When we laid out our travel plans for Florida this week, the one thing that I had wished we had more time for was a real trip to explore Pirate City. Staying in Fort Myers (about ninety minutes from Bradenton) with my brother in Immokalee and four games already on the schedule, there just wasn't time for more than the drive-by that we made after Monday's game to wander around the facility, snap some quick pictures, and take off.
Honestly, that was fine by me. Just seeing these parks and getting to be in Bradenton and on the Gulf Coast after years of hearing about it has been an awesome experience. I had already made a mental note to make sure we blocked off a day to check out minor league games at Pirate City if we come back in the near future, but there's really only so much that can be done in a week. Then, before we left our hotel for McKechnie yesterday, I did a quick e-mail scan and saw a message from Trevor Gooby, the Pirates' Senior Director of Florida Operations, saying that he'd seen (via the PBC Blog) that I was at Pirate City and wondering if I was interested in coming back for a full tour.
Um, yes, please.
I really didn't know what to expect; most of the interior of Pirate City seemed awfully off-limits when we were there earlier in the week and so I sort of expected an extended version of the impromptu and unauthorized tour we'd given ourselves. Regardless, I wasn't about to turn this sort of thing down and so me and the entire WHYGAVS traveling entourage (or, more accurately, my brother, dad, mom, uncle, and aunt) headed back to Pirate City (if you've never been down here, it's maybe a ten minute drive at the worst) after Wednesday's game at McKechnie to meet with Trevor, who was simultaneously making the drive back.
After everyone arrived, we were lead into the cafeteria where a large group of minor leaguers were eating. (Trevor told me I could take pictures of whatever I wanted to use here on the blog, but I really didn't want to take pictures of minor leaguers eating, killing time in the rec room, etc. Being there makes it abundantly clear that these guys are almost all college-age kids just living their lives and it seemed unfair to try and use that to my advantage for the blog) The caf was lined wall-to-wall with every Sports Illustrated cover in the team's history (this will be a theme later), but otherwise looked like a nice, upscale college dining hall. You know, one that makes healthy meals catered to different ethnic backgrounds and varies them up on a regular schedule so that the people that eat there regularly don't feel like they're always eating the same thing.
After the cafeteria, we moved on to the rec room, which looks like a typical lounge you'd find in a student union building, only way nicer (flat screen TVs with PS3s, several pool tables and ping-pong tables, etc.). Again, I didn't want to take pictures since players were in there (Trent Stevenson and Tim Alderson were playing what looked like a particularly involved and very, very tall game of ping-pong), but below there's a picture of the second floor room, which includes a nice little theater set-up.
I've always wondered how aware minor leaguers are of what the parent team is doing, and Trevor told me that all of the TVs have the MLB Extra Inning package and are required to be turned to the Pirates whenever they're on. This is ostensibly because some of the foreign players have no idea what PNC Park or Pittsburgh or the Pirates are like, but I secretly think that it's probably a bit of motivation as well since the guys that must grace those TVs fairly often rarely give the impression that winning a job in Pittsburgh is impossible.
Maybe the coolest feature of the downstairs rec room is that the giant mural of the 1979 team that used to be in Froggy's in the Strip has a prominent place on the wall. In fact, as we moved in to the hallways that contain the dorms, it became apparent that Pirate history is everywhere. Each wing of dorms is lined with amazing classic Pirate pictures, like the hallway pictured below, and as far as I can tell, there's not one picture repeated.
In fact, there are 80 dorm rooms and 76 of them are dedicated to the 76 All-Stars in Pirate history, with a picture of the All-Star in the room and a plaque mentioning it. I got a picture of an unused dorm (without beds, but you can use your imagination to fill in the room with two beds with the knowledge that behind me is a two-sink bathroom with a shower -- it's much nicer and bigger than my old dorm in Assumption Hall on the bluff at Duquesne). You can see the two pictures of an old Pirate in it, though I'm ashamed to admit that I don't know who it was (I didn't check the plaque as I didn't realize each room was dedicated to a former All-Star until later).
Maybe the coolest tribute in the dorm wing of the facility is room 231, which has been preserved (if it were properly numbered it would be room 228) in tribute to Roberto Clemente, who stayed at Pirate City every spring and always stayed in room 231.
After seeing the two floors of player living space, we headed up to the third floor and got to see the conference room that doubles as the team's war room during the draft.
After that, we walked down the hall, Trevor knocked on a door, slid into an office, and I heard him say, "Hey, Neal, can you come out here for a second?"
