Results tagged ‘ Pittsburgh Pirates ’

On the Road: We Are Family in Altoona, Part Two

Part one of this blogging odyssey, detailing Saturday’s packed-to-the-gills Altoona Curve vs. Pittsburgh Pirates exhibition game, was comprised of 1645 words and 39 photos. And, yet, by the time it ended I STILL hadn’t made it to the game’s first pitch.

It was just that kind of afternoon — so much was going on that it was hard to keep track of it all. A franchise record 10, 166 fans were in attendance, and the Curve used the occasion to announce a four-year extension of their affiliation with the Pirates and also let it drop that they would be hosting the 2014 Eastern League All-Star Game. (I got tired just writing that sentence.)

But as for the action on the field, a casual “Go Everybody! (Just don’t get hurt!”) vibe prevailed. This sign on the concourse sums it up perfectly:

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As for those fans that were welcomed back — there sure were a lot of them. As the game got underway, I took a lap around the grounds of People’s Natural Gas Field in order to get a sense of what the largest crowd in franchise history looked like. 10,166 Altoona Curve fans can’t be wrong.

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I saw much during my wanderings, but perhaps my favorite example of creative sponsorship was this: signs such as the one below could be found at many staircases, reminding fans that they could burn (as many as 25) calories simply by walking up and down them.

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Take these steps — please!

Interesting signage abounds. The team has branded the ballpark as its own standalone town, Curve PA, which is represented in a consistently cartoonish fashion courtesy of resident artist/director of mascot and brand development Bill Bettwy.

First, for context’s sake, Curve PA’s immediate surroundings:

079The front office staff are presented as characters within this self-contained locale.

093I’m not sure if just outside the Men’s room was the best location for this sign.

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The GM recommends:

092Not in the mood for a Walking Taco? The Curve are the only team I am aware of to offer this self-explanatory option:

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There is also the “Curverogie” — Ham, Pierogies, Onions, Cheese, and, crucially, more Ham.

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The Curve are also well-known for their Curve Burgers, with several people telling me via Twitter last week that I needed to procure one. But here’s the thing, guys: I was diagnosed with celiac disease last year, and have been following a gluten-free diet for the last 10 months. This has severely limited my ballpark food options, a limitation I hope to overcome my recruiting a “designated eater” at each ballpark I visit.

But this trip to Altoona was Spring Training for me as well, and I wasn’t as prepared on the concessions front as I should have been. A designated eater had not been found, so no Curve Burgers were had. Instead, I ordered some BBQ Pork Nachos. (Which, in retrospect, were almost certainly not gluten-free. I really was off of my game.)

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These nachos were great, as nachos by definition are great. (A quick aside: Standalone “Nacho Bar” concession areas are something I would love to see more teams do, as with a little thought they can accommodate  gluten-free and vegetarian diets without seeming like some sort of sad consolation prize for those with restrictions.)

So, anyway, yeah — I did not get a Curve Burger, nor do I have any pictures of the Curve Burger. Someone please send me some pictures, and I will gladly post them along with your commentary regarding how good Curve Burgers are.

All of this culinary hand-wringing led me to seek refuge in the press box for a bit, as I cleared my head and plotted my next move.

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And the next move was obvious: “Quit feeling sorry for yourself and get back out there!”

Earlier in the day I had been informed that an on-field “Mascot Mayhem” race would be taking place on the field after the fourth inning, involving characters from both the Curve and Pirates’ costumed character universe.  I descended into the bowels of the stadium in order to find the mascots who would be participating, and knew I was on the right trail once I came across this “Only in Minor League Baseball” tableau.

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It is not often that one sees Pierogies in their natural habitat!

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I briefly caught a glimpse of the Pittsburgh Parrot as well…

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Perhaps inevitably, I was soon recruited to be a “Mascot Mayhem” direct participant. I might not be able to eat hot dogs in this gluten-free reality (at least not with the bun), but I can damn sure dress up as them. It was really hard to document anything once I was in the costume, but I did manage this hot dog selfie:

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A Hot Dog eye view of the game action:

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As for the “Mayhem” itself, I have no idea what happened. I just tried to avoid Steamer, Tenacious, the Pirate Parrot and everyone else in the cavalcade of pierogies, sumo wrestlers, and jousters streaming past me. I was winded afterwards, and keenly aware of my need to get in shape for the oncoming mascot race season. Anyone have a workout plan to recommend?

Still panting, and with the hot dog costume removed (physically, if not psychically), I made it back to the concourse just in time to see Curve GM Rob Egan, Eastern League president Joe McEacharn and Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner take the field to make a VERY SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT.

Down in front!

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What this esteemed troika of Minor League personnel was on the field to announce was this: The Curve will host the 2014 Eastern League All-Star Game. 

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Perhaps the Eastern League All-Star Game is out for vengeance? The last time the Curve hosted the event, in 2006, they set a franchise record by drawing 9,308 fans and this record was broken during Saturday’s exhibition game. Will the 2014 version of the contest set the record anew?

