Plenty of factors have led to sustained success
By any measure, the Curve have been a huge success story for two decades, but what can get lost in the big picture are the important details that were handled perfectly back in the late 1990s that helped ensure the franchise’s long-term stability.
It was a long shot that Altoona, a small market, was able to land a Double-A franchise, and some of the local officials who helped pull that off discussed how it happened Thursday as the Curve opened their 20th season.
The location of the ballpark in Lakemont was a big factor. State Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, a county commissioner at the time in 1996, was impressed that Tate DeWeese had scouted the area and had the foresight to see that the site would work.
“I didn’t have the vision to see that you could put up this outstanding park in that space, but (DeWeese) could see how that would work,” Eichelberger said during Thursday’s Curve game.
Of the two other Blair County commissioners then, Donna Gority was on board with the Curve project, although John Ebersole had issues, particularly with the funding.
When it came to winning Double-A charter approval from Minor League Baseball, the Curve had an ace up their sleeve in Bob Lozinak, a longtime minor league owner who just so happened to be from Altoona. If it had been solely DeWeese, who died in 2005, and other locals involved, it’s highly doubtful Minor League Baseball would have chosen Altoona.
“The bottom line at the time was nobody had what we had,” Lozinak said Thursday. “We had the financing for a stadium. Springfield (Mass.) wanted to get it, but they were just walking into the program with an idea and a hope and they had no financing or anything. We were there Johnny on the spot at the time, and that’s why we got it. And rightfully so really in the end.”
To this day, Peoples Natural Gas Field remains a gem – a very clean facility with a lot of space that is very inviting to fans. Making sure that the ballpark had all of those elements was key back in the late 1990s.
Eichelberger was part of a group that visited Erie’s Jerry Uht Park for ballpark ideas and said, “We liked this grand concourse at Jerry Uht Park, so that everybody could get up, get a drink, go to the bathroom, talk to their friends and not miss the game.”
Lozinak said they had to fight for a 40-foot concourse instead of 20, as some early designs called for, and that turned out to be a major factor in the ballpark’s success.
“It’s huge,” Eichelberger said, “because I grew up going to Three Rivers, and if you left your seat, you missed everything that was happening on the field. So when we saw that (in Erie), we thought, this is perfect.”
It might be taken for granted now, but clearly one gigantic reason for the Curve’s success has been their affiliation with the Pirates. But that almost didn’t happen.
Erie was joining the Eastern League in 1999, as well, and the Pirates had their short-season affiliate there from 1989-98. It came down between Altoona and Erie for the Pirates affiliate, and had it gone to Erie, there’s no telling what ultimately would have happened with the Curve.
“How we got the (affiliation with) the Pirates was key for the whole thing,” said Bob Jubelirer, a longtime state senator who also served as president pro tempore and lieutenant governor, and certainly a highly influential person in helping the Curve become successful.
Then-Gov. Tom Ridge wanted the Pirates to put their Double-A affiliate in Erie, Jubelirer recalled by phone Thursday night. Kevin McClatchy, the Pirates’ owner at the time, didn’t want to upset the governor, so there was a mini-political situation over the decision.
“(McClatchy) was concerned that if he didn’t go to Erie he would suffer some type of retribution from the governor’s office,” Jubelirer said.
Jubelirer had frequent discussions with McClatchy and told him, “Let’s get the best possible situation here. If its Erie, I’ll support it. And if it’s Erie, the governor will support it. But I said, ‘Let’s make a baseball decision, let’s not make a political decision. … Do what’s best for the long term of the team and the quality of the stadium.'”
Jubelirer also told McClatchy, “If you can call and you’re honest with me and you can say that Erie is a much better place for the Pirates to be, I will support you. But not in a political decision in the fear that the governor was going to cut off your funding.”
As it turns out, Altoona’s sparkling new ballpark was vastly superior to Erie’s Jerry Uht Park, which was built for a short-season team rather than Double-A, and the Pirates obviously wound up picking Altoona.
Erie, meanwhile, landed an affiliation with the Anaheim Angels, which lasted all of two years before that club affiliated with the Detroit Tigers.
“That was the beginning of our wonderful relationship with the Pirates,” Jubelirer said.
The rest, of course, his history.
And speaking of history, it’s long been known that Lozinak first thought of putting a minor league team in Altoona in 1979, but some local officials balked at that idea.
Had that actually happened, it’s safe to say that the minor league franchise in Altoona would never had come close to enjoying the kind of success that the Curve have had since 1999. The ballpark wouldn’t have been nearly as nice, which would have changed just about everything, and 1979 was well before the explosion in the minor league fan base.
“In ’79 we tried to put a team here, and when I think back, what a big joke that would have been,” Lozinak said. “The field had no field, there were no lights, there was no clubhouse.”
A lot of dominoes had to fall perfectly into place over a long period of time for the Curve to be in position they are today in their 20th season.
Call it fate or destiny or just meant to be, fans in this area all should be thankful that things played out the way they did.
Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.