And so Neal Huntington came out into the hallway to meet the blogger and his family. He was incredibly nice about being interrupted during his postgame work, and since this was a surprise visit I managed to repress the urge to ask him the endless stream of questions that I could've come up with (mostly centered on Kevin Hart after his ugly performance that day, probably) that would have set blogger-GM relationships back to about 1999. He said a lot of the things he says in public about the team and made some small-talk with us for about ten minutes before shaking our hands and going back to work.
From there, we went back downstairs and saw the equipment room that's more or less the supply room for all of the minor league affiliates. All of the balls and bats that go to places like Indianapolis and Altoona come through Pirate City first. With only a couple weeks until minor league season starts, the room was pure chaos. Well, pure blissful chaos if you're the sort of person that loves the smell of a room full of baseball bats and balls and gloves (there are a few more rows just like this one that extend a ways back; the room is much larger than it appears in this picture).
Because there were still players in the locker rooms, our tour ended there, but on the whole, there are a few things that really stood out. The first is that running a minor league organization is an incredibly complex system with moving parts beyond what I could've possibly imagined before Wednesday. During spring training, every Pirate minor leaguer is housed at Pirate City for the entirety of camp and though the guys ticketed for the upper levels clear out when their season begins, all the extended spring training guys as well as the players ticketed for the Rookie League Bradenton Pirates stay in the dorms at Pirate City for the duration (the Marauders may as well, though I was told that decision hadn't been made yet). Since most of these guys consist of the youngest players in the system (Dominicans coming to America for the first time and high school draftees), the Pirate City not only houses them, but has to teach them how to live on their own. They have to teach some of these guys how to open bank accounts, how to eat right, etc.
In a lot of regards, it's seems to me that it's probably more accurate to think of Pirate City as "Pirate University" or "Pirate Academy." The players that live there are spending most of their time on the baseball field and when they're not on the field, the Pirates are doing their best to control what they do while they're in Pirate City and to know what to do with themselves once they leave the place. Instead of going away to college to figure out how to survive, these guys are going to Pirate City.
Consider this; right now in Bradenton, Pirate City is housing something along the lines of 150 minor league players, out of which maybe 20 or 30 will end up in the big leagues. They all know this, and on top of that they all know exactly where they stand on that list of 150 and who's directly ahead of them and thus in their way to being one of those lucky 20 or 30. And these are all competitive kids, the best of the best where they come from, and now they're all under one roof and while many of them become friends, they're still all their own competition. And they're mostly under the age of 22 or so, and so some of them are homesick, frustrated, scared, or any of the other things that come from going away to college only with the added pressure of being a professional baseball player. Keeping this somehow sorted out and organized is a daunting task.
I've obviously only ever seen one complex like this in my life, so I can't say exactly what the Pirates are doing compared to everyone else (it's my understanding that the Tigers are the only other team that keeps all their players on-site in college dorm-fashion like the Pirates, but beyond that I don't know much else), but having the curtain pulled back on Pirate City to see the gears turning was really an eye-opening experience. The Pirates have a huge, huge operation in Bradenton that's the lifeblood of most of their minor league-system. It's been clear since Huntington and, by extension, Kyle Stark took over the system that the organizational philosophy has been to standardize everything and that coaches and players are held to a strict set of expectations. That was very, very clear in everything I was shown inside Pirate City.
Another aspect that really stood out (and it's probably obvious from what I focused on from the tour) was the emphasis on history. The Pirate uniform, the black and gold, the unique lettering and numbers, they all mean something to fans. We all have memories attached to the team and most of the players simply don't. Accordingly, I think it's really cool that the team is doing its best to educate the players on the history of the team that they've signed with. It's impossible to move around the interior of Pirate City without bumping into Pirate history and while that may not mean a whole lot for player development, it's still important to me as a fan.
There are a lot of things about the Pirates that I, as a fan, wish the team made more accessible to everyone. One of the great things about this experience was the chance to be invited inside not only as a fan, but as a blogger with the understanding that I'd be able to share everything I saw with my readers. The tour Trevor took us on lasted for over an hour and we fired questions at him non-stop, from the makeup of the staff that keeps Pirate City going to the grass mix on the practice fields, and he answered all of them, constantly reminding me that I could take pictures of whatever I wanted so that I could write about all of it.
And finally, I think that we all too often assume that Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly and the decision makers that sit out front in the public eye are the entirety of the team's front office. That's just not the case; there are a lot of people like Trevor Gooby that work under them doing the day-to-day things that we all take for granted, but that need to be done so that the guys on the "baseball operations" side of things can do their jobs. Of course, when they screw up, no one writes scathing blog entries about them, so I suppose it's probably not all that bad of a trade-off.