This Altoona All-Star remains a Pirates cult hero

November 14th, 2019

ALTOONA, Pa. -- Head toward the entrance behind home plate at Peoples Natural Gas Field and look up, just to your left, to see the larger-than-life image of a young finishing his right-handed swing and watching a baseball take flight.

A few steps inside the gate, there is a white circle on a beige wall to your right. In the middle, in green block print: ADAM 16 HYZDU.

Keep walking and take in the beautiful Minor League ballpark, the Allegheny Mountains in the distance and neighboring Lakemont Park’s “Skyliner” wooden rollercoaster out past the right-field fence.

Now, look beyond the left-field fence, behind the bleachers. Attached to a light pole is a sign, with “Adam Hyzdu” in the lower left corner and his No. 16 in the top right.

Hyzdu hasn’t played here for the Altoona Curve, the Pirates’ Double-A affiliate, in two decades. His time in Pittsburgh ended in 2003. He recorded only 82 hits over parts of seven Major League seasons in his journeyman career.

But he still might be the most popular player in the history of a Minor League team that once employed, among others, Andrew McCutchen. His legend fills a whole page in Altoona’s media guide. When he’s at PNG Field, it’s an event.

Why are Hyzdu’s name and number so revered in this central Pennsylvania ballpark? How did he become a cult hero for the 21-year-old Curve franchise?

“It is super unique,” Hyzdu said. “It just kind of all worked together that way.”

Welcome to Altoona, Mr. … Hydzu?

At Cincinnati’s Archbishop Moeller High School, Hyzdu seemed destined for stardom. He was a multi-sport athlete -- who broke the school home run record set by Ken Griffey Jr. in 1990 -- and the Giants drafted him in the first round that year.

But Hyzdu seemingly stalled in Triple-A after bouncing around the Minors. He enjoyed his best Spring Training with the Red Sox in 1999, only to wind up playing sporadically for Triple-A Pawtucket. When Boston released Hyzdu in early May, he packed up and started driving to see his family in Cincinnati.

On the road, he said, he got a call from the Pirates’ general manager.

“Cam Bonifay called and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a job for you in Double-A. We’ve got some guys there that are kind of headcases and running amok, and you’ve got a great reputation. Would you mind going there?’” Hyzdu recalled in a phone interview with “What the heck, I’m already right in the area. My wife and I pulled the trailer in, and we met them in Akron.”

Pirates management specifically wanted a high-character veteran for their newest affiliate, said Triple-A Charlotte general manager Rob Egan, Altoona’s first director of broadcasting (1999-2004) and later the Curve’s GM (2009-16). The first time Hyzdu walked into manager Marty Brown’s office, Brown gave him charge of the clubhouse. “Whatever you say goes,” Hyzdu remembers Brown saying.

Right away, Hyzdu had a regular role and the trust of his coaches.

“It was pretty amazing to have that support,” Hyzdu said. “I could have sucked, then that trust might have been eroded, but I wound up doing OK.”

Without the wealth of information broadcasters can instantly access these days, Egan scrambled to learn as much as possible about the Curve’s newest player without having met him. Throughout Hyzdu’s first game, Egan mistakenly called him “Hydzu.”

He can laugh about it now, in part because Hyzdu’s name became so well-known in Altoona.

“He was a big part of the launch of that franchise. We had success from the get-go, fortunately,” Egan said. “We’re in a market that is very sports-hungry. There was fan interest from the very start. Then you add a guy like this who comes in, hits, plays solid defense, is a leader, is kind to folks, signs autographs, is just a genuine person.

“He really became the face of the team very early on.”

‘The greatest Curve player that’s ever lived’

Hyzdu quickly became Altoona’s first star, too. He batted .316 with 24 homers, 78 RBIs and a 1.003 OPS while being named Eastern League MVP in his first season.

But plenty of Minor Leaguers hit well without turning into local legends the way Hyzdu did. He figured it was the result of the area’s passion for sports, a Pirates affiliate playing so close to Pittsburgh and the novelty of it being the franchise’s inaugural season.

“Those are always going to be your first memories,” Hyzdu said.

That was part of it, Egan agreed. Local fans appreciated having a team to call their own, and Hyzdu’s performance gave them someone to rally around. But there was more to it.

Hyzdu’s wife, Julie, always reminded him to have fun and enjoy the people as much as the games, and he embraced his role as the team’s representative in the community. He was a fixture around the Curve’s ballpark, which opened along with the new Minor League franchise in 1999.

“His reputation was pretty amazing, obviously, for what he did, the way he hit, the home runs, the RBIs,” said John Wehner, the former Pirates player and current broadcaster. “But he was also an engaging personality. He had a smile on his face. He’d talk to anybody and everybody. He was one of those guys everybody liked.”

Fans came to appreciate the affable Hyzdu for his humility, his love of the game and his unexpected underdog story. He was a family man, as he and Julie raised and home-schooled three children during his baseball career. (He’d teach gym and math, he said. Julie taught everything else.)

“Beyond his genuine nature and signing autographs and greeting people, he understood that he kind of held a special place in the fans’ hearts not just because of performance, but because of this new franchise taking root,” Egan said. “It’s such a small town that Adam would go out, like all the players would go out, and he’d be recognized everywhere. That’s unusual in a Minor League city.”

What happened in the spring of 2000 was also unusual. Everyone reasonably assumed Hyzdu was bound for Triple-A, but the Bucs re-signed him and sent him back to Double-A.

Hyzdu solidified his status in Altoona by hitting .290 with a .960 OPS, 31 homers and 106 RBIs in 142 games. For the second straight season, he was named team MVP.

