Giger: Leaving a lasting legacy: Gimenez has special spot in Curve history

Hector Gimenez isn’t a household name in baseball or probably even among Altoona fans, but history will forever remember him as one of the most important players in Curve history.

The franchise won its only Eastern League championship in 2010, fielding a tremendous, exciting, well-balanced minor league team that so far has sent 15 players to the majors.

Of all the memorable names on that club – including current Pirates Justin Wilson, Tony Watson, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, Bryan Morris and Jared Hughes – it’s perhaps easy to forget that Gimenez was the Curve’s MVP that year.

He deserved it for so many reasons, and not just because he was the team’s most productive player.

Gimenez was the undisputed leader of that fantastic Curve team. In fact, he’s on a short list of the best leaders the franchise has ever had, right up there with Adam Hyzdu and Josh Bonifay.

Everyone respected him. Everyone understood his immense value to the club – offensively, defensively and off the field.

When you think of the consummate professional baseball player, Hector Gimenez perfectly fit that role for the Curve in 2010.

“I will never forget about that year,” said Gimenez, now 31 and back in Double-A to fill a similar veteran leadership role with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. “It was the best year I had in my minor league career, and it was really special for me.

“Whenever I retire I still want to think about it.”

Gimenez was a major force offensively in 2010, hitting .305 with 16 homers and 72 RBIs in just 94 games. He led the Curve in homers and was third in RBIs, just 11 behind Matt Hague despite playing in 41 fewer games. His .916 OPS led all full-season members of the team.

“The Pirates gave me the chance to play every day, and I came to the field every single day ready to work, ready to do my best and ready to win,” he said. “I think that’s why I had a really good year that year.”

Gimenez challenged for the Eastern League batting title, finishing second with a .305 average. And for good measure, he won the home run derby at the EL All-Star Game, plus he was the catcher on the league’s postseason All-Star team.

“He just came ready to play every single day,” said Miles Durham, a current Curve coach and himself a key member of the 2010 title team. “You knew exactly what you were going to get every day he was in the lineup – big hits, really managed the pitching staff well.”

That last part may have been where Gimenez made his biggest impact, not necessarily for the Curve, but for the future of the Pirates.

Gimenez began his pro career at age 19 in 2002, so he was a grizzled 27-year-old veteran in 2010. He already had appeared in the majors for two games with the Astros four years earlier, and he was a reliable, calming influence as a catcher for the talented yet relatively inexperienced arms he caught with the Curve.

Guys like Wilson and 2010 ace Rudy Owens and Jeff Locke had the peace of mind knowing that they could trust their catcher because he already had experienced in the high minors all the situations that were new to them.

“I think it helped them a lot, especially in terms of if they got in tough situations they’ve never been in before and he had been there,” Durham said.

Wilson was the EL playoff MVP in 2010, and while Gimenez knew how good the pitcher was then, he got to see it from the other side two years later. Gimenez was playing for Charlotte in Triple-A when his club fell victim to a no-hitter by Wilson in 2012.

“Those guys are special,” Gimenez said of the Curve pitchers he caught in 2010. “I feel really glad I saw most of the guys pitch in the big leagues because they deserve it.”

Gimenez’s success with the Curve – he also had a strong showing in 2009 – helped him make it back to the major leagues in 2011, although not with the Pirates. He had signed with the Dodgers, and he played four games with L.A. early in the season before an untimely knee injury cost him more of an extended stay in the big leagues.

Gimenez made it back to the majors for five games with the White Sox in 2012 and 26 more in 2013. All told, he has played in 37 big league games, hitting .216 with two homers and 11 RBIs.

Gimenez began this season back in Triple-A with the White Sox before getting traded recently to the Blue Jays and being assigned to New Hampshire.

“He’s a leader, you can tell,” Fisher Cats manager Bobby Meacham said. “He takes it seriously and likes taking charge out there, taking charge of the pitching staff. Team player, leader, older guy who knows how to play baseball. We’re just expecting him to kind of help these guys learn those kind of things and help us move in the right direction.”

That’s exactly what Gimenez did for the Curve in 2010. And in a nice touch, he received a much-deserved welcome in his first at-bat back in Altoona on Friday night from PA announcer Rich DeLeo, who reminded fans that Gimenez had been the team’s MVP in 2010.

“I’ve got really good memories,” Gimenez said of that magical Curve season. “We won the league, first of all, and every time I see the guys who played with me that year I feel really happy because we had a really humble team.”

That was the best Curve team we’ve ever seen – and may see for a long, long time – and Gimenez cemented his legacy in Altoona baseball history by being a huge reason for the success.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. Reach him at 949-7031 or @CoryGiger on Twitter.