CURVE, Pa. – Over the last 20 years, Curve fans have been treated to a talented group of first basemen suiting up in Altoona.
When the voting concluded for the Fans’ Choice All-Time Curve Team First Baseman last fall, it was a recent Altoona star who was chosen by the fans to headline the honorary 20th season team.
However, when Josh Bell first joined the Curve in 2014, he was an outfielder. He was ranked as the Pirates’ No. 4 prospect by Baseball America and the No. 64 prospect in baseball that year. After a late-season promotion from Bradenton, he played 24 games to close out 2014 and was named as the Pirates’ Minor League Player of the Year.
That fall, Bell began the transition to first base in the prestigious Arizona Fall League.
“First base is a lot faster with reactions and speeds,” Bell said in 2015. “In the outfield, I had maybe four of five seconds to make a catch. In the infield, it’s right on you right after the crack of the bat.”
He continued the work at first base throughout the offseason and into spring training.
“When I got back to spring training, I was able to work with Kevin Young and Gary Green, two great infield guys who taught me the basics and everything I needed to know to go ahead and get going at first base,” Bell said.
In his return to Altoona for the 2015 season, Bell was off to a hot start at the plate through the first month, hitting .373 over his first 18 games. However, the power that fans had hoped to see had not yet appeared. Through his first 42 Double-A games, Bell had not yet homered.
That changed on May 2, and the first Curve homer for Bell was extra special.
Facing the Erie SeaWolves and trailing 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth, Bell launched a three-run, walk-off homer over the right field wall to give the Curve a 5-3 win.
In March 2017 during spring training with the Pirates, Bell recalled that homer as one of his favorite moments in Altoona.
“I remember being on deck,” Bell said. “Max (Moroff) was up, and he hit a ball that we all thought was out. I was jumping up and down, but the ball got caught at the warning track.
“I get in there and dig in, and this was like a month and a half into the season. I was hitting well but I hadn’t had any homers to that point. It was a first-pitch slider and I hooked it down the line. I knew it right off the bat. It was definitely going to get out.”
It was the first walk-off homer of his professional career, and Bell was met by a pile of his teammates at home plate.
“Celebrating at home, it was something I’ll never forget,” Bell said. “It being my first walk-off homer, it’s something to this day that I haven’t done again, but it’s always in the back of my mind.”
Later that summer, Bell got a preview of life in the big leagues when he was selected to play in the All-Star Futures Game at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati in July.
“The big-league experience, playing in front of 40,000 fans, just the lifestyle for that one day gives you a little taste and keeps the fuel in that fire,” Bell said after returning from the Futures Game in 2015. “Helps you know what you’re striving for.”
Bell made headlines in that game, crushing a two-run homer in the fourth inning for the U.S. team.
“It was an awesome experience,” Bell said. “It was one of those swings that right off the bat you know it’s got a chance to get out of the ballpark.”
Tom Prince, who managed the Curve in 2015 and is now the Pirates’ bench coach, was on the staff for the U.S. team at the Futures Game that summer.
“For him to do it in that moment, on that stage in front of those people and against that competition, it was special,” Prince said. “He was a big leaguer that day, and he’s going to be one down the road.”
Prince’s words have proven true over time. Bell was promoted to Triple-A in August of 2015 and made his MLB debut less than a year later with the Pirates, making an immediate impact.
Bell singled in his first big-league at-bat on July 8, 2016 against Chicago’s Jake Arrieta. The next day, he hit a grand slam for his first major league homer.
In 2017, Bell took over as the Pirates’ everyday first baseman and hit .255 with 26 homers and 90 RBIs, a breakout season in his first full major league campaign.
Overall, Bell spent 120 games with the Curve in 2014 and 2015, combining to hit .303 with five homers and 67 RBIs. His .307 batting average during his Eastern League All-Star year in 2015 is the highest for a switch-hitter in a season in franchise history.
In 2015 with the Curve, Bell led the team with 60 RBIs and tied for the team lead with six triples. He is one of 17 players from the 2015 Curve who have already reached the majors.
“We were so in the moment,” Bell said. “We were rolling. It was a fun time to play, because we were rolling through teams and finding ways to win. It was a lot of fun.”
Bell was selected as the Fans’ Choice All-Time Curve Team First Baseman from a group of finalists that included Carlos Rivera (2001-02), Josh Bonifay (2003-05), Brad Eldred (2004-05), Steve Pearce (2007), Matt Hague (2010), Jose Osuna (2015-16) and Edwin Espinal (2016-17).
The Curve will give out the Josh Bell Fans’ Choice All-Time Curve Team bobblehead, presented by Peoples, to the first 1,000 fans on Saturday, August 4 at Peoples Natural Gas Field. For tickets or more information, visit AltoonaCurve.com/Tickets, call 877.99.CURVE or stop by the PNG Field box office.