To this day, he remains tied for the Altoona record for career home runs and holds the Curve’s single-season records for homers, RBIs, games played, runs scored, extra-base hits, walks, total bases, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

“He’s the greatest Curve player that’s ever lived, they say,” said Michael Ryan, the former Altoona manager who spent most of 2000 in the Eastern League with Double-A New Britain. “He was a man among boys at that time. I could see why this community and the organization was so excited by him.”

On Sept. 4, 2000, Altoona’s front office retired Hyzdu’s number during a fireworks show after the Curve’s last game of the season. It was an extraordinary gesture, inspired by former GM Jeff Parker and director of marketing Jim Gregory, to show how much Hyzdu meant to the community and two-year-old team.

More than anything, it just felt right.

“I think about it sometimes and wonder, if it hadn’t been that first year or two, if it would have resonated quite as much. But it was that first year or two,” Egan said. “The fact that he’s been back a few times, it’s introduced new fans to, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the No. 16.’ And then they get to hear the story.”

‘Good heavens, man, this is pretty cool’

Not long after the Curve’s season ended, Hyzdu was having dinner with his wife when Bonifay told him, a decade after his professional career began, he had earned his first call to the Majors.

“It was just this huge burden that had been lifted, because now I never had to answer the question: How come you never got to the big leagues?” Hyzdu said. “It was just this euphoric feeling.”

He made two starts and hit his first big league homer that September. When he recorded his first hit against the Reds on Sept. 8, 2000, Sean Casey greeted him at first base: “That’s a great feeling, isn’t it?”

Hyzdu shuttled between Triple-A Nashville and Pittsburgh the next three years, always searching for that feeling. For one glorious week, he found it.

Hyzdu went 15-for-30 with four homers and 12 RBIs while starting eight straight games from July 18-25, 2002. He was named National League Player of the Week, an award that came with a watch he still keeps in a drawer.

“It was something you always wanted to repeat. I felt so calm and relaxed,” Hyzdu said. “I’m not going to hit .500, I get it, but why can’t I feel comfortable and know that I’m going to play and I don’t have to do too much? And it just never clicked, that comfort.”

But it all came together on July 20, 2002. The Pirates didn’t have much to celebrate amid their 20-year losing streak, but that Saturday night was different. Pittsburgh broadcaster Greg Brown recalled that about 8,000 of the 35,101 tickets sold were walk-ups, creating a lively atmosphere at PNC Park.

Hyzdu started in center field and enjoyed the game of his life. He had four hits, two homers and seven RBIs in a 15-6 win over the Cardinals. Brown still remembers how the crowd responded to Hyzdu.

“That night was so magical, and it was so loud,” Brown said. “He was getting curtain calls left and right. He popped out in one at-bat and got a standing ovation!”

Said Hyzdu: “I was like, ‘Good heavens, man, this is pretty cool.’”

“We kind of felt like, ‘Man, maybe Altoona’s cult hero becomes a folk hero here,’” Brown said. “Maybe he’s the kind of guy you rally around and have a strong second half. Who knows? The Hyzdu magic, for whatever reason, just never caught on.”

Hyzdu loved his time in Pittsburgh, saying now he wishes he could’ve stayed another 10 years. But near the end, he said, someone in the front office introduced him to a scout from a Japanese team and said, “I thought you should get to know him.” It was a confidence-shattering message that management believed the next phase of his career wouldn’t take place in the Majors, much less in Pittsburgh.

Hyzdu’s career ended in Japan, but first came another highlight. After spending most of 2004 in Triple-A, he joined the Red Sox for the final month of the season. When Boston ended its 86-year championship drought, Hyzdu received a World Series ring and a framed jersey he still has on display.

Brown has a working theory: The more Minor League games someone plays, the nicer that person is. With 1,703 games of experience for 13 different Minor League teams, Hyzdu proves it to be true.

“Just a guy that obviously loved to play the game of baseball,” Brown said. “Just a great, great guy, as down-to-Earth as they come. Another reason to root for him.”

‘A reputation like none that I’ve ever seen’

In 2010, three years after Hyzdu’s last professional season, his father-in-law passed away. Hyzdu took over ownership of Auto Corral RV in Mesa, Ariz., the RV dealership he helped his father-in-law start, and saw it grow into a full-time gig.

Hyzdu enjoys running the business and conversing with customers about their families, even if it’s not the career he always dreamed of. Atop the dealership’s website is a slideshow of the Major League ballparks Hyzdu called home: Boston, San Diego, Texas and Pittsburgh.

Hyzdu has traveled to Altoona’s ballpark a handful of times since the end of his career. He came back to PNG Field for the Curve’s 10th anniversary season, for the Eastern League All-Star Game in 2014 and again on June 16, 2018, when they gave out Hyzdu bobbleheads and named him to their all-time team.

“This place went absolutely crazy,” Ryan said. “This whole place and community went berserk.”

“Even the couple years that I coached there, ‘02-'04, everybody still talked about Adam Hyzdu,” Wehner added. “He had a reputation like none that I’ve ever seen in the Minor Leagues.”

Returning to Altoona is both “amazing” and “like a time warp,” Hyzdu said. The kids who asked him for autographs 20 years ago are there now as young adults. The ushers are the same, just older, and they all have their favorite Hyzdu stories to share.

Whenever he’s back, he makes time to visit with longtime fans and create new ones who might have only heard about the Curve legend who wore No. 16.

“He never forgot Altoona,” Egan said.

And Altoona never forgot him.