Baseball begins again for Pirates and die-hard fans in Bradenton

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BRADENTON - John Bodner wears a T-shirt bearing his favorite player's number 21, as he sits watching the Pittsburgh Pirates go through batting practice for the first time this year. Never mind that Roberto Clemente made his last trek to Bradenton for spring training 40 years ago. "It's important to be here, to be with the people around you, the surroundings of baseball," he says.

He is not alone among the die-hards, who have stayed with a team that has not appeared in the World Series since winning it in 1979, and not even had a winning record since 1992.

"Hope springs eternal for the Pirates," says Bob Levine, a visitor from Pittsburgh. "Once the season starts, it sort of goes downhill."

"They're going to be back," Art Williamson says. "This may be the year."

Spring brings a belief beyond reason. Williamson says he has loved the Pirates for more than 60 years. So when he and his wife chose a place to retire, their baseball team played a role in picking the Suncoast. "Oh, yeah," he says.

Western Pennsylvania sends many people to Manatee County, not only for spring training, but to live permanently. The Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau doesn't have exact numbers but, "it's a huge feeder market," says Elliott Falcione, its Executive Director. The Pirates agreement with Bradenton and Manatee County that put $10 million into renovations of McKechnie Field also includes $400,000 worth of advertising for the Bradenton area during the Pirates season in Pittsburgh. Falcione also says the city gets a lot of notice in other northern cities when teams like the Minnnesota Twins, New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles play games at McKechnie that air on radio or TV in the visiting teams' hometowns.

Those who do come to Bradenton only to visit, see not only the beginning of baseball, but signs that the cold back home may end sometime soon. "It means the end of winter," says Eileen Freitag of Pittsburgh. "Which is a big deal for me."

So the news is good, even if the baseball turns out less so, but to those here celebrating the end of winter and the beginning of baseball, they do so with their team, for all time. "What are you going to do?" asks John Bodner. "They're my team. I'm going to go down in flames with them."