McKechnie Field: Home Away from Home
“Ain’t it grand,” I said, smiling at the sun, looking out at the green expanse of McKechnie Field.
Judy would have answered, but she was too busy snacking on the pretzels and granola bars we had snuck into the Pirates
’ Spring Training ballpark, food prices being what they are.
Although as a reporter and a fan I have been to every current major league ballpark – and many no longer in use – I had never been to Spring Training, either the Grapefruit or the Cactus variety. Alas, schedules, and publishers’ penury, had always prevented me. This year, however, the stars all aligned, and Judy and I went.
While I have been blessed with a Significant Other who is many things, above all she is a fellow baseball fan. A lady as eager to travel south and see five games in four days as I.
Looking at Florida, for proximity, we chose the northwest quadrant of the peninsula largely because the Pirates train in Bradenton.
Arriving in time for the team’s 40th anniversary, with their move to McKechnie in 1969, we found it a wonderful throw-back to Forbes Field (1909-70): no organ, no intrusive rock-and-roll soundtrack, no breaking glass F/X for every foul ball hit over the stands, no dogs barking – none of the incessant flubdubbery (as the late Pirate announcer Art McKennan termed it) that’s become part of every sporting event. Quiet, pristine, McKechnie Field hearkens back to an earlier era, where, like Forbes Field, you get a ballgame, plain and simple.
Originally built by St. Louis Cardinals owner Sam Breeden in 1923, it opened with typical Roaring Twenties panache: Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ biplane landed in the outfield, and the white-maned jurist strode purposefully to the grandstand – to gasps and applause all around.
The field – later re-named for Wilkinsburg native, Hall of Fame Pirate manager, and long-time Bradenton resident Bill McKechnie – got a complete makeover 70 years later, in 1993. As redesigned by Pittsburgh architect Louis Astorino
, it has a striking white Spanish Mission façade, comfortable seating, and clear sightlines. Placed right on the street, like both Forbes Field and PNC Park, the 6,600-seat McKechnie Field is very much a part of the community.
So much so that even the lack of parking reminded me of Forbes Field, where people parked all over Oakland – gas stations, empty lots, front lawns. McKechnie is same way, with cars crammed into any available place.
Our visit was suitably sun-drenched if a mite chilly, flags snapping smartly to right field. As we discovered later, everyone on the staff – taking tickets, selling souvenirs, serving suds – was a Bradenton Booster. With virtually every one of the 120 Boosters senior vintage, it gave the park a laid-back, 1950s feel.
While the taps drew Iron City, and everyone wore some kind of Pirate gear, the chatter in the seats was of four decades of Bradenton Bucs. In Spring Training, everyone is in the present tense – Clemente, Stargell, Mazeroski; McLouth, Sanchez, Les Frères LaRoche.
Sitting up in back, along the first base line, behind a Forbes Field-style post, people tended to greet us as members of the family. Brentwood here, North Hills there, it gave us the ineffable feeling of being in Pittsburgh and Bradenton all at once.
Baseball, which began life as a rural sport, reached its majority in crowded, urban places. Grandpap’s cow pasture grew into green corners in cities, respites from steel and concrete. Like PNC Park, ballparks are fields, as vital as public parks, places we can savor sunshine and cool nights.
In baseball, we savor youth, too, which draws all these grammers and grampers to such ragged, touch-and-go Spring Training games. (At one point, desperately trying to make sense of my scorebook, I saw, yes!, the Pirates did indeed field two men wearing 37. Simultaneously.)
Well, I said, it’s spring, and there’s reason for optimism. Nate McLouth, for one, looked great, snagging a sinking line drive to end an inning and snuff out what surely would have been two Reds runs. (“That boy,” my graduate-school teaching partner, the legendary Champagne Bobby Bell, would have bellowed, “came to play!”)
Handling the ball flawlessly, the Bucs also turned a slick double play, shortstop tag then flip to second. And then the flashy pivot to first – nearly a trifecta but for a heartbeat.
Although scores matter less when players are hustled in and out of lineups like commuters taking public transit, the Pirates nipped Cincy 2-1 in a closely pitched, well fielded game.
“Nice,” Judy said, brushing crumbs from her skirt.
“Indeed,” I said, closing my scorebook.
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Images courtesy Astorino and the Pittsburgh Pirates