Blair County Ballpark is used to housing large crowds when its host team, the Altoona Curve of the Double-A Eastern League, is in town. Especially when the team’s star left-handed pitcher, Rudy Owens, takes the mound like he did on Thursday.
However, for one of the few times this season, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound southpaw hurler took a backseat – a feat even more impressive when you consider Owens allowed the Richmond Flying Squirrels just two hits over six shutout innings while improving his record to 11-6 in a 5-1 Curve victory.
That was because as well as Owens has pitched this season, his star-power couldn’t match that of a certain Stanley Cup champion in attendance – Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis
Dupuis was invited to the game by the Curve to participate in a ceremonial ‘first shot’ and to mingle with fans during a pair of autograph sessions – one for all the fans and another for the Altoona Trackers amateur hockey program.
Although Dupuis’ “playing time” on Thursday consisted of participating in the ceremonial ‘first shot’ before the game, the sharpshooting winger managed to hit a proverbial home run with the fans at Blair County Ballpark – many of whom were sporting their Penguins jerseys and t-shirts – thanks to his outgoing personality he displayed during the two-plus hour signing session during the game.
“This was a great ballpark to come out and visit and the fans were awesome,” Dupuis said. “I am definitely glad that I had a chance to come out here.”
With the Curve sitting in first place in the Western Division at 77-54, Altoona is not a team that needs as much gimmickry to attract fans as other minor-league baseball teams, but it was clear that Dupuis’ appearance attracted quite a few Penguins followers who might not have otherwise made it out to the ballpark.
Dupuis, who had never been to an event that far outside the city of Pittsburgh, was blown away by the sheer volume of Penguins fans who came out just for the chance to grab an autograph and take a picture with him.
“There are definitely a lot of hockey fans in Altoona,” Dupuis said. “It was a great night for me to come out here. I hope that everyone enjoyed it.
“You know that there are plenty of Pittsburgh Penguins fans, but when you come out two hours and everyone is still Penguins fans – they really love our team. That means a lot to us.”
The game’s official scorer tabulated the attendance at 4,469, and one glance at the line waiting to meet Dupuis – a gathering which began over two hours prior to his scheduled appearance – suggested that all 4,469 fans found their way into the line.
Dupuis was so taken back by the amount of attention he drew with that many fans – many of whom were sporting his No. 9 jersey – that he stayed an extra half hour and signed for each person in line.
|Pascal Dupuis chats with Altoona Curve outfielder Andrew Lambo prior to Thursday's game at Blair County Ballpark. |
“That is the way (the Penguins) are as a team,” Dupuis said. “That is the way we try to represent our team. I think that is what every single player on our team would have done out there tonight.”
While Dupuis was a hit with the fans during his meet-and-greet session, he also starred on the field during a ceremonial ‘first shot’ before the game.
Because it was Altoona Trackers Night at Blair Country Ballpark, the Curve threw Dupuis a curveball when it came time for the first pitch he was to deliver.
Instead of stepping on the pitchers mound and delivering a pitch to the catcher, Dupuis was given a hockey stick and instructed to shoot a puck into the waiting glove of a youth hockey player decked out in goalie gear.
Let’s just say Dupuis’ shot was a knuckleball that landed low in the strike zone for a strike. For Dupuis, it was a shot much like his performance at Heinz Field on July 27, when he shot a puck through the field goal upright during the Bridgestone Winter Classic media conference.
“That was a little bit different (on Thursday) shooting at a young goalie from home plate,” Dupuis said. “They actually put the sliding board (where he shot from) the wrong direction so I didn’t have much room to shoot. That kid made a great save.”
And that was fitting that the young hockey player made a great save because Dupuis sure gave everybody in attendance a great night.