Pittsburgh Pirates spring training: A trip worth making

I’ve followed the Pittsburgh Pirates for as long as I can remember, but spring training has always been a faraway event in my mind. Prior to this week, I’d been to the state of Florida only three times, with all of those visits coming in the sweltering Sunshine State summer.

However, this year would be different. Being married to a fellow baseball fan helps justify making the journey, although with spring late to arrive north of the Mason-Dixon line, any excuse to escape late-March snowfall is sufficient.

To that end, my wife and I made the drive from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Bradenton, Fla., on Friday and Saturday. She’ll have her fun on Tuesday when we see the Tigers take on the Phillies in Lakeland, but Sunday was my day to play, as we took in the Pirates and Orioles in the second-to-last game at storied McKechnie Field this spring.

We entered on the third-base side of McKechnie and immediately decided to walk around the outfield boardwalk, a convenient and spectator-friendly feature just added this winter. You can see the boardwalk stretching from foul pole to foul pole in the above photo. Hard to believe all of this didn’t exist in the Pirates’ first 44 years at the park.

We worked our way around the outfield – where we spied Pirates GM Neal Huntington visiting with some folks in the right-field picnic area – and found our seats behind home plate. As you can see, even though McKechnie has undergone some serious renovations, obstructed-view seating reminds you that this structure has been here for a while.

As for the game, Pirates starter Chris Leroux had a rough spot-start, as he took the place of the injured Jeff Karstens. Capped by Chris Dickerson’s grand slam, the Orioles scored eight runs in the top of the first, chasing Leroux and leading to catcher Russell Martin getting unexpectedly ejected for arguing balls and strikes.

Getting a bit antsy after the long inning, I took a walk down to the concourse. Here’s a quick video showing how close you can get to major-league action just by hanging out in the entryway leading back to the seating area. Justin Wilson (who otherwise did quite well in long relief) is pitching for the Bucs:

With the wind blowing straight out to center, there was a feeling the game wasn’t over despite the huge early spread. Andrew McCutchen launched a mammoth two-run homer over the left-field bleachers to start the Pirates’ big rally, which was eventually capped by Pedro Alvarez’ run-scoring double to center field, tying the game at 10 in the bottom of the sixth.

Unfortunately, former Bucco Steve Pearce put Baltimore back on top in the seventh with a solo homer, just before the anticipated showers arrived. Above is the Pirates’ grounds crew getting ready to pull the tarp.

With the game dragging close to its fifth hour and needing to make a 5 p.m. dinner with friends, we left soggy McKechnie during the downpour. Despite the weather interruption, it was certainly a worthwhile experience, one I would suggest to any Pirates fan.

Nowhere else can you get this close to big-league ball for such reasonable prices. There’s something surreal about seeing that level of talent on such a quaint field, with the added bonus of wearing shorts and T-shirts in the middle of March. McKechnie Field, and spring training in general, is simply a must-see.

Tags: MLB Photo Essay Pittsburgh Pirates Spring Training

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