It's the old-school feel of the 90-year-old spring training home, with a covered grandstand that looks like a backdrop from The Natural. • It's the new boardwalk, traditionally styled but dotted with modern-day features like a barbecue deck, bar and party pavilion. • And, most important, it's the fact that a team mascot brought me peanuts. • Yes, I became a Pittsburgh Pirates fan on Monday.
Don't get me wrong. The Rays remain No. 1 in my heart, but every baseball fan should have an American League favorite and a National League favorite, and the Pirates now will receive my total NL allegiance.
The only question left to solve: What took so long?
For years, I had heard about the inviting vistas at McKechnie Field, Pittsburgh's spring training home in Bradenton. But every time I craved spring training like a puppy craves chewing on shoes, I went to see another team.
Sure, I like the Phillies' accommodations in Clearwater, and I enjoy the Yankees' Steinbrenner Field (when I can get a ticket) in Tampa. I have fond memories of seeing the Tigers at Lakeland's Joker Marchant Stadium when I lived there.
And the berm at the Braves' Disney digs always proves inviting on sunny days.
But McKechnie's throwback charm — not to mention the easy drive from my east Hillsborough home — should have lured me a long time ago.
From the Times' Riverview bureau at the Winthrop Town Centre, it's a short 38-mile jaunt. Even closer from Sun City Center, Apollo Beach or Ruskin. Just skip through Palmetto on U.S. 41, head across the Manatee River bridge and keep straight and you'll find McKechnie nestled among businesses — just like Wrigley Field or Fenway Park.
The bureau's news staff joined me for the — ahem — important team-building exercise. As the bureau chief, I recognized the importance of bonding over Kayem hot dogs, warm breezes and the incomparable crack of the bat.
We arrived and strolled through a palm tree-laden plaza — part of the new $10 million renovation — and then climbed the stairs to enjoy the view from the 19,000-square-foot boardwalk that rings the outfield.
We settled into seats along the first-base line and immediately spotted Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. Cool.
Peanuts were the only missing staple. We waited for a vendor, but no luck.
Finally, Marty the Marauder, mascot of the Pirates' Class A affiliate, came up the aisle. We called him over for a photo and as we posed, I asked him to direct a peanut vendor our way.
Marty, clearly a pirate trained in the finer aspects of Southern hospitality, returned with a free bag of peanuts. What's that they say about the path to a man's heart?
In all honesty, east Hillsborough should join in my new fanaticism for the Pirates.
The Phillies are the only other NL team with a spring training home within easy reach, but they beat the Rays in the World Series. We can't root for them.
Plus, the Pirates offer a young and talented team teeming with legitimate playoff hopes —if it can stabilize the pitching — and get another banner year from centerfielder Andrew McCutcheon, a Florida native.
More important, in McKechnie Field they offer a jewel to celebrate the advent of spring and the coming of another baseball season. Don't be surprised if I make another trip — all in the name of research, of course.
That's all I'm saying.