Every March, baseball fans come to Sarasota and Bradenton to watch spring training. Fans are able to interact with players during open practices and then turn around and watch them play against other major league ball clubs. To the south in Sarasota, we have the Baltimore Orioles playing in Ed Smith Stadium, a beautifully recently renovated ballpark tucked away, but easily accessible. To the north in Bradenton, we have McKechnie Field, home to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The environments are intimate. The walls separating the infield stands to the field are low enough that the average person can get an autograph. The history of spring training baseball in the Sarasota/Bradenton is long and storied.
To most fans, McKechnie Field is a relatively unknown baseball treasure. Built in 1923, McKechnie Field is the third oldest baseball park still in use by a Major League Baseball team behind Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. It is the oldest stadium used for spring training, and a couple of renovations since 1993 have transformed McKechnie Field. Today, Bradenton is home to the Bradenton Marauders, the high Class-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates and a member of the Florida State League. Sarasota and Bradenton have two Gulf Coast League teams that play at the rookie level. The GCL Orioles play at Ed Smith Stadium from June-September and the GCL Pirates play at Pirate City, a training complex a couple of miles away from the confines of McKechnie Field.
The history of minor league baseball is rich in the Sarasota-Bradenton area. The area had its first minor league ball club in 1919 as the Bradenton Growers, charter members of the Florida State League, played in Ninth Street Park, a predecessor to McKechnie Field. The Growers folded after the 1926 season and it wouldn’t be until 2010 that the league returned to Bradenton. Sarasota had its first FSL team, the Gulls, in 1926. In 1928, the old Florida State League went on an eight-year hiatus until 1936. Sarasota did not get another FSL club until 1961 with the Sarasota Sun Sox. The Sun Sox won the area’s first and only FSL title in 1963 before folding in 1965. Sarasota would not be home to a FSL team again until 1989.
In 1964, the rookie level of the minor league pyramid began and one of the first rookie level leagues began here in Sarasota. The Sarasota Rookie League played one season with four clubs playing in Sarasota. The next season, two teams were added in Bradenton and the league renamed itself the Florida Rookie League. The following year, 1966, the league changed names to the current Gulf Coast League and continued to expand. Today, the Gulf Coast League, or GCL, has teams all over the state of Florida. GCL teams plays at either the spring training stadium of their affiliate MLB team or at a facility nearby. They also have a strange naming convention in that they are called “GCL” and their team mascot.
The history of the Bradenton Marauders is very much intertwined with Sarasota, which is fitting considering how closely knit the area is. Sarasota became the home of the Sarasota White Sox of the Florida State League in 1989, which is the same year Ed Smith Stadium opened. The Sarasota team in the Florida State League began an affiliation with the Boston Red Sox in 1994 despite the team not having trained in Sarasota for decades and later signed a player-development agreement with the Cincinnati Reds, who became Ed Smith Stadium’s primary spring training tenant in 1998 following the White Sox’s move to Arizona for spring training, in 2005. When the Cincinnati Reds moved from Sarasota to Arizona for spring training, they agreed to swap minor league affiliates with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Since the Pirates had been in Bradenton since 1969, they moved the team up the road to McKechnie Field and the Bradenton Marauders were born.
Going to McKechnie Field to watch the Marauders is a very easy and affordable event. With tickets starting at only $5 and high end seats only costing $10, it makes for an easy family outing or something to check out on any particular evening. Other FSL teams within driving distance include the Tampa Yankees, Charlotte Stone Crabs, Fort Myers Miracle, Dunedin Blue Jays and Clearwater Threshers. Baseball is America’s pastime and there is definitely something about being at an outdoor ballpark watching baseball during the summer. In the minor leagues, it is very common to see players before and after games walk up to fans and sign baseballs, baseball cards, jerseys, and caps. Many of these players are rather young, some under 20 years old and are just trying to develop as a player. While many of these players do not make the big leagues, some work their way up and do play in the majors. On occasion, major league players will make rehab assignments in the minors while recovering from injuries, so going to a game sometimes makes it possible to see top name players right around the corner.
The Marauders have had a strong run this season, winning the first-half title of the South Division. The Florida State League splits their season into two halves to figure out the two playoff teams for each division. The St. Lucie Mets won the second-half championship of the South Division to set up a playoff series for the overall South Division title and a spot in the FSL Championship Series against the winner of the North Division championship series, which was played between the Dunedin Blue Jays and Tampa Yankees.
The Marauders, winning the first half title, were able to choose whether to host Game 1 or to host Game 2 and 3 in a best-of-3 series. Choosing the latter option, Bradenton thumped the Mets 11-6 in Game 1. By defeating the visiting Mets 4-1 in Game 2, the Bradenton Marauders have ventured into new territory: South Division Champions and moving on for a Florida State League championship, a first for this area in over half a century. History is in the making in Bradenton and we should all be there to see and appreciate it.