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Volunteers give Pirates a boost in Bradenton

| Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013, 11:08 p.m.

During Pirates season, Tom Sanders stands guard outside the visitors' clubhouse at PNC Park, shielding its inhabitants from the uninvited and the uncredentialed. But Sanders' current outpost is Bradenton, Fla., where more immediate tasks await.

Spring training isn't just for the players and fans.

A white-haired former teacher and librarian known as “The Colonel,” Sanders, 66, of Bethel Park belongs to a volunteer army of retirees who work at Pirate City and McKechnie Field. They are part of the Bradenton Pirates Boosters.

The boosters have about 210 members, most of whom will staff ticket booths and admission gates, hawk seat cushions and assist and advise fans, among other duties, during exhibition games. For those assigned to the sprawling Pirate City complex and its four full fields (and three half-fields), the work began earlier. Pitchers and catchers report Monday.

The boosters come from all over the country and Canada, many from Pittsburgh — devoted Pirates' followers who remember the good years and now endure the lean ones. They still love the game and their team.

And they still work for free. All of their wages go to charity.

“If you appreciate baseball at all, you think it's heaven,” Sanders said.

“We've got retired judges who take tickets. We've got lawyers and doctors,” said boosters president Al Dawson, 77, of East Liverpool, Ohio. “They just want to be involved.”

The boosters are believed to be the only spring training workforce that receives no payment. Known by different names in the past, they have been a fixture since the Pirates moved their spring operations from Fort Myers, Fla., in 1969.

That was the year Lloyd Fait, a certified master baker from Greensburg, first headed south. He got to know some of the players such as Bob Robertson, the big first baseman, and helped out John Hallahan, the club's equipment man for 50 years.

“I told John I had a bakery in Somerset,” Fait said, adding that the disclosure led to his bringing pastries into the clubhouse on home Sundays during the season.

After retiring in 2000, Fait, 69, joined the boosters. He has worked as an usher and in the bullpen and handled pregame security details.

“It's the only reason I'm here,” he said. “I don't go to the beach. I don't go to the casinos. I'm here strictly because the Pirates are here.”

Until the Feb. 24 exhibition home opener at McKechnie Field, Pirate City will be where the action is.

“This is one of the few teams where you can go into any practice area and sit on a bench and listen to the coaches and players talking,” Sanders said. “They're switching fields. You can literally sit there and listen to a coach teaching.”

Starting Monday, Sanders will brief his crew at 7:30 each morning. He makes schedules for 40 workers, ensuring that each gets two days a week on the job. Clad in their white polo shirts and khaki shorts, the boosters check IDs to permit the right people to get to the right places, “but they're mainly there to meet and greet the guests, answer questions and give directions,” Sanders said. “A lot of people are coming for the first time, and they're coming from all over.”

McKechnie Field's recent $10 million renovation includes 2,000 more seats (capacity is now 8,500) and a 19,000-square-foot boardwalk. The added facilities will increase the number of workers.

“They like the access and the sense of family they get from this,” stadium operations manager Kris Koch said. “They're working with the same people every year. There's a social component to it. ... They take a lot pride in the Pirates. Tradition is a big thing with them.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BCohn_Trib.

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