Baseball: It’s not just for the Majors

If you’re a baseball fan, there’s a lot more to explore in the area than just the Pittsburgh Pirates and Major League Baseball.

Less than an hour’s drive south to Washington County will take you to Wild Things Park, home of the Washington Wild Things of the Frontier League. While not officially affiliated with Major League Baseball, the Frontier League joined a partnership in 2020 that allows MLB to follow its players and have access to their stats.

Washington Wild Things

According to Chris Blaine, vice president of corporate relations, the players are recruited from colleges and other minor league teams. You can also find undrafted players on the roster. “They come from all over, and all of them are very good,” she emphasized. “People equate them with a college team, talent-wise, but they don’t realize what the competition is like.”

Former Pirate closer Kent Tekulve recognized that when he accepted the position of director of baseball operations with the newly established team before its inaugural 2002 season. Blaine said Tekulve wanted to be involved because with his unorthodox pitching style, nobody thought he would make it to the majors. She said he saw the Wild Things as an opportunity for someone to be outstanding, and that continues to be the goal. “We want to get our guys noticed by the big leagues.”

Entertainment between innings is part of the experience. Tekulve called it “three hours of entertainment interrupted by nine innings of baseball.” The premise is successful, as the Wild Things are celebrating their 20th anniversary this season. They’re only the third team in the Frontier League to last that long. “We’re quite proud of that,” Blaine said, adding, “In no way do we compare ourselves with the Pirates, but it’s a nice, convenient, safe, affordable way to entertain families.”

If you are looking for something related to the Pirates, the Altoona Curve is their Double-A affiliate. A two-hour drive east will take you to Peoples Natural Gas Field to see them play. Jon Mozes, director of communications and broadcasting, said many fans come from Pittsburgh to see the team. “Last year we were blessed with a lot of exciting young players, and quite a few fans made their way over to see what the future might look like.”

Last year’s roster included potential future stars, including Oneil Cruz and pitcher Roansy Contreras. This season, fans might catch a glimpse of Nick Gonzales, the Bucs’ first-round pick in 2020; shortstop Liover Peguero, who Mozes said “set the world on fire at High-A last year,” and top-notch pitching prospects, among them 2019’s first-round pick Quinn Priester.

Altoona PNG entrance

The Curve also has a special promotion this season: “Back in 1884 there was a professional team that played here called the Mountain Citys. They only lasted 25 games, but on Thursday night home games, the players will be wearing special Mountain City uniform tops. They sort of pay homage to the history of Altoona, and at the end of the year we’ll do a live auction so fans can bid on them and take them home,” Mozes said.

You can also make a day out of it by stopping by another Altoona favorite that lies right behind the outfield wall: Lakemont Amusement Park. Its Skyliner roller coaster zooms along the rails during games with “GO CURVE” written on the sides of the cars. “Last year I watched at least two teams meander over after batting practice and ride the roller coaster,” Mozes said.

If you’d like to see the Curve in a different venue, you can drive north to Erie to see them compete against the SeaWolves, the Double-A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. As with the Curve, players on the SeaWolves frequently make it to the majors. Infielder Spencer Torkelson, who was in Erie last season, made the jump to the majors out of spring training and is currently on the Tigers’ roster.

Even if you have previously been to a SeaWolves’ game, you likely won’t recognize the site because UPMC Park underwent a nearly $20 million renovation in the past few years, resulting in new video boards, a new team store and stadium club. “It’s basically a brand-new ballpark,” said Greg Gania, assistant general manager/communications.

Erie was in danger of losing its franchise when MLB reorganized the minor leagues after the 2020 season, and the ballpark was deemed not up to Double-A standards. The clubhouse facilities were initially built for a short-season ballclub, and were never upgraded, Gania said. “So on top of the renovations that started in 2019, we got $1.5 million from the state, basically to save the team. Players now have a state-of-the-art locker room and training area.”

You could drive up for a SeaWolves game in one day, but because of Erie’s other draws, such as Presque Isle and the Presque Isle Downs Casino, you might want to stay overnight. Gania said the team draws a number of fans from both Detroit and Pittsburgh. “The SeaWolves and the beaches are the top two attractions in Erie in the summertime,” he added.

West Virginia Black Bears

If you’re looking for something different, you can also check out the West Virginia Black Bears in Granville, West Virginia, who previously showcased young Pirates at the beginning of their careers. They were the Class-A short season affiliate of the Pirates from their inception June 19, 2015, until MLB’s reorganization.

Now, the Black Bears are part of the MLB Draft League, which is a collegiate summer baseball league that began play in 2021. As Leighann Sainato, general manager, explained, “We’re no longer a minor league affiliate, as in we don’t get Pirates players, but we are still affiliated with MLB. We get players who are draft eligible—kids coming directly out of high school or players who have exhausted eligibility in college and are looking to be drafted. We are essentially a showcase league for any possible draft picks.” Last year the team had a total of 13 players either drafted or signed as free agents. Morgantown native Jedd Gyorko, who most recently played for the Milwaukee Brewers, is the manager.

The Black Bears play their home games at Monongalia County Ballpark, across the Monongahela River from Morgantown and West Virginia University. They share the facility with the Mountaineers. The ballpark almost appears to sit in a bowl, with stands stretching between first and third base. The areas further down the line are grassy berms, which Sainato said is part of the attraction. “The whole atmosphere is nice, including the view—you can oversee all of Morgantown.”

If you enjoy baseball in a more intimate setting—seating capacities range from 3,200 for the Wild Things to 7,210 at Altoona—you can drive a short distance north, south, or east from PNC Park for a variety of options.

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The Wild Things’ schedule runs from the beginning of May to the beginning of September. Tickets are $15, with various discounts, such as kids 12-and-under free on Sundays. Double-A games are April through September, with prices of $10 to $17 for the Curve; and $12 to $15 in advance, or $30 in the new stadium club, for the SeaWolves. The Black Bears’ short season is mid-June through the end of August, with prices at $12 – $13 in advance.