Pirates fans spring into action

They migrate to Florida despite economy, team's travails

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Hanging out along the railing beside the Pirates' dugout at McKechnie Field, autograph seekers and ardent fans Cathy and Chuck Martin are not daunted by the numbers.

Not the fluctuations in an economy affecting daily life, including professional sports.

Not the 16-year slump, one approaching historic U.S. proportions, by their favorite baseball franchise.

Not even by the 3 1/2-hour, one-way drive for this family of three to attend 35 Pirates games a year as season-ticket holders living near Lancaster in eastern Pennsylvania.

"Last year was kind of hard with the gas prices," said Mrs. Martin, 44, a Baldwin native who refused to move to Manheim, Pa., five years ago unless her husband bought her Pirates season tickets. That's why they return to her hometown a dozen or so times each April through September. And that's why they came to the Pirates' spring-training site earlier this month for their third annual four-games-in-four days family adventure in Florida.

The Martins are part of a yearly American migration -- to the Pirates' Florida home in particular and to baseball's springtime venues in general -- that already has shown signs of flattening attendance, which could be a harbinger. The Pirates' spring-training attendance has experienced a 2-percent decline, roughly 97 patrons per game fewer than last year at a 17-game average of 4,667 and 79,346 total thus far. But with two home games remaining due to a schedule elongated by the World Baseball Classic, they expect to surpass the record 81,000-plus attracted each of the past two springs. Such a 2-percent drop also is what Major League Baseball officials report across the spring-training spectrum in Florida's Grapefruit League and Arizona's Cactus League, with numbers through March 22 roughly 140 fans behind last year's per-game pace, to 6,417 from 6,557.

Of course, spring training is merely baseball's warm-up act. So, then, will that compute into an attendance slump for the 2009 season? The Sports Business Journal reported Monday that baseball officials expect their lowest turnstiles total in four seasons -- a roughly 6-percent decline from 2007's high-water mark of 79.5 million.

For Florida, tourism overall is in decline, in some locales as much as 25 percent, similar to reports in some areas of Arizona such as Mesa, where Chicago Cubs attendance lags by nearly 2,000 fans per game. Yet officials contend that Florida's 2009 spring training, despite attendance figures down 4 percent, or nearly 300 fans per game, has helped to revive their flagging numbers. This in a state where the Grapefruit League generates an estimated $450 million for the state economy and, on average, attracts fans who spend 10 days and attend 2.5 games.

"With leisure travel down, and business travel really struggling, the influx of baseball fans has been a blessing," Mark A. Jackson, president of the Grapefruit League Association and the director of Central Florida Tourism & Sports Marketing, said in an e-mail. "It demonstrates the recession-resistant nature of the sports industry. Additionally, Bradenton is a great destination for things other than baseball. The complimentary effect between baseball and Bradenton's tourism offerings has definitely made a difference."

This spring between the Manatee River and the white-sand Gulf of Mexico beaches didn't start out sunshine and brightness, either at McKechnie or, for that matter, most anywhere else in the major leagues -- where 16 teams train in Florida and the other 14 in Arizona.

"The first week was rough, I could even tell that being at the games," said Tim McCann, the public information officer for the Bradenton mayor. "It looked like it was mirroring the spring-training trend."

"What I understand, we're down a little bit, but we've always been able to fill the stadium a couple of games," added Mayor Wayne Poston, the former editor of the Bradenton Herald. He swept his right hand at the visage of a full house for a March 16 night game with the home-area Tampa Bay Rays. "We know that [the Pirates] bring people here. Look at this. We're full. ...

"The economy may be affecting us some. But our restaurants are doing pretty well. We're doing pretty well [as a city and county]. We're pleased."

Another barometer may be the hotel, resort and condominium-rental traffic, which appears to be at or approaching their normal rates -- especially after spring-break beachgoers invaded nearby Anna Maria Island in recent weeks. Tom Jung is the general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott centrally located for Pirates fans between McKechnie and Pirate City, where the Pirates train for two weeks before the Grapefruit League schedule and then the minor-leaguers take over.

"They're loyal fans," Mr. Jung, the GM in the hotel's previous incarnation as a Holiday Inn, said of the Pirates' faithful. "You see a lot of the same, familiar faces year after year. Maybe we've lost one or two."

In exchange for $15 million in improvements at both McKechnie and Pirate City, Pirates ownership signed a 30-year lease through 2038 to stay in Bradenton, while the Cincinnati Reds in neighboring Sarasota are playing out this spring before joining the Cleveland Indians at a new facility in Goodyear, Ariz.

In fact, Mr. McCann said, local officials and the Pirates have "in the hopper," depending upon funding in this climate, another upgrade plan for McKechnie. The blueprint calls for suites and an upper deck to be built where roofs now cover seatback areas down the first- and third-base lines, along with a tiki bar, a boardwalk along the outside of the outfield and more fan amenities.

"Obviously, we love the Pittsburgh Pirates," said local Chamber of Commerce president Bob Bartz, citing their $20 million impact annually on the community's economy. "We've worked with them on a number of expansions to get them to extend their lease. [They're] an element that makes it special to live here."

So how do you explain out-of-state Pirates fans who cling to hope after 16 playoff-less seasons -- one away from setting the U.S. professional record of 17 consecutive losing seasons -- and travel to Bradenton? Are they out-of-mind, as well?

For one thing, spring training inherently teems with hope. For another, allegiances run deep, as with all Pittsburgh teams. Throw fans into a cozy, old-fashioned ballpark like McKechnie, where they can easily reach and hear the players, and vice versa, and that may well entice many to migrate. And, of course, the Florida sunshine doesn't hurt.

Mother and daughter Michele and Miriah Saxion were sunning themselves on two of the chaise lounges dotting the family area behind McKechnie one afternoon. Just catching some rays before catching a recent exhibition game.

"She's been after me for years wanting to come down," Mrs. Saxion, 48, of Avonmore, said of college-bound Miriah, 17, who is finishing her senior year at Apollo-Ridge High. "I figured next year she won't want to travel with mom. And you know what? The way it ended up, we normally go [to Key West] over Easter, but it was cheaper coming here."

"That's why we're doing it now," her daughter added.

"It's not Major League Baseball," continued Mr. Poston the mayor. "It doesn't cost you an arm and a leg to get here. You can get a sandwich, lay back, relax, sit close to the players. No one here talks about how much the players make. It's how much of a good time they're having."

Mrs. Martin pointed to her son Kyle, 15, who sat glumly in the seats behind McKechnie's home-plate area rather than hang out with his parents: "He thinks we're goofy, 'cause we like to come down here and get autographs. 'Mom, those players think you're so weird.' "

Kyle Martin, wearing a Penguins T-shirt and a Pirates ballcap, held a more pragmatic perspective. Said he: "I just like the part about coming to Florida and just relaxing."

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com . First Published April 1, 2009 4:15 AM


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