Friendly folks stroll along the Riverwalk in Bradenton. Friendly families frolic at the nearby white sand beaches. Friendly friends meet up at a local restaurant for freshly caught fish.
In fact, Bradenton’s motto is “The Friendly City.”
Funny, then, that it is home to menacing marauders: “One who roams from place to place, making attacks and raids in search of plunder,” as Merriam-Webster defines them.
The Bradenton Marauders attack opposing teams and plunder wins. Many opponents in the Florida State League consider the minor league Low-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates not friendly at all because they win so often.
Regardless of the menacing nature of these Marauders, the city has warmly embraced them.
“The Marauders have been a tremendous asset to our community since their inaugural season in 2010,” says Nicholas Azzara of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They’re a winning ballclub, so you’re seeing up-and-coming players perform early in their careers when their skill sets can still be raw, but their talent is indisputable.”
Bryan Morris was on the pitcher’s mound for that first Marauders game in 2010.
“The thing I remember most about that game was how explosive our lineup was,” Bryan says. “We scored a ton of runs that night. With all those runs, I still ended up getting a no-decision. I didn’t make it past the fifth inning.”
He did, however, make it to the big leagues. He made his Major League Baseball debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 14, 2012, and played five seasons with the Pirates, the Miami Marlins and the San Francisco Giants before retiring.
“I was in Bradenton because I had a goal to reach my dreams,” Bryan says.
For Marauders General Manager Craig Warzecha, it is about creating a dream experience for the fans, too.
“Good memories are what I want to provide,” Craig says. “I want to provide a fun experience. A baseball game is a longer experience, giving you more opportunities to have a conversation.”
That may be with friends enjoying a game after work or with people in the row behind—unknown before the game.
“It’s a place to sit down with others and build community,” Craig says.
The Marauders’ promotional nights are rollicking, with community-driven Faith Night, Hispanic Heritage Night, Pride Night, Star Wars Night and Margaritaville Night, complete with a Jimmy Buffett cover band.
“The Marauders provide an entertaining, family-friendly product at a fraction of the cost of a Major League Baseball game,” says Nicholas, who regularly takes his two sons to the ballpark.
The team won league titles in 2016 and 2021, and hopes to repeat in 2022. The season started in early April and extends into September.
“The biggest highlight for me in Bradenton was being named to the all-star team,” Bryan recalls. “It was such an awesome feeling to know I had gained enough votes in our league to have that opportunity.”
After the game, Bryan was called into the office for news that he was promoted to Double-A Altoona.
“That was a really good feeling,” notes Bryan, who currently is pitching coach at his alma mater, Tullahoma High School in Tennessee.
The Marauders players all strive for the Major League Baseball experience. Among those who have reached the big-time are Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton.
Marauders’ player Rinku Singh took a different journey. Although he never advanced to MLB, his story of being among the first professional baseball players from India was portrayed in the Disney movie “Million Dollar Arm” in 2014. He now is a professional wrestler.
The ballfield in Bradenton became a field of dreams long before the first Marauders game. The Pittsburgh Pirates have had their spring training facilities in Bradenton since 1969.
Prior to that, the Bradenton Growers were part of a Class A minor baseball league founded in 1919. Other original teams included the Bartow Polkers, Lakeland Highlanders, Orlando Caps, Sanford Celeryfeds and Tampa Smokers. The current Marauders team traces its roots to a 1957 Florida State League team, the Tampa Tarpons, through iterations of teams and towns.
“The front office team is special,” Nicholas says of Craig and his colleagues. “They go out of their way to help community causes.”
That includes promotional nights, players donating their time at local fundraisers or having Marty—the happy-faced, big-bearded, eye-patched, pirate-hat-wearing mascot—show up at a parade.
Craig says it is important to build relationships—from local governments to area businesses, and from children’s organizations to the families in Manatee County eager to watch a competitive team.
He says seeing folks in the stands having conversations over peanuts and Cracker Jacks is rewarding. Seeing children make friends with Marty is rewarding. Having the team record wins is rewarding.
Marauders or not, Bradenton is a friendly city.
“The thing I love about Bradenton is that we support each other,” Craig says. “It just isn’t during baseball season. It’s year-round.”