BY CAROLYN LaWELL
BRADENTON, Florida | Think of how many hotels Major League teams book when they roll into spring training with their six minor league teams and non-roster invitees in tow.
“Bradenton, in March? We would have needed 150 hotel rooms, and I don’t know if Bradenton has that many rooms because of spring break,” quips Trevor Gooby, senior director of Florida operations for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
It’s not a problem Gooby worries about, anyway. He has Pirate City, a facility with 83 dorm rooms, 250 lockers, common areas, a dining facility and practice fields. Pirate City and McKechnie Field – the stadium where the Pirates play during spring training and where the Bradenton Marauders, their High-A Florida State League affiliate, play five months every year – received $20 million in renovations before the start of the 2008 season.
“All of the minor leaguers are required to live there during spring training,” Gooby says. “And then once the Marauders start, the Marauders can live out on their own in the community. All of the extended players, the Gulf Coast League players, are required to live there.”
Bradenton is a small city. The 2010 U.S. Census had it at just under 50,000 people. But a lack of hotel rooms is not what pushed the Pirates to build the complex.
“One, you know where your players are at all times,” Gooby says. “The safety and security of the players is great. The other thing is you can do things that other teams can’t do. If you’re staying at a hotel, you have to drive guys in and then you have to drive them back for dinner. We can have night activities if we want, we have team-building stuff, we can do early-morning practices. The cost is obviously a huge savings.”
Pirate City cost $15 million to build. But the upfront cost is eventually offset because teams from around the country and around the world come to use the facility, creating a recurring revenue stream.
It basically functions as a private hotel. Calling it a dormitory doesn’t really do it justice, Gooby says, listing off the rooms features: two double beds, private bathroom, flat panel TV, the MLB Network, wireless internet, daily housekeeping.
Though, in the past, some of the Marauders from Latin American countries have chosen to stay in Pirate City during the season, the majority move out after spring training because the room and board comes with three rules: an 11 p.m. curfew, no drinking and no girls.
The Pirates aren’t the only team to build such a complex. The Detroit Tigers have a similar building at Tiger Town in Lakeland, and the now-defunct Dodgertown did as well. In fact, Gooby worked at Dodgertown until it closed in 2004, then moved to the Pirates.
“We’ve had eight (Major League) teams tour and there are only 15 teams in Florida, so more than half the teams in Florida have toured the facility,” Gooby says. “I have a feeling that it’s going to become a trend in the next five, 10, 15 years.”
Time for minor league trivia. McKechnie Field opened in 1923 and is named for Bill McKechnie, a former Bradenton resident and Pirates infielder who went on to lead Pittsburgh (1925), St. Louis (1928) and Cincinnati (1939-40) to National League pennant wins. McKechnie Field is the second-oldest stadium used in the Florida State League, opening in 1923. What stadium is the oldest?
Catcher Carlos Paulino hit the Marauders’ first home run of the season Sunday, leading the team in a 10-1 pounding of the Palm Beach Cardinals. The Marauders won in large thanks to both a strong offensive and defensive game. Every player in the starting lineup recorded a hit. Starting pitcher Hunter Strickland went six quality innings, allowing seven hits, walking two and striking out six. The Cardinals scored their only run after Kyle Conley hit a home run in the eighth.
So who are the two minor league teams who haven’t scored a home run? As of Sunday night, the South Bend Silver Hawks and Wilmington Blue Rocks were still looking to hit their first long ball.
McKechnie Field didn’t have lights until 2008, which is fine for daytime spring training games. With the installation of lights, the Pirates moved the Sarasota Reds to Bradenton to become the Marauders. “With it being our third year in the league, people never knew about minor league baseball in this town, so it took a little bit of time to catch on,” Gooby says. “Our first year wasn’t as good as we thought it was going to be. Last year, we doubled our attendance and it was the biggest increase of all the teams in the league.”
There are still more renovations to come. The Pirates received $7 million from the city to make several changes to McKechnie Field during this season. A boardwalk will be built around the outfield, offering a 360-degree view of the stadium. Also, a tiki bar will be added and capacity will increase from about 6,500 to 8,500.
Want the answer? Jackie Robinson Ballpark, home of the Daytona Cubs, opened in 1914. When it first opened it consisted of a field and a set of wooden bleachers. In 2011, its paid attendance was 154,553.
And in random statistical news, the game started five minutes later than the scheduled time, the first pitch was a strike, the first batter walked (thanks to four straight balls after that first-pitch strike) and “The Star-Spangled Banner” rang for a crisp 1 minute, 34.6 seconds. Also, we ate another hot dog, a grilled chicken sandwich and a small basket of surprisingly good ballpark fries. We decided to skip the $25 bucket of beer.
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