$50. You can do that if you're frugal at certain Major League parks, but when you can go here and eat and drink well, why would you?
The Bucco Bar along the 1st-base line is a full-service tiki bar (the bartender that night even wore a parrot hat) that specializes in margaritas and wine, though other fermented delights are available.
Between each half-inning, there were numerous giveaways and games for both kids and adults, including a "shoe race" (kids line up, their shoes are all mixed in a pile 100 feet away, and they have to find them and race back), a balloon-burst contest (three couples have to race to pop balloons in three different, predetermined ways, without using their hands), and my personal favorite, human whack-a-mole (three Marauders' personnel with helmets bob up and down out of a box while a little girl hit them with a foam hammer).
But the thing that was my favorite extra of the night, by far, was their walkup songs. I know this sounds like an unusual extra, but I'm not talking about the Marauders; yeah, some of them had great songs, but I'm referring to the visiting Stone Crabs. This is the only baseball game I've been to in my life where the visiting team was given a walk-up song. The catch: they all were the least-macho, laughable, "unexpected at a baseball game" songs imaginable. From Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On", to *NSYNC's "Tearin' Up My Heart", to the coup de grâce of the night, Rebecca Black's "Friday", it is something so awesome to hear that I'm surprised more stadiums don't try this.
USA Today declared, after the 1993 renovations, McKechnie Field is "the Fenway Park of spring training", and thus the park took on the nickname of Florida's Fenway. This moniker is well-deserved as the history and look all have the same turn-of-the-century feel of Boston's venerable park. It's a park that has both aged gracefully and not aged at all.
With all the amenities the general public expects in other parks, but without any of the frills (there are still no video boards and only one suite, for example), the heart and soul of McKechnie still harkens back to the years between the 1920s and 1950s, when baseball was supreme king in the Sunshine State. This is, in my opinion, the best recreation yet of the "retro-modern" movement the bigger parks try to achieve, but because of all the modern creature comforts, unlike McKechnie, miss.
Ever wonder what it was like to play ball in baseball's "golden years"? Go to Bradenton's McKechnie Field and experience it for yourself firsthand.
I've only been for Pirates spring training but this ballpark has grown on me over the years. I even liked it before 1994 when it was a falling-apart wooden bandbox. It's an old-timey ballpark with great atmosphere. Lots of character. Can't say much for concessions b/c I've only had beer & hotdogs although I noticed a very promising looking bbq stand behind the 3rd base grandstand. My biggest complaint: the bucket seats. I actually liked the old wooden benches with wooden backs better.
Downtown location means smaller than usual footprint in this league. Free parking can be found at the Boys and Girls Club just north of the ballpark. There is only one entry point, so it took a few minutes getting out, keep this in mind if there is a large crowd. Other businesses offer parking at $5 if you are too lazy to walk two minutes from the free lot.
Tickets are $8 for the reserved seats, generally those surrounding home plate. and $6 for GA, which is the rest of the ballpark, including the baseline grandstands. The third base seats are more popular as the sun shines into the first base side for the early part of evening games. In any case, the higher rows on both sides are partially protected from the sun by a plastic tarp.
There are more than enough concessions with hot dogs, burgers, subs, and chicken tenders at reasonable prices. Lemonade seemed to be popular choice here, no doubt helped by the 90 degree weather on the night I attended.
The starting lineups and standings are on the wall next to the team store just inside the main gate. There is little here in terms of history, a few painted pennants on the Pirates bullpen wall recognize the club's World Series titles. There were also a few pictures of Marauders in the Majors, but given the team's short history, the list was rather small. Lots of room to fill up over the coming years though.
The team runs some interesting promotions, including one where a couple has to burst some balloons by pressing their bodies together in any way possible, lending new meaning to Bradenton's boast as "The Friendly City".
Overall, McKechnie Field has much more of a true minor league feel than most of the other stadiums in the FSL. Well worth visiting when you are in the Tampa Bay area.
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