“To announce [the All-Star Game] on a very special day like this reinforces the commitment this franchise has made to the community,” said McEacharn, and his sentiments summed up the spirit of the afternoon. Between the All-Star Game announcement and the announcement made earlier in the day that the Curve and Pirates affiliation had been extended until 2018, Saturday was all about celebrating and re-affirming what the Curve have accomplished throughout their 15 seasons of existence.

I’d write more on all of this, but, man, it just smells so good around here. It’s the nuts!

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Seriously, these things are just fantastic. Seeing them there in the roasting pan, glistening in their own juices, almost brought a tear to my (metaphorically) jaundiced eye.

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Less successful was the edible sand being sold down by the kid’s Fun Zone, but I have faith that, over time, the fans will come to see the brilliance of this innovative product. Why go against the grain?

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Or maybe at this point there was simply too much dessert going around. Here’s Steamer throwing Kit Kats into the crowd at the conclusion of the seventh inning.

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The Curve put the finishing touches on their 8-6 victory over Pittsburgh just a few innings later, providing incredulous joke fodder for days to come. “The Pirates can’t even beat their own Minor League team?”

But, on this afternoon, it didn’t matter to anyone who won or lost. All that mattered is that they played the game.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: We Are Family in Altoona (Part One)

March 30’s exhibition game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and their Double-A affiliate Altoona Curve was, in one sense, meaningless. The Curve won 8-6, and would have won by more if Tony Watson hadn’t surrendered a second-inning grand slam to Pittsburgh’s Starling Marte. Watson pitched for the Curve in the ballgame even though he is actually on the Pirates, but it was a uniform that was familiar to him. He last suited up for the Curve in 2010, one year before — drumroll, please — Starling Marte.

Such absurdities are common in exhibition contests that pit MLB team vs. affiliate —  everybody knows everybody, the uniforms often seem interchangeable, and the main objective for those on the field is not to get hurt. After all, “real” baseball is right around the corner.

But, yet, one could also make the case that this Saturday afternoon contest — played in almost impossibly idyllic Spring conditions, especially considering that Altoona received six inches of snow earlier in the week — was one of the most meaningful in the Curve’s 15-year history. A franchise-record 10,166 fans packed People’s Natural Gas Ballpark (formerly known as Blair County Ballpark), eager to see their Major League heroes compete within intimate Minor League environs. And, yes, while it is essentially a central Pennsylvania metropolis there can be no doubt that Altoona’s sporting loyalties lie with their far-west Steel City brethren. This is a region that roots for Pittsburgh through and through, taking no small amount of pride in seeing its hometown Curve players (Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Marte, Josh Harrison and many more) elevate themselves to positions of PNC Park prominence.

Saturday, then, was a triumphant homecoming as well as a chance to celebrate and — spoiler alert! — extend a long-running symbiotic relationship. Altoona made the most of it.

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I arrived in Altoona at noon, after a Starbucks and bad radio-fueled drive from the Philadelphia area that included a rest stop nap as well as a shocking toll charge of $19.55 for the privilege of driving on the Pennsylvania turnpike. Although the first pitch was still more than two hours away upon my arrival, the fans were already out in full force.

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I unfortunately arrived too late for the designated clubhouse media sessions with the Pirates players, in which I invariably would have asked Curve alumni for thoughts on their (presumably triumphant) return to Altoona. But, for that kind of content, I kindly refer you to the team website. Take it away, Jared Hughes! And you too, Pedro Alvarez!

Being “media,” I was able to bypass the long lines seen above. But, upon walking by the hoi polloi, I did witness a security guard prevent a man from bringing an empty water bottle into the stadium. “You mean I can’t have my spitter?” the man said incredulously.

I don’t know what I was expectorating, but the scene upon entering the ballpark was truly beautiful. The sun was shining, the grass was green, and U2’s “Beautiful Day” was playing on the PA. I’m generally not a fan of Bono’s brand of messianic uplift, but it was most apropos: “Beautiful Day” over the p.a., beautiful day in PA!

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 Throughout the time that I spent on the field, assorted Pirates players accommodated autograph requests.

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Russel Martin.

Josh Harrison, who spent the entirety of 2010 with the Curve, was particularly accessible.

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During his time with the Curve, Harrison used a rap song written by his brother as his walk-up music. The song, entitled “I’m the Man,” was played for Harrison’s at-bats during the exhibition as well.

“Looky looky look at me! Ain’t I fresh as I can be? Still I prevail when they test and throw the best at me. Cuz I’m the man. I’m the man. You can tell from my stance I’m the man.”

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While on the field I ran into Adam Erikson, an Altoona radio DJ who will be working as an on-field emcee for the Curve this season.

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I hadn’t seen Adam in four years, but we will always bonded by a common semi-traumatic experience. In 2009 we were both contestants in the Curve’s “Outstanding Fan Competition” which involved determining who could continuously touch a life-size bobblehead mascot for the longest amount of time. That’s Erikson, touching Steamer, on the top right.

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 Me, far left, among those touching Diesel Dawg (my foot was on the base of the statue, promise).

