Giger: Atmosphere can’t be beat

A perfect day. Absolutely perfect.

Good for the Curve. And good for everyone who got to enjoy one of the great sports events in Altoona history when the Pirates visited Peoples Natural Gas Field for an exhibition game Saturday afternoon.

When you spend a year planning such a game, knowing full well that Altoona weather in March is wildly unpredictable, it leads to plenty of apprehension and anxiety. So the last thing Curve officials wanted to see in the days leading up to the game was a bunch of snow on the ground and more in the forecast.

Fortunately for everyone, Saturday turned out to be an absolutely gorgeous, sun-splashed afternoon that provided a wonderful atmosphere for a wonderful event.

“Outstanding. Perfect,” Curve owner Bob Lozinak said of the memorable day. “What more could you ask for?”

Nothing really.

Seeing the Pirates up close and personal at the local minor league park, in front of a record crowd of 10,116, with a grand slam and a lot of offense, on a picturesque day – add it all up and, well, it was perfect.

It also meant so much more than when the Pirates last visited Altoona in May of 2000. That was an exciting day, but as Lozinak and Curve general manager Rob Egan pointed out, the affiliation had existed for only one year, and there was no history between the Double-A franchise and the big league club at that point.

Now there is. Now there are a bunch of former Curve players on the Pirates’ roster – 10 to be exact – those players were looking forward to coming back here and playing rather than dreading it, and all the great Bucco fans in the region couldn’t help but feel a closer connection to the parent club after seeing its minor leaguers play locally for 14 seasons.

“It seemed like the Pirates players, especially the ones who played here before, genuinely enjoyed themselves,” Egan said.

They absolutely did. Everyone said so and appeared to genuinely mean it, from star center fielder Andrew McCutchen and second baseman Neil Walker, to the five members of the Curve’s 2010 Eastern League championship club on the current Pirates roster, to manager Clint Hurdle.

“Electric,” Hurdle said of the atmosphere. “All-time record crowd, great turnout from the fan base, big game for the affiliation. … It’s a good day for everybody I would think.”

The game itself dragged on for more than three hours, and it had to be very disappointing for the Bucs to see pitcher James McDonald get rocked by Double-A hitters for four runs in the first inning.

But those things don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Nor does it matter that the Curve won, 8-6, and are now 2-0 all-time against the Pirates, although it’s a neat little nugget to point out (it was 7-5 Curve in 2000).

What really matters about Saturday is the amount of respect the Pirates showed the Curve simply by showing up. It cannot be overstated how significant it is to have a major league affiliate take the time and go through all the logistics issues necessary coming out of spring training to play such a game in a minor league ballpark.

The Pirates didn’t do all that just so their players could spend a day in Altoona, of all places.

They did it because they have a ton of respect for the Curve franchise, the people who run it and the fan base here.

Make no mistake, the Curve franchise is an outstanding one by minor league standards. There might be little things we can complain about here or there about something at the ballpark, but by and large, what fans get to enjoy at Peoples Natural Gas Field is better than what’s offered at 95 percent of the rest of minor league ballparks.

The Pirates realize that. They realize they’ve got an outstanding Double-A affiliate run by outstanding people, and they wanted to help an already great relationship get even better by agreeing to the exhibition game.

“I just want to say how grateful we are to the Pirates for doing this,” Egan said. “Coming over, saying yes and doing the game means the world to the community, and it means a great deal to the franchise.”

“What we have established over the last 12, 13 years with the Pirates relationship has been deep-rooted trust in each other,” Lozinak said.

The Curve and Pirates are a perfect match from a minor league affiliation standpoint, and we saw why on a perfect day Saturday.