BRADENTON, Fla. -The calendar has turned to March, and that means we're about halfway through our annual winter-spring fling in Florida.
Because of the World Baseball Classic, which began late Friday, spring training actually came early this year. Most Grapefruit League teams in Florida began play the weekend of Feb. 22-23 and will finish up the last week in March. That's about a week earlier on both ends of camp.
Six Pirates players are representing five countries in the WBC. Chris Leroux and Jameson Taillon will pitch for Team Canada, while pitcher Wandy Rodriguez will play for the Dominican Republic and pitcher Jason Grilli for Team Italy. Infielder Stefan Welch, who spent much of the 2012 season with the Curve, is on Australia's roster, and catcher Al Solis is with Puerto Rico. Catcher Russell Martin originally was slated to play for Team Canada, but he's decided to stay in camp with the Pirates. So has infielder Ivan DeJesus Jr., who turned down a chance with Puerto Rico.
After a 2-0 start, the Pirates dropped three straight games and, honestly, haven't looked good. The pitching and defense have been shaky and, except for Alex Presley and Jose Tabata, there hasn't been much offense, either. However, it's still early and lots of time for the likes of Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker to work out the kinks before they head to Altoona for an exhibition game with the Curve on March 30.
The newly renovated McKechnie Field continues to draw rave reviews, and even though attendance for the first week's games hasn't been great, crowds are expected to pick up this month when more folks arrive from the north and temperatures begin to climb, too.
We even encountered a rainout, with the Orioles, last Tuesday, and that was the first in a couple of years. After having temps in the 70s and 80s the first couple weeks, a cold snap came through this past week - if you count temperatures in the 60s as a cold spell.
Jean and Joan haven't slacked off in their autograph quest, however. This past week, they added Pirates McCutchen, Tabata, Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens, as well as Jason Heyward, David Carpenter and Tyler Pastornicky of the Braves, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Joyce, Desmond Jennings and Luke Scott of the Rays. The gals also secured signatures from former stars Dale Murphy and Terry Pendleton, who are working with the Braves.
The annual Altoona Day event was held at Duff's Buffet in Bradenton last Thursday, with 140 attending, including at least 30 first-timers, who enjoyed an afternoon of good fun and fellowship with old and new friends from the Altoona area who either are living in or visiting Florida. Babe Pizzino and Dottie Coppetta won the prize for traveling the farthest - three and a half hours from the East coast - to attend the event. Yours truly (president) and Joe Burns (secretary-treasurer) were reelected to head the group. The 2014 event will be held Thursday, Feb. 27, at Duff's.
More Altoona friends seem to arrive in Bradenton on a daily basis. We recently welcomed Jay and Joan Perry, Fred and Barb Woods, Bill and Fritz Beard and Mike and Linda Acker.
And, for those of you keeping track of our restaurant stops, this past week's included City Pier on Anna Maria Island, Miller's Amish Restaurant and one of our all-time favorites, Cafe on the Beach.
Beginning today, the Pirates will play six games in the next seven days at McKechnie. We plan to attend the Strawberry Festival in Plant City on our off day, so another busy week is on tap.
Until next week
Jim Lane is a retired sports editor of the Mirror. He writes from Florida in February and March.