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I spent a few moments reminiscing about days past whilst looking longingly into the middle distance, but was broken out of this midday reverie after noticing that players from both teams were trudging toward the outfield. It was picture time!

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Pirates manager Clint Hurdle also proved himself adept at the middle distance gaze.

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This dude from “Moments Photography” was all business when it came to setting up the shot. Like a Wall Street dominatrix, he had no problem ordering millionaires around.

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After lining up a bunch of Curve players and getting them to sit Indian-style, he then proceeded to assemble a row of Pirates.

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Mr. Moments Photography kept yelling “Knees, knees, knees, knees, knees” at the Pirate players in the second row, so that they would, you know, kneel. This prompted one player to respond with “That’s what she said!” before retracting the joke in confusion.

From chaos, order:

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In which the takers become the taken:

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Comeuppance

Smile! Or not.

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Now here’s where you’ve really got to appreciate good game-day planning. The players’ walk from the outfield back to their respective dugouts was routed down the right field line, where a contingent of local Miracle League players was waiting to high-five them, followed by a quartet of disconcertingly fresh-faced servicemen (who later presented the colors during the National Anthem).

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Players high-five, mascots hug. Mascots win.

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Pretty much apropos of nothing, but while walking back along the perimeter of the playing field I passed the Pirates (read: visitors) dugout and was very much impressed, both aesthetically and practically speaking, with this trainer’s medicine chest that was propped open on the bench.

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Hopefully coming soon(ish) to an obsessive-compulsive Minor League Baseball blog near you: a post detailing the anatomy of a trainer’s medicine chest.

Coming now: a photo of a man with a neck tattoo signing an autograph for a child with a mohawk. Norman Rockwell, 21st century-style!

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But A.J. Burnett wasn’t the biggest name to be found at People’s Natural Gas Field. Have you guys ever heard of, oh, I don’t know, Jay Leno?

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Actually, that’s Curve mascot Tenacious (the Curve have a lot of mascots), who soon decided to photo-bomb me with his prodigious gut.

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Prodigious guts aside, you may have noticed that there is a roller coaster beyond the outfield fence. It is called “The Skyliner,” and is part of an independently-run amusement area called Lakemont Park which also boasts THE OLDEST ROLLER COASTER IN THE WORLD.

Why the Curve don’t have a concession item called “The Skyliner” is a question for another day. A question for now: what Curve-turned-Pirate did broadcaster Mike Passanissi interview during his on-field pre-game show?

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That would be Jeff Locke, who during his time with the Curve had a promotion staged in his honor that dealt explicitly with his Lost fandom. Also, he had his intro music chosen by fans via Twitter so that he would never again feel the taint of Lil Jon.

Jeff Locke, ladies and gentleman! Or, to be more specific: Jeff Locke upon being paid a visit by his favorite Curve mascot Al Tuna.

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Al Tuna, like Wilmington’s Mr. Celery or State College’s Nookie Monster, is one of those elusive sort of mascots who only appear in-game when the home team scores. But, this being Curve vs. Pirates, he appeared on behalf of BOTH teams in this ballgame. Like a bluebanded goby, Al Tuna is a fish that can go both ways.

More sure of his allegiance is the Pittsburgh Parrot, seen here having a catch with a kid in the stands.

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More specifically — a kid with a sweet pill-box hat and rigid follow-through on his throwing motion.

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Also boasting an exemplary follow-through motion is Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner, who not only boasts first pitch-throwing prowess — he wears a leather jacket while doing it.

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Donnie Iris — Pittsburgh rock legend, National Anthem singer, and consummate jacket-wearer — was impressed.

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Donnie would soon have his moment to shine, but first — “World Series-style” team introductions!

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But even after this well-calibrated hullabaloo, it still wasn’t Donnie’s time to shine. Curve GM Rob Egan took the field, flanked by a coterie of VIPs, in order to make the announcement that the Pirates and Curve had extended their affiliation another four years. It will now run until the fantastical-sounding year 2018 (during which I will turn 40).

I’ll let the press release do some further explaining: 

The announcement was made by Curve owner Bob Lozinak, Curve General Manager Rob Egan, Pirates President Frank Coonelly and Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington ….Altoona, which at the end of its previous agreement would have already become the longest-standing Pirates affiliate in the modern era, will strengthen its hold on that mark having been affiliated with the Pirates for 20 consecutive seasons at the end of the newest agreement (1999-2018).  

A standing-room only crowd is definitely the best time to make such an announcement. Here’s Coonelly thanking “the best fans” in Minor League Baseball (159 teams disagree, of course, but Curve fans are pretty impressive).

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Donnie then sang to the fans, a fitting culmination to a series of touching moments.

2013-03-30 13.07.57And speaking of “touching,” I then adjourned to the concourse to say hello to my old friend bobblehead Diesel Dawg, who, as alluded to previously, I once touched for 16 hours straight.

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That’s life-size bobblehead Diesel Dawg for ya — incessant cranial undulation, but otherwise inert. I missed the guy.

And, hopefully, you missed me writing blog entries such as this. It is now the season! Part Two from Altoona coming soon!

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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