03/11/2002 Bradenton, FL - Bradenton, FL - On the way into town Saturday, we noticed a Perkins Restaurant and Clayton became overly excited. So the first free morning we had, it was off for an excellent breakfast. The Lizard ate a plate so full of French toast that Mrs. Baird's stock shot up by 20% and he spoke with an accent the rest of the day.
The Twins were playing in Bradenton against the Pirates, so after we finished up at Perkins we headed south around the bay. Pittsburgh has been training at McKechnie Field since the sixties and in this time they have developed a strong following. The fans cheered with an enthusiasm that shamed their counterparts from the previous day, and those around us were knowledgeable and obvious spring veterans. It's always nice to see folks keeping score, listening to the radio broadcast, and discussing the finer points of their favorite team.
I engaged in one such discussion with an older gentlemen seated in front of us. He commented on my Rangers jersey, mentioning he thought Texas would be good. This lead to a discussion of the inequities between the AL West and NL Central divisions, where we noted the Rangers were playing in a four-team division, while the Pirates' group had six clubs.
"I just hope we can finish at least fifth," he said. "Yeah, it would be bad for y'all to be the only team in all of baseball to finish sixth," I responded. He laughed (and never spoke to me again).
This facility had an old time feel to it, though it had been renovated several times though the years. The Pirate logo was painted behind the plate, reminding me how much I love their current logo. In fact, everything about the Pirates appeals to me: their history, their color scheme, their logo. Too bad the team has been horrible for ten years.
We had great seats under the overhang, right behind the plate. You just can't beat $10 for seats like that, and it was nice to be out of the sun, too. The game moved along smoothly, save for one major delay when a Twins player got the do-nut stuck on his bat and had to work quite some time before he could head to the plate. Rookies!
The Pirates managed to beat the Twins 4-2 in a very "National League game," that is, no homers, playing for the single run. The home team twice led off innings with triples, and another two time with doubles, setting the table for their runs and the victory. Brian Giles doubled home the game winner in the sixth, and Pirates starter Jimmy Anderson allowed one run and four hits in four innings. (Giles is the real deal, OOBers - certainly one of the top outfielders in the game now.)
One of the best features of the park was the very accessible Pirate bullpen out in far right. Fan interaction abounds, and I saw several players sign complete sheets of cards for the young folks. Despite their knowledge that they would probably end up on E-bay, the were happy to accommodate. The kids love hanging out near the players, and spring games foster this relationship. It's great to see them so aware of these young ones who look up to them. Not that I am naive enough to think that at least a few of the kids were there strictly for business purposes.
It was out in that bullpen area where I had my first major meeting of the trip, former Pirates centerfielder Bill Virdon, who once patrolled the outfield with the legendary Roberto Clemente. He was a part of the 1960 World Series champion team that upset the Yankees - it will be a pleasure
to add his autograph (on the official Pirate logo ball) to my personal collection. He seemed to smile a little when he asked "where do I sign?" and I responded, with confidence, "sweet spot!" I think it would be nice to be in your early seventies and still having folks recognize your career. (Besides, outside of Giles and Kendall, Virdon was really the only guy I was very familiar with anyway.)
As for young Jake, after nailing three free throws and winning a Pirates ball cap, he disappeared and was last seen frolicking with the Pirate Parrot on the mezzanine.