Many of the teams in Florida's Grapefruit League prepare for the season in sparkling new fortresses equipped with multiple practice fields and stadiums loaded with amenities for players and fans. In the old days, sit-down restaurants or concession stands with dozens of craft beers would have been unimaginable, but such comforts are part of the experience now at ballparks such as Ed Smith Stadium, the spring home of the Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota.
Last year I went to Ed Smith, where I passed on the traditional hot dog in favor of crab-cake sandwiches. This time I wanted to go old-school, so I headed to McKechnie Field, the venerable home of the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton.
North of Sarasota on Interstate 75, McKechnie is a throwback to my ballpark wandering as a younger man. It has no flashy scoreboard, no jumbo video screens and no backs on the aluminum grandstand seats along the left-field line. Entertainment between innings ranges from goofy dance routines by the Pirates' mascot to cheering for the ground crew as they tend to the infield.
It's a gem of a ballpark destination in Florida, where there also are spring teams in Clearwater (Philadelphia Phillies); Dunedin (Toronto Blue Jays); Fort Myers (Boston Red Sox/Minnesota Twins); Jupiter (St. Louis Cardinals/Miami Marlins); Kissimmee (Houston Astros); Lake Buena Vista (Atlanta Braves); Lakeland (Detroit Tigers); Port Charlotte (Tampa Bay Rays); Tampa (New York Yankees); and Viera (Washington Nationals). Visit mlb.com/springtraining for schedules and ticket information.
At McKechnie, there's also no parking lot. Instead, take a side road to find a spot at a cooperative local business or in a nearby residential front yard. The latter is more charming than it sounds: I found a spot for $5, which came with a dinner invitation.
Inside the park the fan experience is enhanced by a wooden boardwalk that stretches the length of the outfield wall. On my visit it offered a prime vantage point to watch warm-up tosses by Boston Red Sox reliever Koji Uehara as well as an inviting tiki bar with a variety of draft beers in a plaza behind center field.
No crabs cakes or video replays, but an old-school spot for a hot dog and a beer.