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Scenes from Spring Training: Arrrrgh! The Pirates! Part 1

Mar 12, 2010, 8:29 AM EDT

McKechnie Field.jpgMy original plan didn’t have me going down to Bradenton to visit Pirates’ camp, but when the Yankees decided not to offer me media credentials some time freed up, allowing me to catch the Pirates-Rays game yesterday afternoon.  I would like to thank the Yankees for their decision, because it meant that I got to spend a day at McKechnie Field, which is a truly awesome old ballpark.  So awesome, that it led to an epiphany of sorts later in the day.  I’ll get to that later, though.  Let’s talk about McKechnie Field.

A ballpark under various names has been at this location since 1923. Sure, it’s been renovated several times, most recently in the early 90s, when most of the thing was actually rebuilt, but the place that stands there today represents everything good about older ballparks.  Simple design. great sightlines. A simple, democratic seating arrangement. An old-timey atmosphere that isn’t self-consciously retro.  There are some amenities — and some great ballpark food — but the point of McKechnie Field is the baseball game, not entertainment or a “fan experience.”

My routine each morning has been to pick up press credentials early — say, 7:30 or 8AM — find a place to set up and then just wander and talk to people.  This hasn’t been a problem anywhere inasmuch as every team has scads of employees on-site doing any number of things from the crack of dawn, and someone has always been available to get me credentials. Not so at McKechnie. When I arrived just before 8AM there were some ushers there and only a handful of team employees. When I asked if I could get my press pass, the young man at the will call window rifled through a box of documents and then told me that the day passes for yesterday must be “over at Pirate City,” and that one of his co-workers would be bringing them by later.  “You’re kinda early,” he said. “Try back after 9.”

Popi's Place.JPGIf this had happened at most spring training parks I probably would have had to go sit in my car or something, but since McKechnie Field is on a city block instead of a larger complex like some of the other places, I had options. The closest option was Popi’s Place, a greasy spoon diner next to the ballpark. The walls are covered with Pirates’ photos, poster, pennants and stuff. The clientele that morning was decidedly blue collar, with most of the people looking like they were on their way to work. I ordered some biscuits and gravy and eavesdropped. Maybe I was imagining things, but the accents and the subject matter sounded as if someone had taken a slice of western Pennsylvania and plopped it right down in Bradenton.

When I finished, I wandered back to the ticket office. The skies were dark, the wind was whipping and the odds of a ballagame taking place that afternoon seemed poor.  The guy operating the press elevator — 80 years-old if he was a day — was more optimistic: “Ah, this is Florida.  It might rain and then snow and then get up to a 100 degrees before noon. You never know.”

I found a seat in a press box I’ll call cozy — I have no idea what they do when the Red Sox and their sizable media entourage visit — and set up my stuff.  For the second day in a row I found myself sitting next to an old timer. This time it was a guy named Ed Bridges. He said he was a columnist, and his press pass indicated that he worked for a smallish Florida paper whose name escapes me right now. He said he was basically retired, but that he covered the Expos from the 1970s “all the way through to the end.”  I’m not sure what paper he worked for and I can’t find any references to him online. Didn’t matter though, because he told me some great stories — not too many of which are repeatable — and went on a wonderful anti-Tim McCarver jag that will get me through the playoffs this fall.  Ed’s good people.

Set up and ready to go, I hit the field and the clubhouses.

  1. d - Mar 12, 2010 at 9:11 AM

    these reports you’re doing are really interesting to read.

  2. josh - Mar 12, 2010 at 9:18 AM

    I hope you plan on sharing some of the anti-McCarver material with us. Just thinking about another year of bad Saturday/playoff announcing is depressing…

  3. ditmars1929 - Mar 12, 2010 at 9:20 AM

    Two questions, Craig, if you please:
    1. How was the food at Popi’s? I love greasy spoon diners.
    2. What exactly did Ed say during his anti-McCarver rant? I hate that bastard.

  4. Old Gator - Mar 12, 2010 at 10:06 AM

    I agree. Let’s bash Tim McCarver.
    Although I’m not sure why. Before we go all Roger Maris on the guy, let’s lay out the case against him so we know from where all this spontaneous bile is being secreted. Was he pro-Confederacy or something? And if so, was that the Confederate States of America or the Confederacy of Dunces? Does someone know something about Tim and Shelby Foote that I don’t know? And is my inference about Tim and Shelby anything like Nomar Garciaparra and steroids? Come on now, Craig – some mental processes are the cerebral equivalents of muscle memory. Let’s have a nice, systematic, lawyerly presentation of the case against Tim McCarver.
    Starting with what Ed said. Sounds like the colorful sort with which the west coast of Florida is infested, along with monitor lizards.

