Representatives of the Pittsburgh Pirates braved the first snowfall of the season -- albeit a mild one -- to visit Altoona Tuesday evening.
Pirates team president Frank Coonelly, along with team broadcasters Steve Blass and Greg Brown, drove two hours on a cloudy, cold, and dreary day to greet Altoona Curve Booster Club members at their annual dinner at the UVA Club.
It was another testament to the extradordinary commitment that exists between the Pirates and their Class AA affiliate, the Curve.
We love coming to Altoona, said Coonelly, who has also been a regular here on the Pirates Winter Caravan tour. But it seems that every time I come here, its snowing. [Tuesday] wasnt a problem. There was a little snow on the mountains as we were driving on Route 22.
The snowfall was an offshoot from Hurricane Sandy, which hammered the eastern coast early this week.
Ive always enjoyed my trips to Altoona, said the personable Blass, who pitched the Pirates to victory in the 1971 World Series. The ballpark here is so pretty. It reminds me of all the good memories I had in the minor leagues. But I wish I had played in a minor league ballpark like the Curves ballpark.
Searching for answers
One of the biggest individual mysteries surrounding the Pirates second-half collapse in 2012 was the difficulty experienced by righthander James McDonald in July and August. McDonald was as bad in the second half of the season (when he sported a 3-5 record with a 7.52 earned run average) as he was excellent in the first half (9-3, 2.37).
Blass has some good first-hand knowledge of that type of tailspin. He went from being on top of the baseball world in 1971 to having no clue to where home plate was just a couple seasons later.
Blass even had an ailment -- Steve Blass Disease -- named after the affliction that prompted his retirement from baseball in 1974.
McDonalds downfall this past season wasnt nearly as pronounced, but he did wind up laboring in the bullpen late in the season when he couldnt come up with an answer.
McDonald appeared to be fighting himself in the last two months of the season.
When you arent pitching well, you are fighting yourself, Blass said. James McDonald was fabulous during the first half of this past season, then he wasnt, Blass said. Thats just the way it is. Maybe there is a mechanical problem, maybe not. I dont know why. Im not a pitching coach, and Im not James McDonald.
Houston, no problem
With the jump of the Houston Astros from the National League Central Division to the American League West Division, there will be an equal number of teams -- 15 -- in both leagues in 2013. There will also now be five teams in each of the three divisions in each league.
The Astros move could be viewed as a negative for the Pirates, who beat a young, inexperienced Houston 12 times in 2012. But Coonelly doesnt see it that way.
I dont think its going to hurt us, Coonelly said. I think it makes a lot of sense. Ive said for awhile that each of the divisions should have the same number of teams. We were always in a division [the NL Central, which had six teams, including Houston] that had one more team than the other divisions. This puts our division on equal footing with the rest of Major League Baseball.
Deadline rumors false
Its almost comical that every season near the trade deadline, names are bandied about, but the trades most often dont come to fruition. The Pirates were rumored to be in the thick of the market for either of two sluggers, Chase Headley and Josh Willingham, who stayed put at San Diego and Minnesota, respectively.
There are a lot of reports at the trade deadline, most of which are not accurate, Coonelly said.