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Former Steeler Bettis still a hit with fans

April 4, 2008
By Todd Irwin,
After throwing out the first pitch before the Curve’s season opener against Reading at Blair County Ballpark Thursday night, former Steelers great Jerome Bettis came down to the media room.

Owen Kravetz, a 7-year-old from Altoona, was there to meet him and get two Bettis football cards autographed.

“It’s just great,” Kravetz said. “I didn’t expect it because my dad had [hockey] practice, and he just took me because my mom had to go back into work.”

Bettis retired after the Steelers won the 2006 Super Bowl. Two years later, though, Bettis is still getting treated like a rock star. Later, as Bettis was leaving the press box, he was met by screaming fans holding up camera phones to get a cherished keepsake.

“The fan support that the Steelers get in Western Pennsylvania is incredible,” Bettis said. “It’s close to, if not the same, as if you were playing. Although I’ve been retired for a couple years, it feels as though I’m still on the roster.”

A prolific bowler, Bettis didn’t short-hop his first pitch. Many first pitches are pretty bad, but his throw to standing Curve pitcher Ronald Belasario was straight and was caught about chin high.

“I think it still might have been a little high,” Bettis said, “but I got it down in good style. I didn’t want to dribble it to home plate, and I was saying to myself ‘I got to get it down.’’’

Most of Bettis’ time now revolves around his broadcasting job with NBC, speeches, his businesses and his 11-month-old son and 3-year-old daughter. Bettis says he doesn’t miss playing football.

“What I miss is being in the locker room, communicating with my former teammates and that camaraderie. But I also miss the fans because every time I came out of that tunnel, there was always a chill. When you hit that stadium, it was rocking. I miss that because you can never re-create that no matter what I do.”

Bettis’ former backfield mate, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, recently signed an eight-year, $102 million contract.

“I think it was justly deserved,” Bettis said. “A lot of times you see players get very, very lucrative contracts and you say ‘Why did this guy get these kind of numbers.’ But Ben has been the kind of player ever since he got here that has been able to make an impact.”

Coonelly likes BCB

Frank Coonelly, the new president of the Pirates, was in attendance for Thursday night’s game. While he had gone by BCB on his way from Pittsburgh to State College before, he had never been at a home Curve game.

“This is an absolutely gorgeous stadium,” he said. “I was just in the broadcast booth doing an inning, and what a gorgeous setting.”

Coonelly has had a couple eye-opening experiences in the last week. The first one was the Pirates’ wild 12-11, 12-inning win over Atlanta on opening night.

“It was quite an introduction to being a club employee, I’ll tell you that,” Coonelly said. “I was on the league side for all those years, where we obviously don’t root for any individual club. As much it gave me stomach ulcers, I’ll take 95 like it.”

Coonelly is in the unenviable position of trying to help turn around an organization that has turned in 15 straight losing seasons. One more losing season and the Pirates tie the Philadelphia Phillies’ major league record of 16. But publically, Coonelly says the Pirates are on the right track.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with the progress of the organization,” he said. “In particular the things that [general manager] Neal Huntington has done in terms of the hires that he’s made. I’m really enthusiastic with what’s going on.Things are ready to happen, and I’m hoping they’re happening sooner rather than later.

“I do understand the frustration of the fans. Remember, I’m originally from Philadelphia. We won one World Series in Philadelphia in the entire history of the franchise. What I’ve been encouraged about the most is the fans haven’t given up on the Pirates. They still love Pirate baseball and the experience at PNC Park.

“They sure as heck want us to win, and that’s what I want to bring them, to restore the greatness of the Pittsburgh Pirates.”

Parnell dives ... sort of

Curve general manager Todd Parnell was supposed to sky-dive from an airplane before the game, but because of the high winds, he wasn’t able to. So he improvised.

When a helicopter landed on the field, Parnell got out and did a side roll on the outfield grass. Later, he chest bumped Bettis on his way out for the first pitch.

“Parney is something else,” Bettis said. “The barrel roll was pretty neat, but the chest bump took the cake. That’s why the Curve is the team that it is, because it’s run by a great GM”

No helmet

There’s a new rule this year throughout baseball in which base coaches have to wear helmets. But Curve manager Tim Leiper was in the third base coaching box without one in the first inning.

“I totally whiffed, and it was horrible because I was out there,” Leiper said. “I knew I didn’t have it on, and the umpiring supervisor is here. I feel bad for those guys, but I didn’t want to stop the game. The whole inning I’m thinking ‘Gosh, I hope they don’t catch me.’’’

Leiper was wearing a helmet in the coaching box the rest of the game.

The Mirror’s Mike Boytim contributed to this report.

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