By Rob Egan
My three-day trip here marked the eighth time I’ve been to spring training. The last six of those journeys have occurred in consecutive years (2009-14) related to the same organization, complex, and city. As such, I not only know my way around this city on Florida’s gulf coast, but I see more and more familiar faces each time.
As I recounted in Thursday’s blog, the first order of business here on Wednesday evening was hosting our field staff for dinner – most of whom were familiar. Manager Carlos Garcia, pitching coach Stan Kyles, trainer Mike Zalno, and former player and newly-designated player/coach Miles Durham all renewed acquaintances with the Curve contingent. Even the restaurant was familiar, as we like to go to Pier 22 which is along the Bradenton riverfront.
On Thursday, it was time to head over to the Pirate City complex to catch up with Larry Broadway, the Pirates’ Director of Player Development. Curve fans were first introduced to “LB” as a first baseman with the Harrisburg Senators. He’s now in his third season in charge of what is considered by many baseball experts as the best minor league system in the game.
While at Pirate City, I also meandered to the back fields to check out some of the action that was going on with the two Class ‘A’ clubs. One of the first people I saw there was 2012 Curve pitching coach Jeff Johnson. “JJ” reports that all is well with his wife, Deidre, and their two girls and that they are moving into a new house in North Carolina. He will be at the Pirates’ Class ‘A’ affiliate in West Virginia again this season. Johnson joked that he may be elected mayor in Charleston as he has been there as pitching coach for all but one of the years the Pirates have had their most recent affiliation there.
At the same field was Mike Ryan, who was a player/coach for the Curve in 2012. A native of Indiana, PA who played for New Britain on his way up to the major leagues, he is entering his second season as manager of the West Virginia Power. In addition to having Johnson return as his pitching coach, “Mikey” will welcome former Curve catcher Miguel Perez as the player/coach on his staff.
On the mound for the West Virginia club on Thursday was Pirates’ lefty Jeff Locke. A National League All-Star in 2013, Locke was a key member of the Curve’s 2010 Eastern League Championship club and also pitched in Altoona for part of 2011. As he tries to work his way back into the Pirates’ rotation, Locke had an excellent first inning by retiring the first three hitters so quickly (opposite field fly out, strikeout, weak ground out) they let him face a fourth which he retired on a broken-bat roller. In the second inning, the southpaw ran into a little bit of trouble allowing a couple of hits and a walk before reaching his pitch count. Locke, who was pitching for the first time in awhile, naturally fatigued as he reached the 45-50 pitch mark.
Later Thursday evening when attending the Pirates-Orioles’ Grapefruit League game at McKechnie Field, the Curve baseball fraternity gathering continued. On top of seeing a lineup that featured seven of the nine Pirates’ players who once played for Altoona, former Pirates’ player and Curve player and coach, John Wehner, walked in through the facility’s media gate with his wife. Now a Pirates’ broadcaster, Wehner was enjoying the night off of his duties by coming out to the game as a fan. It’s a terrific irony that “Rock” has continued his baseball career as a TV/radio announcer. He would always give me good-natured grief when I wanted to do a pre-game interview with him when I was broadcasting Curve games. Now, he says he loves what he does and he is a natural with his baseball knowledge and his “Pittsburghese”.
Yesterday, I wrapped up my stay with a trip back to Pirate City to see the Double-A and Triple-A clubs as they prepared to play the Yankees’ affiliates. Among the baseball people I saw on Friday were former Curve pitcher Kyle McPherson, who’s about one year removed from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. While he’s no longer on the Pirates’ 40-man roster, team execs anticipate him making it back to a regular season mound in the minor leagues soon. If healthy, the big Texan can provide the Pirates another option as a starter or reliever.
Also seen on the fields at Pirate City yesterday was 2011-12 Curve outfielder Quincy Latimore, who is battling to make a roster after splitting last year with the Akron Aeros and Washington Wild Things. Latimore said he’s worked on cutting down his swing and is trying to drive the ball to all fields. Team officials report good things about the outfielder’s attitude on his return to the Pirates’ organization. Not that he was ever out-of-shape, but “Q” looked as well-conditioned as I had seen him and there’s a chance he could be a member of the Curve in 2014.
While I could go on and on, you get the point. After several trips related to the same organization, you start to realize how many good and interesting people you get to meet in the game. Many of our booster club members and other fans I saw in Florida would say the same. Baseball has been very, very good to us.
See you at Peoples Natural Gas Field in 12 days!