PITTSBURGH -- As is tradition, the Pirates shipped out their equipment truck to LECOM Park for Spring Training this week. But this tradition goes a little bit further back than for other teams.
What is today called LECOM Park in Bradenton, Fla., has existed for 98 years, wearing many names throughout the years, including City Park, Braves Field then -- its longest-tenured title -- McKechnie Field. It has hosted the Braves, the Phillies, the Red Sox, the Cardinals, the Royals and the Athletics before the Pirates stepped in and took it for the long haul.
If you factor in Ninth Street Park, which occupied the plot before the current park was built, more than a century of baseball has been played at the location.
In turn, the ballpark has been host to not only some of the greatest Pirates ever -- including Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Bill Mazeroski -- but also other names synonymous with “baseball” like Ted Williams and Babe Ruth.
The Pirates' partnership with LECOM Park began in 1969, one year after the Athletics moved from Kansas City to Oakland. The relocation prompted the A’s, who trained at McKechnie Field, to move their Spring Training site to Arizona. The Pirates were at Myers Park in Ft. Meyers, but they moved on from it by signing a 40-year lease with the city of Bradenton with an option for 40 more years.
It was a natural fit, too: Bill McKechnie, a Pittsburgh native whom the park was named after, led the Pirates to a World Series title in 1925.
However, the park was still a work in progress, needing multiple upgrades over the years. The field, the clubhouses and the press box all were renovated in the 1980s before a big overhaul in 1993, which gave a major facelift to the park. LECOM Park’s Spanish mission-style exterior, which was designed by PNC Park’s architect Louis Astorino, was undertaken that year and has remained ever since.
The next big renovation to LECOM Park came in 2013, when the club partnered with the city of Bradenton and Manatee County to fund a $10 million upgrade to the stadium. The highlight of that project was a key piece that makes the ballpark feel like a beach environment: a 19,000-foot boardwalk around the field, lined by beautiful palm trees.
But even with all the enhancements, it still has a classic baseball feel, even garnering a “Fenway Park” of Spring Training compliment from author George Will.
"Tradition means a lot in the Grapefruit League and spring training, and LECOM Park is certainly one of the most traditional venues in all of baseball," Kevin Reichard, publisher of Ballpark Digest and Spring Training Online, told the Pirates. "With some great updates in recent years that really enhanced the fan experience, LECOM Park really is best of both worlds."
There is no indication the Pirates will be leaving anytime soon. And with praise like this and a history this long, why would they?