Road trip: Bradenton, Fla.
Baseball isn't the only game in town in Bradenton, Fla.
Dedicated Pittsburgh Pirates fans arriving from a long line drive of a road trip or a relatively short flight may be happily surprised to learn that the cry of “Play Ball!” isn't Bradenton's lone siren call.
Even Bucco skipper Clint Hurdle is “all in” on that sentiment, sharing some of the stops he recommends to friends when they aren't watching practices at Pirate City or Grapefruit League games at McKechnie Field. He insists the joys of those two activities “need no explanation.”
Hurdle's “must visit” list includes: Mixon's Fruit Farms (“The best fresh-squeezed orange and grapefruit juice in the land!” he says), Beach Bistro on Holmes Beach (“The best dining on Florida's west coast!”) and Sweetberries (“The best frozen custard you've ever eaten!”).
Team radio and television broadcaster Greg Brown seconds the emotion on Mixon's, while also suggesting a stroll on The Riverwalk along the Manatee River downtown, making discoveries on Old Main Street and relaxing “on the beaches on the island.”
Watching the sun set at the Sandbar or Beach House restaurants on Anna Maria Island make for a pleasant experience, he adds, as does “driving along Gulf Drive from Anna Maria Island south into St. Armands Circle in (nearby) Sarasota, stopping at Mote Aquarium along the way.”
“Bradenton has really grown over the last 10 years, especially the downtown area on Old Main Street,” says Jim Trdinich, the Pirates' director of baseball communications. “This will be my 22nd year of heading to Bradenton for spring training, and it never gets old.”
Old Florida charm
When he retires, the Pirates' Jim Trdinich says, it will be to Anna Maria Island.
At 7.5 miles long, the quaint and cozy Barrier Island resting in the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico is a “must see” visit, home to the southern community of Bradenton Beach, the central town of Holmes Beach and the northern town of Anna Maria. No buildings are more than three stories “and there's just such an incredible, laid-back feel,” locals say. In addition to white-sand beaches, it is known for its shopping, beachfront dining and outdoor activities such as kayaking and fishing.
Among stops to consider, says Pirates' announcer Greg Brown, are Duffy's Tavern, the City Pier and Rod and Reel restaurants.
The folks on Anna Maria Island like to think of it as a place where “old” Florida charm can still be found, with flip flops a way of life and, the speed limit never exceeding 35 mph.
Details: Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce; 941-778-1541; www.annamariachamber.org
Not far from Pirate City, Mixon's Fruit Farms, the popular location to grab a sandwich and freshly squeezed juices and maybe spot a member of the team or former Bucco great is in-season November through early May. Concerts and other activities, including author meet-and-greets, fashion shows and luncheons, ballroom-dancing lessons and more, are featured throughout the year.
The annual Orange Blossom Festival, with all-day entertainment, is March 23.
Tours of the grove are available via tram and include a stop at the Wildlife Rescue, where visitors can see rescued Florida animals, reptiles and birds.
Details: 800-608-2525; www.mixon.com
Manatees and maritime traditions
South Florida Museum, the largest natural and cultural-history museum on Florida's Gulf Coast, interprets the region from the Pleistocenes to the present. Exhibits include fossil evidence of Florida's earliest mammals and marine species and the Montague Tallant collection of prehistoric and early post-contact archeological artifacts.
The recently opened Environmental Wing focuses on Florida's ecology and bio-diversity in the Pine Uplands and Riverine Galleries.
Local maritime traditions, early 20th-century medical practices and Spanish exploration in the New World are subjects of other showcases. The Spanish Plaza has full-scale replicas of a 16th-century manor house and chapel .
The museum's Parker Manatee Aquarium, part of Florida's manatee rehabilitation network, celebrates its most-famous resident, Snooty the Manatee, the oldest known manatee in the world, who turns 65 on July 21.
Details: 941-746-4131; www.southfloridamuseum.org;
Hot spot of fun
The Riverwalk, a mile-and-a-half stretch along the Manatee River in Bradenton that opened in the fall last year, offers a stunning variety of activity.
“It is becoming quite the hot spot with the emergence of new restaurants and shops,” one Pittsburgh visitor says.
There's a great lawn for picnics and relaxing; a day dock for boaters; a botanical walk showcasing the area's plants and flowers; the 400-seat Mosaic Amphitheater with live entertainment; the Family Fun Zone with a splash fountain and playgrounds; a fishing pier with what is considered by anglers as one of the best spots to drop a line; the Tidal Discovery Zone; beach volleyball courts; a skate park and a kayak and canoe launch.
The Village of the Arts is a 42-acre vibrant community of artists. The artists live and work together, operating more than 30 businesses. Galleries, studios, cafes, healing arts, jewelry, fashion and books can be found in the charming restored 1920s and '30s bungalows. It's open to the public Fridays and Saturdays.
A Taste of the Village, the next art walk, with food, local art and music, is March 1 and 2. The Ninth Annual Garden Walk, designed for fans of gardening, art and home restoration, is April 5 and 6. The 12th Annual Fashion Show and Brunch is April 13.
Details: 941-747-8056; www.villageofthearts.com
The Pittsburgh Pirates' 44th spring-training season in Bradenton will be filled with activity for athletes and fans.
The first workout for pitchers and catchers is Tuesday and the full squad's is Friday at the Pirate City training facility.
Fans can watch for free from 10 a.m. to about 1 or 2 p.m. daily from Tuesday through Feb. 25.
The Bucs and their High-A minor-league affiliate Bradenton Marauders hold their fourth annual Pirates Pep Rally on Saturday in downtown Bradenton from 5 to 7:30 p.m. It includes family games, face-painting, prize giveaways, food and musical performances.
The Pirates open their spring schedule with the Black and Gold intrasquad game Feb. 22 at McKechnie Field.
Their first home game of the Grapefruit League there is Feb. 24 against Atlanta, concluding at Bradenton March 27 with Minnesota. Spain will play in a World Baseball Classic game March 5 at Bradenton.
Fans can see West Coast Florida Grapefruit League teams in Sarasota (Baltimore), Port Charlotte (Tampa Rays ), Fort Myers (Boston and Minnesota), Dunedin (Toronto), Clearwater (Philadelphia), Tampa (Yankees) and Lakeland (Detroit).
McKechnie Field features a variety of new amenities, including a new boardwalk allowing fans to circle the entire ballpark for the first time. There's now a Left Field Park Deck, a Boardwalk Barbeque Area for group picnics, an Outfield Bar and Left Field Bleachers. The number of shaded seating areas has increased throughout the park, as well.