Pirates president Frank Coonelly acknowledged it was "the worst-kept secret" in town, then confirmed the news that broke last weekend: The Buccos are coming to Altoona next April.
Coonelly, a frequent visitor to Curve games each year, looked out at the crowd during Thursday's home opener and called Altoona's fans "the best in minor league baseball." As a reward to the fans and the Curve front office staff, Coonelly and other team officials agreed to have the Bucs visit Altoona for an exhibition game a few days before the start of the 2013 regular season, with the date yet to be determined.
"Tremendously impressed every time I come down here," Coonelly said of Altoona's fans. "It's a fan base that loves baseball and understands baseball, comes out and supports the local team. You can really tell that they are baseball fans."
The major league season likely will open April 4 next year - schedules don't come out until later this summer - so the Pirates exhibition game is expected to be either Monday, April 1, or Tuesday, April 2, in the afternoon.
The Pirates previously visited Altoona for an exhibition game in May of 2000.
The Curve had hoped to announce the 2013 exhibition during Thursday's opener, but news of it already had been picked up by the media. The franchise still went forward with its announcement, though, in the middle of the fourth inning as Coonelly, Curve owner Bob Lozinak, general manager Rob Egan and senior adviser Sal Baglieri took the field behind home plate.
Two other announcements were made about the Pirates exhibition:
n All current full-season ticket holders at PNG Field will get free tickets for their seats for the game; and
n All other fans at Thursday's game had a chance to sign up for a pre-sale opportunity to be able to purchase tickets in advance when they go on sale later this year.
"We're just thrilled that the Pirates have the kind of relationship with us where they would feel like they want to make a commitment to play a game here," Egan said. "We can't wait for the game, and we can't wait to continue this relationship long into the future."
Coonelly said the Pirates may try to play an exhibition game against a major league team on either that Monday or Tuesday in early April next year, or if the Curve game is scheduled for Tuesday, they might stay in spring training a day longer.
"It's always tough because the schedule is so tight," Coonelly said of scheduling preseason exhibitions. "We made a commitment to Bob and his family that we were going to be here, and we just thought, next year is it, we've got to do it."
Lozinak is impressed with how the Pirates have kept their promise to play the exhibition after first agreeing to it in 2009. He understands the big league team can play more lucrative exhibitions before the season - such as against the Phillies, like the Bucs have done two years in a row - but instead they have agreed to visit their Double-A affiliate.
"It means to me that they're very, very honest with their word," Lozinak said. "They promised to come, and they're coming.
"We understand a lot of positions being a minor league affiliate. We might ask for something, and we won't get it. If they have an exhibition with Philadelphia, I can understand that. But they said, 'We'll try to do it,' and they've done it."
Part of the strong relationship between the two organizations has been Coonelly's willingness to visit Altoona so frequently and make himself available to the Curve front office and fans. Just last year, Coonelly was a guest at the Curve Booster Club's Fanfest event.
Lozinak said he's never seen a major league team president be so visible in a minor league town.
"No, never," he said. "Usually you don't see them at all."
Some current Curve players still could be with the team next year for the exhibition against the Pirates. Several of them already have experienced that type of thing as they were with the Bucs earlier this week for the two exhibition games in Philadelphia.
"It just gives you a little extra motivation," center fielder Robbie Grossman said of being on hand for those exhibitions. "You get to see a little bit of the bigs, and it just makes you want to push a little bit harder."