McKechnie Field is a charming ballpark shoehorned into a Bradenton neighborhood, where it has stood on the same ground since opening in 1923.
The words that come to mind to describe McKechnie are cozy, classic and intimate. Its distinct look and location make it a throwback to a bygone era, when Spring Training wasn’t the big business that it is today.
Southern home of the Pittsburgh Pirates since 1969, McKechnie Field exudes postcard charm thanks to a gorgeous Spanish Mission-style exterior. This white stucco facade was part of the major renovations the ballpark underwent in 1993, when capacity increased from approximately 4,200 seats to the current total of 6,602.
Even with the seating additions, McKechnie Field is still one of the smallest ballparks in the Grapefruit League. Its seating sections are split into three main covered grandstands and two bleacher sections, all of which are separated by spacious gaps. These gaps give the ballpark a very open feel while serving as aisles to the main concourse located behind the grandstands.
The ballpark experience itself is very welcoming for fans, thanks in large part to the Bradenton Boosters. This volunteer club of local residents not only raises funds for ballpark improvements, they operate McKechnie Field on game day! The pleasantness of their personal touch is evident for anyone attending a game in Bradenton, which refers to itself as the “Friendly City.”
Fittingly, the ushers are more friendly and sociable than at other Florida ballparks, and will even encourage you to sit in their sections. At the very least, they won’t shoo you away when you want to take pictures from their section.
The friendliness even extends to the vendors, who seem happier at McKechnie than at most places. Food choices are pretty good as the concession stands are manned by local restaurants, which is a nice refrain from the normal concessionaire conglomerates, like Aramark.
Bradenton is a Mecca for autograph seekers, as players are happy to oblige the fans that line the walkway next to the bullpens. The bullpens – the Pirates' in right field, visitors' in left - are next to the players’ clubhouse. This is one of the more accessible set-ups in the Grapefruit League for fan and player interaction, and many players from the Pirates and visiting teams will sign autographs during the game.
The crowds at the games are polite, almost golf-like with their applause. Although the Pirates haven’t been a marquee draw in well over a decade, the team has lately been drawing a record number of fans to their games in Bradenton, where it used to be that games never sold out. For the longest time, the largest crowd in McKechnie Field history (6,221 on 3/31/94) was still a few hundred people short of capacity. However in 2011, the Bucs drew a single game record crowd on three occasions, settling on their current mark of 6,644 on March 19.
Spring training games in Bradenton are more affordable than anywhere else. The Pirates were the last team to have a top ticket price of under $10, as box seats were only $9 as recently as 2006. Despite price increases of 20 to 40 percent that went into effect for the 2007 season, McKechnie Field ticket prices are well below what most teams charge in the Grapefruit League.
Much of McKechnie’s appeal comes from its neighborhood location. The ballpark is nestled between residential housing and numerous small business enterprises, including Popi's Place, a breakfast restaurant of local repute that is next to the ballpark.
Because of the surrounding development there is no room for an official parking lot, although gypsy lots in the neighborhood provide enough spaces. To be honest, the neighborhood that McKechnie Field resides in isn’t one of the nicer ones in Bradenton. But being in a neighborhood gives the ballpark much of its charm.
Traditionalists will love McKechnie Field, which was the last professional ballpark to install lights. Upon entering, ticket takers tear the stub from your ticket instead of scanning it. Advertising on the outfield wall is minimal and not distracting. There is no theme music for a hitter stepping to the plate. Even the fact that foul balls are a danger to cars driving on the street parallel to the third base line adds to a sense of nostalgia.
Despite multiple renovations and rebuilds over the years, the biggest change to McKechnie Field was officially unveiled on March 19, 2008. On that evening, after more than 80 years of day baseball, McKechnie Field turned on the lights for the first time and hosted its inaugural night game.
The installation of lights was made possible after the city of Bradenton received a $15 million grant from the state of Florida to upgrade the Pirates' spring training facilities. Besides the lights, the grant money paid for a new visitors' clubhouse and an expanded home clubhouse.
Because of the improvements, the Pirates signed a new 30-year lease that went into effect on February 1, 2008. When it did, the Pirates, as they always had been, were McKechnie Field’s only tenant and the ballpark sat relatively idle for the 11 months they weren’t in Bradenton.
But opportunities to watch a ballgame here are no longer limited to the handful of Grapefruit League games played in March, as the Pirates purchased the Sarasota Reds and moved the Class A Florida State League team to Bradenton beginning with the 2010 minor league season. Named the Bradenton Marauders, their existence was made possible by the lights that the ballpark had for so long lacked. While the Pirates only play a night game or two each spring, the majority of the Marauders annual 70-game home schedule is played under the golden glow emitted from McKechnie's eight light towers.
Outside of the too narrow booster-style seats that make up the box and reserved seating, McKechnie Field really doesn’t have any flaws. Common problems that fans have to suffer through, such as a lack of shade and bland team programs, aren’t an issue in Bradenton. A roof covers each of the three main grandstands and these shaded seats are often available for purchase on game day. The Pirates' official magazine program, First Pitch, is very thorough and one of the few programs found at a spring training ballpark worth buying.
Since the Pirates are guaranteed to play at McKechnie Field through 2037, many years of souvenir programs remain to be collected, which is an ideal item to mark the passage of time at a venue that reminds fans more of baseball’s timeless appeal than any other in Florida.
Bradenton’s simple, yet elegant ballpark is the least commercialized in spring training, which adds to the pure atmosphere. Factor in the Bradenton Boosters club making the bond between community and ballpark very real, and McKechnie Field truly is one of a kind. There's no more authentic place to watch a spring training game in the modern era.