  5. TF in Tampa - Mar 12, 2010 at 11:19 AM

    To ditmars 1929:
    Popi’s has 5 locations covering the west central area of FLA from Bradenton north to Ruskin [location #5], about a 30mi radius. My wife and I love the food they serve, home cooked southern meals just like your Grandma or Mother-in-law would make, not greasy at all, [I’m used to that being from Jersey, the Diner capitol of the world] and they’re always busy.
    My wife is a fuss pot who watches her diet carefully, only ordering egg whites and veggies in her omelet, no fries, biscuits, and only whole wheat toast on occasion. Let me tell you, sometimes she is impossible to please. No complaints about Popi’s food and they’re service is just like Craig mentioned, plenty of local, downhome type chatter. Well, there ya have it!
    To Old Gator:
    I met Tim McCarver in his hometown of Sarasota, he and I were working together on a major purchase he was considering. In as much as I read many don’t like his sports announcing, he and I got to talking about baseball and his short lived stint with the Yanks. He has a fantastic memory for stats and shared a couple of stories about playing in NY. He takes his job very seriously. In person, polite to me, appreciated the time and information I gave him. My impression, he is a likable guy on a one to one level.
    So tell me people, why so much negativity?
    What ever happened to peace, love and understanding?

  6. Old Gator - Mar 12, 2010 at 11:57 AM

    Karl Rove happened to peace, love and understanding, and just a hair less than half of us took his rotten bait hook, line and sucker and somehow still managed to elect the drooling imbecile for whom he toiled. Many still have that hook stuck in their gills.
    Popi’s sounds regionally legendary. Start making a list and head it with breakfast there; I’ll bring plenty of Omega3 fish oil capsules. We might also try The Broken Egg as a nice contrast of styles, too.

  7. TF in Tampa - Mar 12, 2010 at 5:22 PM

    After seeing that NOBama/Bitten bumper sticker on the ass of that Merc of yours, I’m starting to believe that our politics are not all that cohesive or homogeneous. Your left and I’m right, well I am somewhere just right of center. I guess you could say that I still have that hook stuck in my gills [maybe it goes with that nickname ‘polluted fish’ I was given back in high school but thats a story for another time and place].
    Politics aside, bring on the fish oil [see,there it is again that fish snag… I mean tag] and lets start this party with breakfast in Sarasota at your Broken Egg.

  8. Old Gator - Mar 12, 2010 at 6:11 PM

    If I found out that Gillian were conservative, would that stop me? No, I don’t let politics get in the way of the important things – especially not breakfast. Been to the Broken Egg? It’s near the beach in Sarasota and it’s whatsisname the big college hoops maven’s hangout. Great pancakes.

  9. TF in Tampa - Mar 12, 2010 at 9:24 PM

    Is it Dick Vitale? the loud mouth ‘Yeah Baby’ NCAA college b-ball announcer?
    He used to live in Bird Key, just over the Ringling Blvd bridge on the left between downtown Sarasota and St. Armands Circle. Now he lives in Lakewood Ranch. Met him too, full of himself, unlike McCarver.
    The Broken Egg, pancakes, with blueberries I hope, lets do it!
    Wait, what happened to the eggs?

  10. Old Gator - Mar 13, 2010 at 12:42 AM

    Eeyep, Vitale it is. They even sell his autobiography at The Broken Egg. I had blocked out his name as part of my calculated and sweeping refusal to be suckered by the college hoops hype. Gimme the fearful symmetries of baseball any day.
    Eggs tend to be eggs – except, maybe, for the beaucoup fluffy omelettes de homard at La Mere Poulard on the slopes of Mont Ste. Michel, or the Oviraptor nest Roy Chapman Andrews, who also discovered Velociraptor, incidentally, discovered in the Gobi Desert in 1923, thereby proving that dinosaurs laid eggs (although he was unable to determine which came first). But great blueberry pancakes? You gotta go where the exceptional sequesters itself, you know?
    We can set this up for sometime in early April. Next week I’ll be in Chicago to see Cowboy Junkies at the Old Town School of Folk Music, then in New York to visit my father, then in San Marcos, Texas doing research at the literary archives at Texas State University. I should be home around the 8th or so and I’ll start seriously figgerin’ how to do this.

  11. Chipmaker - Mar 13, 2010 at 11:20 AM

    If you need a meal in Texas, I can set you up with a selection in nearby Austin.

  12. Old Gator - Mar 13, 2010 at 3:20 PM

    Fire away. I already know about the Salt Lick and a couple of the other BBQ places – done toured ’em from time to time. And if it’s right up in the UT area, I probably know it too – but if you’ve got one sufficiently extraordinary and recent, up there, shoot. Just don’t get me too close to the Congress Street Bridge when the bats are coming or going. If there’s one thing I can’t stand more than velveeta on horsemeat, although only marginally so, it’s bat shit on my tacos.

  13. TF in Tampa - Mar 13, 2010 at 6:13 PM

    Seems like your on a busy schedule. We’ll catch up later.

  14. Old Gator - Mar 14, 2010 at 2:15 PM

    Naught at all. This is what I call r-e-t-i-r-e-m-e-n-t. You should have seen me when I was busy. I looked like that little puff of dust the Roadrunner leaves behind him when he takes off.

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