Ex-Curve players cherish memories

Minor league players come and go, come and go, and the very nature of the sport is so transient that it’s tough for them to ever feel much at home in a given city. It’s tough, too, for the fans to really get to know the players in the limited time they’re here.

For many players, Altoona is just another city, just another step on the ladder as they chase major league dreams. When they leave here, they may never give our little corner of the world a second thought.

That’s what makes it so refreshing to catch up with some former Curve players who cherished their time in Altoona so much that they jump at the chance to come back years later.

“It’s home to me,” former Curve third baseman Rico Washington said. “I call it my home.

“I lived here for eight years. I enjoy the people here. I’ve experienced everything Altoona has to offer as far as being employed here by the Altoona Curve for three years, living here and enjoying the community and enjoying the natural resources with what the wildlife has to offer.”

Washington met his wife here while playing for the Curve, and his family now lives in Arizona. He’s just eight months shy of earning a bachelor’s degree in business management.

“I left behind a lot of memories here,” he said with his ever-present smile. “This is a great place to be, and it’s good to be back.”

Washington was one of four former Curve players who returned Saturday to take part in the 15th season celebrity softball game. Pitchers Mike Johnston and Dave Daniels and catcher Chris Snusz also made the trip back for the event. Former major league pitcher Mike Holtz also played in the game.

Adam Hyzdu will always be Mr. Curve, while Josh Bonifay is Mr. Altoona. Washington doesn’t have one of those nifty nicknames, but the friendly infielder with the memorable first name was so well-liked during his time here (2000-02) that many fans still pick him as one of their all-time favorite Curve players.

“That definitely means a lot to me,” said Washington, who made it to the majors with the Cardinals in 2008, “and I appreciate that a lot of fans here appreciate my talent and how I played the game and they just appreciate me as a guy. That right there says a lot and makes me happy that they think of me as a role model.”

All of the returning players had great things to say about Altoona and the Curve franchise. Daniels, a relief pitcher on the inaugural 1999 team, eloquently spoke about how special it was to be part of that historic season.

“What I remember about that summer was the excitement that the town showed for that first game against Bowie, and that excitement sustained for the entire summer,” Daniels said. “This was a very supportive crowd that recognized hard work.”

Daniels, now an orthodontist in Connecticut, didn’t hesitate when Curve general manager Rob Egan called him to come back for Saturday’s event. Daniels thinks so highly of Altoona that he made it a special destination for his wife, Pam, and 17-month-old son, Henry.

“This is the first ballpark that Pam and Henry have seen, and I could not have picked a better place to show them what I used to do,” Daniels said.

One of the fascinating things about the 1999 Curve team is that only one member of that club is still playing organized baseball – Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo, who won 15 games for Altoona. Daniels saw first hand how good Arroyo was then and isn’t surprised that he has had such a successful carer.

“Impressed but not surprised,” Daniels said. “He was probably one of the best overall athletes I ever played with.”

Like Washington, Johnston met his wife locally and lived and worked in the region for several years. He pitched for the Curve in 2003 and for the Pirates in 2004-05 and now lives in Philadelphia working in the mortgage industry.

Johnston has a high level of appreciation for Altoona and the fans because he got to know so many people here, a benefit most minor leaguers don’t get in a given city.

“I called the place home for a long time, and outside of the field I was always at different places, going bowling or things,” Johnston said. “You get to meet a big variety of people, they come to know you, you come to know them and become friends. It’s special.

“People are more personable here, and the [Curve] organization puts us out for the people so much more than other places I’ve been, so you build a bond with the fans. It’s like a more family atmosphere here.”

Snusz played catcher for the Curve from 2003-05, giving him an opportunity to get to know the city and fans much more than players who spend only a short amount of time here.

“The relationships that we built with the people that I got to be close with when I was here, we still stay in touch today,” Snusz said. “We drive by this place on vacations and everything, and we always just seem to pop in.

“Altoona’s a place that you can always just swing by and say hello to everybody, and it’s like turning back the page to yesterday when you were playing here.”

Snusz lives in Buffalo and works as a retirement planner, plus he’s a scout for the Cubs and coaches a national traveling team that has had numerous players drafted. He was terrific in the softball game with two triples and a double, and he had such a good time that he plans to convince other former players to come back if the Curve make the event an annual affair.

There have been more than 450 players suit up for the Curve in 15 seasons, and while not all have as fond of memories as others, it’s good to know that some truly loved playing here and truly look forward to coming back.

We have a great little minor league city, a great ballpark and terrific franchise in the Curve, and it would be easy for some players to get so caught up in their careers that they don’t realize all that.

It’s terrific, then, catching up with the guys who do realize it and hearing their favorite memories and stories.

Follow Giger on Twitter @CoryGiger