Fan experience thrives at historic ballpark

Celebrations and shared memories highlight sunny day at LECOM Park

A group of fans are sitting with their backs to the camera, staring at the outfield
Pirates' fans await the Boston Red Sox v. Pittsburgh Pirates pre-season spring training game at LECOM Park (Jamie Attard/Toronto Observer) 

BRADENTON, Fla. – As the city celebrates the 100th anniversary of baseball in Bradenton this year, Erik and Crystal Dehner were enjoying a celebration of a different kind. 

The Knox, PA., natives who are also first-time visitors of LECOM Park – spring training home of the Pittsburgh Pirates – chose to honeymoon with the Pirates after being recently married.

“I’ve been a Pirates’ fan since the day I was born,” Erik said. “I love the Buccos, I always have, and it’s great to seeing (them) down here in Bradenton and celebrate with the Bucs.”

Andrew interviews Erik and Crystal Dehner inside LECOM Park
Erik and Crystal Dehner are interviewed by Andrew Stuetz inside LECOM Park before first pitch (Sam Oziel/Toronto Observer)

The Dehners were excited to experience their first Bradenton baseball game Thursday when the Boston Red Sox visited their Pittsburgh Pirates.

“I just love this ballpark,” Erik said. “This has been the first time we’ve been here, but everything about this ballpark is pretty phenomenal.

“With the boardwalk and all that (you’ve got here) great food and great drinks, with a little bit of baseball; you’ve got to love it.”

Baseball and Bradenton first came together in 1923 when the St. Louis Cardinals played their spring training games at City Park – a 1,300-seat stadium located slightly east of where LECOM Park sits today.

After three name changes including McKechnie Field in honour of former Pirates’ manager Bill McKechnie, a deal made with Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in 2017 led to the Pirates’ organization renaming the stadium to LECOM Park.

Sights and sounds: a breakdown of the day in Bradenton with Jamie, Yannis, and Zeno

Bradenton Day podcast with Jamie, Yannis, and Zeno

With the excitement of returning modern-day star Andrew McCutchen filling the air, fans of the third oldest ballpark used by Major League Baseball – and oldest used for spring training games – were elated to be part of the historic season.

Along the concourse level of the outfield, Tony Grieco was enjoying an ice-cold water.

With over 75 years as an usher at the Pirates’ regular season home PNC Park, the long-time Bucs’ fan who “keeps his age a guessing game,” has been attending spring training games with his wife for the past eight years and credits a fan-area renovation for bringing the park to life.

“When we first started coming down here, this tiki area was not here,” Grieco said. “In order to get around (the park,) you’d have to walk down the stairs and then back up the stairs after going all the way around.

Video hosts Jake Schulz and Grace Klodt spent the afternoon talking with fans.

Pirates’ fans hold high hopes for McCutchen’s return to team

A sea of throwback Andrew McCutchen jerseys flowed into LECOM Park Thursday as the return of the former franchise player looms large at the spring training facility of the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton, Florida. 

After signing a one-year deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the 2013 NL MVP will make his official return to the organization on Opening Day. McCutchen, 35, was traded to San Francisco during the 2018 offseason. 

A Pirates fan rocking an Andrew McCutchen jersey who won the National League MVP award with Pittsburgh in 2013. (Zeno Fu/Toronto Observer)

Buccos fans of all ages have begun to rally behind their ball club with a renewed sense of excitement, eagerly awaiting the chance to watch the 2012 Gold Glove winner patrol the outfield at PNC Park. 

“It’s great to have him back,” said 12-year-old Cameron Oleshak of St. Louis, on the stadium concourse with his father, Rick. “I think he’s a great person who will help the team. I have a jersey in my room that’s signed by him.”

A Clemson student visiting her grandparents in Bradenton said she was quite emotional about McCutchen’s return.

“Honestly, I cried (after hearing the news),” said the woman who didn’t provide her name. “It’s a nice feeling, he’s been my favourite since as long as I can remember.”

Other fans are counting on the veteran to bring leadership to emerging stars Oneil Cruz and Ke’Bryan Hayes.

“He can provide a lot of guidance for the younger players,” said Ben DiCola, of Canton, OH, a Pirates fan for more than 50 years. “His overall presence in the locker room is going to be big, too.

“(McCutchen) has been there, he’s won an MVP, he’s been in a pennant race, he’s been in the playoffs, and I still think he can play, that’s the most important thing.”

– Samuel Oziel

Vendors hawking Andrew McCutchen t-shirts outside LECOM Park (Spencer Closs/Toronto Observer)

“Then they built this tiki bar, and it is the greatest thing they could have done. Every time we come in here, we’re buying tickets for almost every game, but what we do is we get here early because we like sitting here – we don’t sit at our seats at all. We love it.”

Selling hotdogs and sausages along the right field side lower level of LECOM Park was Stanley Weyman, a Pawtucket, RI. native who found time to step away from his busy concession stand to share his favourite part of what he does – getting to know the fans.

“I love to get out and meet people,” Weyman said. “It’s (part of) my whole job.”

The 32-year LECOM Park employee is grateful for the opportunity the organization has given him for as long as they have.

“They’re (the Pirates) really great,” Weyman said. “I’m pretty lucky, and they’ve asked me back for next year already.”

– Andrew Stuetz

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Posted: Mar 28 2023 11:46 am
Edition: Toronto
Filed under: Special Reports Baseball Features Sports