While much of western Pennsylvania winced at St. Louis Cardinals slugger Matt Adams’ towering two-run homer against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the decisive Game 5 of the NLDS, Mel Curtis jumped up from his couch and cheered loudly.
It’s not that Curtis is an anti-Pirates fan.
The Altoona Johnstown Realty AAABA League manager just happens to be a huge Matt Adams fan.
“I like the Pirates, don’t get me wrong, but when he showed up with St. Louis against them, that’s where I was at,” said Curtis, who managed Adams in three AAABA Tournaments in Johnstown. “It would be nice to see either of those teams move on, but if someone had to beat the Pirates. ...It was great to see that homer because Matt’s the type of kid who just continually works hard and does the things he’s supposed to do. When you get to that level, it’s competition every day.”
Adams’ homer provided insurance as the Cardinals eliminated the Pirates, halting a memorable season in which Pittsburgh ended a string of 20 consecutive losing seasons with a wild playoff ride.
The 6-foot-3, 260-pound Adams has emerged as a cult hero in St. Louis, which isn’t surprising considering his knack for smacking tape-measure homers. He’s an underdog and somewhat unlikely hero.
The Cards selected Adams out of Slippery Rock University in the 23rd round of the 2009 draft – nearly a year after his third and final appearance in the AAABA Tournament. The Philipsburg native made his major league debut in 2012.
This season, an injury to first baseman Allen Craig opened the door. When Craig rolled his ankle in a Sept. 4 game at Cincinnati, Adams entered the game and eventually hit home runs in the 14th and 16th innings of a 5-4 Cards win. He became the first Cardinals player to hit two extra-inning homers in the same game and was only the sixth in major league history to do so.
“Since growing up, Matt’s always been a little different,” said lifelong friend and former high school and AAABA teammate Matt Curtis, who is Mel’s son.
“Matt spent only half a day in T-ball because he hit the ball too hard and they sent him up to the next level.
“That first time we played Johnstown in the tournament and we needed a big hit, he was the guy who got the big hit. We played them in the first round. We beat them with a walk-off hit. Matt hit one into the net in left-center. It was always nice to have Matt in the middle of your lineup.”
Yes, Adams, 25, has had previous experience at breaking the hearts of Johnstown baseball fans.
In the 2007 AAABA Tournament, Johnstown’s Delweld drew Altoona Johnston Realty on opening night. A crowd estimated at more than 7,000 crammed into Point Stadium.
Delweld led 1-0 and pitcher Joel Martin had a no-hitter in the seventh inning. Adams broke up the no-no and later scored the tying run.
With the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, Adams smashed a towering drive off the Screen Monster, plating the game-winner.
“Matt has always been a leader. He led by example,” Mel Curtis said. “He’s the type of kid that other kids responded to when he talked to them.”
Adams played in the AAABA Tournament from 2006-08. He batted .389 in 2007.
“You could tell he was destined for something, without a shadow of a doubt,” Mel Curtis said. “Just the way he swung the bat. He was always ready. He’d go anywhere to play ball. He mentored the younger kids and did a lot of things with them to help them out.”
Forest Hills graduate Rick Roberts, a former minor league pitcher, saw first-hand Adams’ baseball teaching abilities.
Roberts operates three ERA Sports Inc. indoor baseball training facilities, with the original building in Richland Township complemented by locations in Altoona and Latrobe.
Adams spent a winter as a hitting instructor at ERA in Altoona.
“When Matt was with us he was still in the minor leagues (in 2011-12),” Roberts said. “He’s a real humble, quiet kid who just goes about his business. He was really good with the kids. He took a laid-back approach.
“He’s like a big teddy bear. He’s real soft-spoken. A lot of our kids liked to work with him. Now they’re excited about how he’s doing in the big leagues.”
Matt Curtis recalled Adams’ days as a catcher at Philipsburg-Osceola High School and in the AAABA Tournament. Curtis played shortstop/second base and pitched.
“He was a very good defensive catcher but he was so much more valuable at the plate,” Matt Curtis said. “When we would not throw strikes as pitchers, he would just throw the ball back harder and harder to the pitcher each time, and if he came out to the mound you knew you were in trouble.”
Adams has created trouble for NL pitchers. He had six hits, a double, the big homer and two RBIs against the Pirates in the playoffs. During the regular season, Adams batted .284 with 17 homers and 51 RBIs.
“To step in when Craig got hurt and do the things he’s done, it’s a good thing,” Mel Curtis said.
Adams hasn’t forgotten his friends and former teammates, either.
The Altoona AAABA team went to three games in Pittsburgh earlier this summer and “hung out” with Adams.
Matt Curtis and Johnston Realty sponsor Richard Johnston attended playoff games in Pittsburgh.
“I’m a Yankees fan, and I never wore anything but Yankees stuff until Matt got drafted,” Matt Curtis said. “It’s a little bit different in Pittsburgh with me wearing my Cardinals red and St. Louis hat because I’m a student-teacher (at Northgate School District). Everybody was wearing their black and gold at school and I had on my Cardinals red.
“I was with him the whole weekend they were in town for the divisional series,” Matt Curtis added. “We talked to him after they clinched. He said it’s something you grew up dreaming about, winning those games in front of so many people. He said this is what you grow up playing for.”
The loss certainly stung Pirates fans who had suffered so long while waiting for a winner.
But for some, Adams’ role made it perhaps a bit easier to accept.
“The unfortunate part is he was a Pirate killer,” Roberts said. “He came up with the big hits down the stretch that really hurt the Pirates. But for me, if a team is going to knock off the Pirates, I’d like it to be the Cardinals because there’s a local kid on the team.”