Tuesday, June 19, 2012
After a couple of MLB games in Tampa Bay, I returned to the Florida State League, driving just 30 miles south to the town of Bradenton. During the spring, it is home to the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose FSL affiliate does battle during the summer as the Bradenton Marauders.
The Marauders are a relatively new team, having begun play just two years ago as a result of the Cincinnati Reds moving their spring training operations to Arizona. With no base in Florida, the Reds wanted to get rid of their High-A affiliate in the FSL. The Pirates stepped up and traded their Carolina League franchise, the Lynchburg Hillcats, to the Reds, taking the Sarasota Reds in return. They moved their new team a few miles north to McKechnie Field and renamed them the Bradenton Marauders, a great way to create a new identity while retaining ties to the major league club.
Located in north Bradenton, McKechnie Field has a capacity of 6,602, making it slightly smaller than the other stadiums I have seen on this trip since it is constrained by the urban location.
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. I liked the unique seats here (below), which are bigger than the typical ballpark seats, almost like toddler chairs, perhaps more appropriate for the elderly population that attends the spring training games.
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. Behind the first base grandstand is a large picnic area and a Bucco Bar that serves well drinks and hard liquor with a few stools for your comfort. If you have too many doubles (the whiskey kind), I guess you can lie down in the picnic area. Note that you can't watch the game from these spots though.
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. This is a good place to get autographs and pictures before the game as well; below is catcher Carlos Paulino warming up.
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". You might also see a sandwich board guy making the rounds advertising something or other during the game, a unique touch.
Overall, McKechnie Field has much more of a true minor league feel than the other stadiums I have visited on this trip. This was primarily due to a record crowd who showed up for "Buy Out Night". A local sponsor bought all unused tickets for the game and gave away coupons to customers. Over 5,000 fans took advantage and all had a great time on a perfect night for baseball.
The St. Lucie Mets had brought their minor-league best record at 48-17 to town to face Bradenton in the last series of the first half. Pirates prospect Colton Cain (8th round, 2009) started against Angel Cuan, who had faced two batters (Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado no less) for Panama in the 2009 WBC.
Cain (above left) copied his major league namesake for three innings at least, retiring the first nine batters he faced. Cuan (above right) yielded only a first-inning homer to Kirk Singer (11th, 2011) as the game moved quickly into the fourth.
Mel Rojas Jr. tripled on this pitch
Ruben Tejada, down from the Mets on a rehab assignment, ended the early attempt at perfection with a leadoff double in that frame, later scoring on a Wilmer Flores groundout. Bradenton quickly got that back and we sprinted through the middle innings.
Another rehabber, Ramon Ramirez, replaced Cuan in the 7th and gave up five singles. including one to #12 prospect Alex Dickerson (3rd round in 2011, above). Three runs resulted from the base-hit barrage and the the Marauders some breathing room. Both teams scored in the 8th so we entered the top of the 9th with Bradenton leading 6-2. Quinton Miller (20th, 2008) came on to close things out and promptly gave up a 2-run homer to Richard Lucas (4th, 2007) that bounced off the scoreboard. When Alonzo Harris Jr. (39th, 2007) followed with another long homer, the lead was suddenly down to 1. Bradenton has struggled this season and the fans were worried another collapse was in the offing, but Tejada struck out looking and then Wilfredo Tovar flew out to end the game as the Marauders managed to hold on 6-5.
A very enjoyable game, helped by an energetic crowd and a nail-biting home team victory. Bradenton has won the second-half championship the last two seasons, so maybe they are getting ready to repeat the feat in 2012. Only time will tell, so if you are in the area, stop by to see how the Marauders are doing.
Due to the large crowd, I spent the game in the press box as there were few seats available. While there I was impressed with the way the people working the game maintained their professionalism while having a great time. There are a lot of things that need to be co-ordinated during a typical minor league contest, and having a big crowd certainly kept them busy. Kudos to all, especially Marty, the Marauder mascot, who endured stifling temperatures with a smile on his face (below).
I'm on my way to Port Charlotte to watch the Stone Crabs tonight before heading back to the east coast of Floria where the Jupiter Hammerheads will play tomorrow. Then on Thursday I'll meet you in Miami for game 5 of the NBA finals and the weekend series between the Blue Jays and Marlins, so check back daily for updates as the trip starts to get very interesting.