It’s been more than 600 days since the Curve last played a game. That is way, way too long.
But the wait is now over.
The Curve will usher in the long-awaited return of minor league baseball when they take the field Tuesday night at Peoples Natural Gas Field against Bowie. It’s fitting, in some ways, that the Baysox are the opponent after local fans have had to wait so long to finally get to see the Curve, since that also was the case back in 1999 when the franchise played its first home game ever against, of course, Bowie.
As we get set for the return of Curve baseball, let’s take a look back at how we got here, what all has changed over the past year and a half, how will things be different and what fans can expect to see in this new era of minor league baseball.
Why didn’t the Curve play last season?
There was no minor league baseball in 2020 because of COVID. While Major League Baseball was able to play a reduced schedule with no fans in attendance, it didn’t make sense for minor league franchises to play because they depend so heavily on fans for their revenue.
How is minor league baseball different now?
We are coming off one of the most significant offseasons in minor league history. Major League Baseball has taken over the entity that used to be known as Minor League Baseball, and its first act of business was to cut 40 franchises from affiliated baseball. It was a major blow to many cities and fans across the country, but fortunately, the Curve were one of 120 franchises to receive an invitation to be an affiliated minor league club. There also are no more short-season or rookie teams in the minors, with Single-A now being the lowest level.
Why did the Curve get invited to be part of the 120 affiliated franchises?
The Curve were never in jeopardy of getting contracted. PNG Field is in excellent shape, first and foremost, and Altoona is so centrally located to other Double-A teams in the Northeast that it guaranteed the Curve would make the cut.
What happened to the Eastern League?
The league had been in existence since 1923, but after 98 years, it ceased operations when MLB took over the minor leagues. The circuit is now called the Double-A Northeast League, and it contains all of the teams that would have been in the Eastern League had it remained in operation.
What happened to the Trenton Thunder?
There’s only one change among the teams from two years ago, but it has nothing to do with MLB’s reshuffling. The New York Yankees decided to move their Double-A franchise from Trenton to Somerset, N.J., and that club is named the Patriots. The Trenton Thunder were not invited to be part of the 120 affiliated franchises this year.
Why was the start of the season pushed back a month?
The Curve typically have started in early April. This year, because of COVID protocols, the start of minor league spring training was delayed until the major league clubs left Florida and Arizona to start the regular season. Triple-A players have been at MLB teams’ alternate training sites for the past month, while the Curve and all Double-A and Single-A players have taken part in spring training.
How many fans can attend games at PNG Field?
For now, the limit is 2,300. Curve officials hope that number will go up as the season goes along. The reason it’s so low is because of dueling state guidelines. Pennsylvania stipulates that outdoor sporting events can hold 50 percent capacity. PNG Field’s capacity is 10,000, so you’d think the Curve could welcome 5,000 fans. But because the current guidelines call for 6 feet of social distancing, logistically, the most the Curve can hold right now is 2,300. There is proposed legislation seeking to drop the social distancing guideline to 3 feet, and if that happens, then more than 4,000 fans would be able to attend games.
What is the biggest baseball change fans can expect to see?
For the most part, when fans go to games, things will still be pretty much the same from a baseball standpoint. But there will be one major difference. The Curve will play a six-game series against each opponent from Tuesdays through Sundays, then be off every Monday. So instead of fans watching one opponent for three or four games each series, you’ll be getting very used to those teams with all the six-game series.
What other baseball change should fans be aware of?
This is a big one, and we don’t know the answer yet. The Pirates have a new front office in place since the last time the Curve played, and all the decision makers about the minor leagues are different. The old regime cared greatly about two very important things: winning in the minor leagues and doing so with age-appropriate players at each level, meaning younger guys on their way up as opposed to going out and signing a bunch of minor league free agents. Will the Pirates still care as much about winning with this new regime? We just don’t know. It is expected that the Pirates will still try to fill the Curve roster with younger prospects, but the organization also could have different philosophies on when to bring them up and when to promote them.
Cory Giger has covered the Curve since the franchise’s inaugural season in 1999.
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