Curve title a great moment for Altoona sports fans

We are so, so lucky as sports fans to be living in an area where championships aren’t just the hope, they are the expectation.

Since 1971, there have been 16 major sports titles won by teams from central and western PA, including the Steelers (6), Penguins (5), Pirates (2), Penn State football (2) and Pitt football (1).

Add in the bevy of national titles won by PSU wrestling and women’s volleyball and the large number of state titles won by local high schools — highlighted by Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic’s current streak of three straight state football championships — and there’s no doubt that we have lived a charmed life when it comes to sports.

Never before, though, in the history of Altoona sports had we seen a team accomplish what the Curve did Thursday night. They became the first professional sports franchise from this city to capture a championship while playing at home when they beat Trenton, 4-2, to win the Eastern League title at Peoples Natural Gas Field.

There weren’t quite 4,000 fans at the game, but the ones who were on hand made it seem like the number was close to 10,000. They hung on every pitch. They watched the game intently. Their energy helped fuel the Curve players, who took notice and were extremely grateful during the championship celebration.

“The fans were unbelievable,” first baseman Jerrick Suiter said. “They supported us all season long. I wish I could go up and thank every one of them individually.”

When Jin-De Jhang hit a go-ahead three-run triple in the fifth inning, the ballpark erupted.

When Johnny Hellweg got out of a bases-loaded jam in the eighth, the ballpark erupted.

When Tate Scioneaux struck out the final batter to win the title, the ballpark erupted.

It was absolutely awesome to see.

I was on the field in 2010 when the Curve won their first EL championship in Trenton. It was cool and the players had a blast, but I’ve always felt bad for the home fans that they didn’t get to enjoy it. The players went their separate ways after that, so there really was never even any kind of celebration for local fans.

They finally got to do some celebrating Thursday.

“Hat’s off to the community of Altoona,” Curve general manager Derek Martin said. “We have never in the history of the Curve been able to win or host a clinching game, and as you saw tonight, that crowd was into it so loud. That energized the team.”

Jon Schwind, a utility man for the club and perhaps the nicest person you’ll ever meet in pro baseball, summed it up best with two words — pure joy.

“When we’re able to do something like this and you see the pure joy from the fans and everybody is so happy, it’s made a lot of people’s day, just like it made ours,” Schwind said.

Winning the championship at home can’t mean more to any member of the club than manager Michael Ryan. He’s a native of nearby Indiana, Pa., and he was able to lead what amounts to a hometown team to a title.

He also got to have his two sons, Brennan (8) and Blake (6) on hand to celebrate, which is just about the coolest thing that can happen to a dad in sports.

“It’s special,” Ryan said. “My two sons, my wife, they’re my life. Just to be able to enjoy this night so close to home, we’re going to celebrate and we’re going to go home. Not too many people can say that.

“This is their first championship celebration, so it’s something they’ll never forget. I’ll try to give them another one next year, hopefully.”

Ryan also offered high praise to Curve fans.

“Our fans were unbelievable this year,” he said. “They will us to so many wins. Tonight was just spectacular.”

Thursday night was spectacular. Yes, it’s minor league baseball, so no, a championship doesn’t mean as much in the grand scheme of things as a Super Bowl or World Series or Stanley Cup.

But the Curve are Altoona’s team.

Our team.

They won a championship at home. In a fantastic baseball game. And made history doing so.

The wonderful sports fans of this city got to celebrate yet again, and it was a lot of fun seeing it.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.

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