It’s road-trip season and I’ve got a great, inexpensive, in-state idea — Altoona, Pa.
Only a two-hour drive from Pittsburgh, Altoona has a railroad museum, a candy factory, the world’s oldest roller coaster, a Super Sheetz and the Altoona Curve baseball team. The Super Sheetz allows you to dine in so you can watch people put air in their tires while you gorge on shuper-shized shammiches. Leap-the-Dips, the coaster, only goes nine miles per hour but it gives you some insight on how people let loose in 1902. Who doesn’t like trains, candy and baseball? Communists, that’s who!
The Altoona Curve has had tremendous success during its tenure in the Capital City of Blair County. Altoids (the preferred nomenclature for Altoona natives) have been watching the Pirates of the future since 1999. People’s Natural Gas Field is a beautiful park with 7,200 seats and is connected to Lakemont Park, home of the historic coaster. Minor-league baseball is filled almost exclusively with cheap seats, and great promotions as well. We love fireworks in the Steel City, but Rail City might love them even more. The Curve has 26 fireworks nights this season, including a couple double-fireworks nights.
This year, five of the Bucs’ top 30 prospects are on the Curve roster. Barrett Barnes and Harold Ramirez patrol the outfield with Stetson Allie. Remember him? The former future phenom quit pitching and is starting his third season with Altoona. Can’t-miss catching prospect Reese McGuire, first baseman Jose Osuna and pitcher Clay Holmes are the other top players who hope to make it to PNC Park one day. The Pirates of 2018 are just a couple-hours drive away.
Joey Cora takes over managing duties this year. Cora had a respectable 12-year career in the big leagues, including an All-Star game. He also knows how tough the minor leagues can be — carrying your own luggage, riding the bus, getting stabbed, fast food all the time. Oh, yeah, Cora suffered stab wounds while in the minors in 1986 in San Antonio. He has some street cred to go along with his major-league bona fides.
If you’ve been to see the Curve anytime since its inception, you may have seen future stars like Pedro Alvarez, Tony Watson, Jack Wilson, Starling Marte, Ryan Voglesong and Jose Bautista entertain the Altoids. Ian Snell, Brad Lincoln and John Van Benschoten played there too, but they weren’t what you’d call “successful.” But playing in Altoona means the next step is Indianapolis and finally “The Show.”
The Curve plays in the Western Division of the Eastern League in the AA league of Major League Baseball. Division rivals include the 2015 champion Bowie BaySox (Orioles), the Richmond Flying Squirrels (Giants), the Harrisburg Senators (Nationals), the Erie SeaWolves (Tigers) and the Akron Rubber Ducks. The Rubber Ducks are the Cleveland Indians’ affiliate, so needless to say, I hate them so much. They were formerly the Akron Aeros and actually had quite a bit of success. That unfamiliar feeling of success caused them to panic, so they went with the much stupider name Rubber Ducks a couple seasons ago. They’ve had no success since the name change.
One of the best things about the minors is the promotions. Owners come up with the strangest stuff just to get fans to show up. In addition to the staggering 26 night of fireworks, the Curve also offers several bobblehead nights and an entire evening’s tribute to Roberto Clemente. But since they are in Blair County, they also have dairy night, pro-wrestling night, and camo-hunting-vest night. But it gets better and weirder. There’s a Nothing Night (no explanation given), a Salute to Movie Flops Night, Star Trek Night, Jar Jar Binks T-shirt Night, a Salute to Coffee, Ghostbusters Night and appearances by the Pirate Parrot and former WWE star Mick Foley. Any one of those nights is a reason to go. They have nights with $1 hot dogs and also $1 bleacher-seat night. It’s a place after my own heart.