It doesn’t take long to see the Altoona connections in this quiet town on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Pirates’ fans from our area have been coming here for years – long before the Curve existed. However, the ties the Mountain City has enjoyed here the last 15 spring trainings have been strengthened immeasurably with the advent of our region’s Double-A baseball team.
These days, the folks that have been coming here for more than 15 years, as well as the newcomers, can say: “I saw this player or this coach when they were in Altoona.” Such are the trappings of a terrific relationship between the Altoona Curve and Pittsburgh Pirates. In fact, the affiliation between the two clubs will be the longest-running partnership the Pirates have had with a minor league club in baseball’s modern era when the current deal expires in 2014. Not that either the Pirates or Curve envision that year signaling the end of their US-22 connection. Officials from both franchises have said they hope to continue their affiliation long into the future.
As mentioned, a huge benefit of the affiliation is witnessing players perform in Altoona on their way to Pittsburgh. In all, 101 players have gone on to play in the Major Leagues – most of those with the Pirates. Members of the Curve front office staff – like our fans – wish the best for all of them and are excited every time one of “ours” makes their debut in the “show”. However, if asked, each of us would admit to having our favorites. I encountered two of mine within my first few hours at McKechnie Field. Pitchers Jeff Locke and Jared Hughes are truly two of the better people you would want to know. That’s why I pull hard for them to succeed at the game’s highest level.
Locke, who is hoping to land a spot in the Pirates’ rotation this spring, pitched well on Sunday in his team’s 11-9 loss to the Yankees. The 2010-11 Curve lefty pitched four hitless innings, walking one, and striking out two in a rebound performance. Locke came on in relief in a game started by 2011-12 Altoona right-hander Phil Irwin. After his four innings, Locke greeted the crowd lined up near the Pirates’ clubhouse and patiently signed more than two dozen autographs. Beyond signing, he took the time to strike up a conversation with several of the signature-seekers because that’s who he is. He loves the game and enjoys connecting with people who share his passion. There’s nothing phony about Jeff Locke.
Ditto for Jared Hughes. The big right-hander, who pitched in 2008-2011 with Altoona, definitely is in the team photo for the All-Time Good Guys. Even though he takes on a caveman-like personality when coming out of the Pirates’ bullpen, his off-the-field demeanor has remained the same – quick with a smile, a friendly greeting, and a desire to at least chat for a few moments. Such was the case after his inning of work on Sunday. Hughes returned to the bullpen after pitching the top of the ninth inning to gather his things when we noticed each other. On cue, he motioned for me to come down toward the gate separating the bullpen from the concourse so we could catch up. Many players wouldn’t take the time to do that, but Jared Hughes always does.
Relationships like these are arguably the most special part of the Curve-Pirates’ affiliation, but far from the only ones you can witness in Bradenton. Also seen on Sunday: more than three dozen Altoona Curve Booster Club members cheering on their favorites from Section 10, former Curve first baseman Matt Curry (2011-12) getting ready at the Pirate City complex to head to McKechnie Field to play in the Major League exhibition game, Indiana, PA native Michael Ryan – who was a player-coach with Altoona last season – managing the West Virginia Power in a Single-A exhibition game, and 2012 Curve pitching coach Jeff Johnson who joins Ryan on the Power’s staff for the coming season, so that he can have several trips closer to his North Carolina home where his wife Deidre is recovering from cancer treatments (Jeff says she’s cancer-free!).
We have a special privilege in Altoona and have embraced it wholeheartedly. Injecting the Curve into Pirates’ country has strengthened the bond the Black-and-Gold have in the region. The bond is so strong we see the results here – 1,100 miles away from home.