There’s no place like home — except in Florida

two baseball fans
Spring training has offered baseball fans an escape from their cold climate for years. 

BRADENTON, FLA. — A couple that fights together stays together.

Never has that been more true than for Ralph Zezza and Renita Pennick, a married couple who attended a spring training game between the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday.

Zezza’s a Yankees fan, and Pennick’s a Pirates fan, but the love for their respective teams brought them to LECOM Park for the first time.

Zezza bought spring training tickets as a Christmas gift, and after attending their first game at George M. Steinbrenner Field, they have since found a new annual tradition. When asked about what brought them back, they simultaneously said, “there’s just something about it.”

Every spring training game is a way for baseball lovers to convene under one roof. And for Pennick, she’s closer to Pirates fans in Bradenton than she is back home.

Pennick and Zezza live in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., which is a five-hour drive from Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. While they still go to Pirates’ games a few times a year, it’s something they have to plan their whole day around. And because the Yankees’ triple-A team is situated in Scranton, Pa., it’s Pennick who feels like the outcast in her community instead of Zezza.

But at LECOM Park, the crowd for the Pirates-Yankees game was made up of 45 per cent Pirates fans, and 45 per cent Yankees fans. The rest of the crowd were fans of the single-A Bradenton Marauders, every other team in the MLB, or baseball fanatics in general.

Spring training has offered baseball fans an escape from their cold climate for years. But as the oldest spring training facility in the MLB, the Pirates have done a better job of it than anyone else. And in Zezza and Pennick, they have new visitors for life.

Families gather to celebrate a 70’s tradition

Pittsburgh native Mark Erickson came to a recent spring training game in Bradenton with his two sons, Devin and Joshua, for the second year in a row.

They’re planning to make it a family tradition, which only makes sense.

Mark was there in 1979 when the “We Are Family” Pirates won the World Series.

“You would go into Three Rivers Stadium and it was just rocking with (the song) We Are Family during that, for so it was pretty fun.”

Another fan, Christopher Loretta, came into the park with his daughter. He described what ‘We Are Family’ meant to him and Pittsburgh.

“It used to be that the whole community would get behind the Pirates. Pittsburgh gets behind all their teams,” he said as his daughter hung close to him in the stands.

Families everywhere, at Pirates spring training.

A taste of baseball

BRADENTON, FLA. – Four years ago, Kim Rovinski and her husband Joe decided they had had enough of the harsh Pennsylvania winters.

They did their research and decided to invest in a food truck. Since 2013, they have come down to Florida every year with their “Taste Times to Love Us” truck.

The two have adopted the snowbird lifestyle, working six months of the year in Florida, and the other half in the Poconos in upstate Pennsylvania.

“It’s been fun. It’s a great business,” Kim said. “The food truck industry revolves a lot around the baseball season.”

They have set up their food truck at several spring training sites, including LECOM Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The transition into the food truck industry seemed like a natural fit for Kim and Joe.

Kim brought the food background, having worked as a manager for Darden Restaurants, while her husband brought the truck expertise as a former FedEx driver.

But as she admits, “we’re not chefs. It’s good ballpark food and good beer food.”

The menu is not flashy at this Philly-styled food truck.

“It’s a real simple menu, we make fresh cut fries, and four or five basic sandwiches, so we don’t venture too much.”

A return to simpler times

The face of professional baseball has changed considerably in the three decades since the Pittsburgh Pirates 1979 World Series title.

The economic realities of sports in the 21st century have seen the production of baseball cater increasingly towards a corporate audience, leading to a degree of separation between the game and the average fan.

Though this trend may be the new reality under the bright lights of the Major Leagues, a walk through the scenic vicinity of LECOM Park, the spring training facility of the Pirates, provides fans with a nostalgic taste of how baseball used to be.

“It’s excellent,” said Bob Clancy, a Yankees fan visiting from Ohio. “Everything is laid out the right way. It’s how baseball should be, you just don’t get that in the big places anymore.”

The charm that encapsulates LECOM is not limited to its architectural layout. Perhaps the park’s most enriching feature is how its halls reverberate with sounds of program vendors and the electric excitement of fans young and old, united in their love of a game that is sewn into the fabric of North American culture.

“It’s the atmosphere… meeting the kids and meeting the people and talking to them all, that’s what I like about it. That’s why I keep on coming back.” said Marybeth (she would not reveal her last name), a ‘Fastest Pitch’ operator from Pennsylvania who has worked at LECOM for the past six spring trainings.

Whether it’s your first trip down or a yearly tradition, spring training offers a unique experience for all who attend.

If you’re fortunate enough, it could be a chance for you see the next Greg Maddox, Cal Ripken Jr., or Roberto Clemente, cutting their teeth before their ascent to baseball superstardom.

But most importantly, it’s a journey back to a simpler time, allowing a rare opportunity to sit back, forget the world, and truly get lost in the boys of summer.

A journey in photos

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Posted: Mar 9 2017 10:04 pm
Edition: Toronto
Filed under: Special Reports Baseball Sports