Get ready to play ball
by Jen Ryan / Boston.com staff
Here in Boston, you know when it's time by certain phrases. Pitchers and catchers. The truck. Grapefruit League.
It's unavoidable: Spring training has begun.
This year, when spring training rolls around, don't just talk about it. Make plans to experience the Grapefruit League first-hand in Bradenton, one of the long-running hosts of Florida spring training and home to a retro park with a great central location.
Bradenton's McKechnie Field--home to the Pittsburg Pirates--dates back to the 1920s and, as such, is a lot closer to a bustling downtown area than many Grapefruit League parks.
Pre- and post-game food spots as well as the local beaches are easy to get to by foot and by car. And Nick Gandy, director of communications for the Florida Sports Foundation and operator of the Grapefruit League website, notes that even the casual passerby can get into the game down in Bradenton. McKechnie Field is close to the 41 that on a game day afternoons, drivers have to watch for balls hit out of the parkthey could easily shatter a car windshield.
The laidback pace of Bradenton also pairs well with the overall vibe of the 14-team Grapefruit League, which Gandy says helps draw more than 1.5 million fansover half from out of stateto the leagues games each spring.
"Spring training baseball as a whole is a much more relaxed atmosphere," Gandy says. "The stadiums are smaller. Fans are closer to the action. Tickets are less expensive. Players are more receptive to signing autographs."
For diehard fans--like many up in Red Sox Nationa trip down to spring training offers the ultimate edge in traditional preseason speculation talk: an up-close look at how well a team will be during the upcoming season.
"[Spring training] is your first chance to see what your team has done in the off-season," Gandy says. "If theyve gone out and signed some free agent players, if theyve made a trade, if there are some young prospects that are coming up from the minor leagues, . . . its your first look at a team that will be on the field from April to October."
Baseball fans can size up the Pirates prowess not just during exhibition games among league teams, but also at their practices.
The Pirates hold daily practices near downtown Bradenton in the new Pirates City complex. Practice starts around 9 a.m., wraps up at noon, and is completely free for fans to drop by and watch.
The practices are normally where the fans get closest to the players, Gandy says. Youre right there, especially in Bradenton, youre right there by the dugout. The players are walking right by you.
Beyond the player access and walkability of the parks area, Bradentonand all Florida spring training sitesoffer the advantage of Florida weather.
Nothing beats the weather in Florida in March. Averaging about 80 degrees, the warmth is a welcome relief from the snow and ice in the northeast.
And with most spring training games starting at 1 p.m. and wrapping up by 4 p.m., fans can easily head to the beach or a bar to watch some March Madness after a game.
As Gandy notes, You never know what youre going to find [at spring training].
To attend a Pirates game during your trip to Bradenton, purchase tickets here. The Red Sox play the Pirates Feb. 28 and March 18.
Learn more about the grapefruit league at www.floridagrapefruitleague.com.
- April 21-22 - Buckler's 22nd Annual Spring Craft Fair
- May 4 - Food and Wine on Pine
- May 5 - Anna Maria Island's Wedding Festival
- May 11 - Music on the Porch
- May 11-12 - Suncoast Gun Show
- May 18 - Zumbathon
- May 19 - Manatee Rare Fruit Council's 25th "Silver Anniversary" Fruit Tree Sale
- June 21-23 - Onshore Offshore Boat Show