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Original Issue


That's how Bradenton advertises itself. Vacationers might disagree, but nostalgic baseball fans will not

The slight old gentleman wearing the Pirate cap sat alone in the grandstand behind home plate and waited for the gates to open. He said that he had come to Bradenton, the last of the old-fashioned Grapefruit League towns, after retiring from U.S. Steel and that he had been a Pittsburgh fan for 52 years. He had seen them all in that half century—Pie Traynor, Ralph Kiner, Roberto Clemente—and now there were some new kids he wanted to see. But before he could settle in for serious baseball watching on this fine March afternoon at McKechnie Field, he had some ushering to do.

The gates opened and in came the people, the hardy ones taking the bleacher seats in the sun and the others, a number of whom needed an usher's steadying arm, filling the rickety, covered grandstands. Before retiring to Bradenton they had punched clocks, raised kids and paid mortgages, but now they enjoy life day by day, inning by inning.

Unlike many of the fans at other spring-training sites, most of the folks at games in Bradenton are not passing through town on the way to Disney World. There are no motel keys in their pockets or peeling sunburns on their faces. They live here, attracted by the warmth and the sign on U.S. 41 extolling Bradenton as: FLORIDA LIKE YOU WANT IT TO BE.

A visitor's tendency to agree with that slogan will depend on how unsavory he finds the amenities—and excesses—that have become the staples of tourism in other Florida cities. Bradenton (pop. 26,000), which is located five miles from the Gulf Coast in Manatee County, certainly is not like the Florida pictured in travel brochures. There are no beaches, amusement parks or wax museums. You cannot bet on horses, dogs or jai alai players. It is largely unspoiled by hamburger chains, miniature golf courses and neon signs. Instead, Bradenton offers two movie theaters, a museum of local history, a couple of modest hotels and an auditorium that was condemned and closed three years ago.

"We're different from other coastal towns," says Steve Albee, executive vice-president of the Manatee Chamber of Commerce. "The outlook here is very provincial. We spend only $20,000 a year for tourist promotion, but there are some people who say I shouldn't spend that much. People are afraid of their town becoming a Fort Lauderdale."

Just about the only similarity between Bradenton and Lauderdale is that they both serve as spring-training headquarters. And even that similarity is largely superficial. In Fort Lauderdale the Yankees play exhibitions at a park every bit as modern and big-time as the city in which it is located. It is pretty typical of the spring-training parks—they could almost be called stadiums—in Florida nowadays. The Pirates use a park where some of the fences are still made of corrugated galvanized iron. McKechnie Field is a relic of the days when teams came to Florida on the train. Bradenton, too, retains the aura—if little of the elegance—of that era. And by refusing to change, it has become a unique and intimate stop in the Grapefruit League.

In 1968 the Pirates signed a 40-year lease to play at McKechnie Field and to live and train at a 100-acre site in East Bradenton known as Pirate City, thus becoming the latest of three major league teams that have made Bradenton their spring-training headquarters. The Milwaukee and Boston Braves preceded the Pirates in Bradenton; before the Braves, the Gas House Gang Cardinals of Frankie Frisch and Dizzy Dean made the town their headquarters. In those days the players stayed downtown at the fancy Dixie Grande; and Dizzy owned a nearby gas station. But that was a long time ago. The Dixie Grande and several other fine hotels have been either razed or converted into retirement homes. They are not so much victims of progress as they are of changing tourist tastes, which the town no longer is able—or cares—to meet.

Bradenton is not an especially pretty place, but at least it has not been trashed by commercialism. The irony is that it may not be commercial enough for its own good, because it needs a broader economic base. Almost 40% of the residents of Manatee County are above retirement age, which prompts Bradenton Mayor A. K. (Abbey) Leach to say, "Our biggest source of income is pensions." Trailers clustered together in monotonous parks account for 20% of the county's housing units. Largely ignored by the rest of the population are hundreds of poor black families who live in ramshackle houses on unpaved streets.

These problems seem less oppressive in March, when the Pirates play baseball and the annual De Soto celebration takes place. This event commemorates the landing of the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto on a nearby beach in 1539. It is strictly an amateur production, but the costumes are authentic and the enthusiasm genuine. Only occasionally is there a slipup. One year the poor fellow playing De Soto, looking every bit the conqueror in his plumed helmet and shiny breastplate, stepped out of his rowboat and nearly drowned in a sinkhole.

Last year Jim Ryan, a Bradenton businessman, stayed dry while playing the title role but suffered an identity problem. With his white beard, broad belly and red and black costume, he looked more like Santa Claus than an explorer. As De Soto week unfolded, Ryan led his men in the "capture" of various beaches and shopping centers. Finally they moved in to liberate McKechnie Field.

With swords drawn and muskets raised, the conquistadores ravaged the Pirate team while the Detroit Tigers stood by helplessly. After half an hour of this, the field was cleared of dead and wounded and a game was played.

The folks up in the stands enjoyed it. It was something they could write their grandchildren about.