As the State College Spikes prepare to host league All-Star festivities, fun is the name of the game
State College Spikes general manager Scott Walker describes his job duties as “everything you could possibly think of.”
That can range from helping pull the large, heavy tarp off the infield on the morning of a game to selling one ticket to developing major partnerships to working with the manager on changing bus travel and hotel plans for the team.
And there’s this: One of the Spikes’ most popular promotions each year is Bark in the Park, in which fans are invited to bring their dogs to enjoy a game from the outfield bleachers or the concourse. As you might imagine, there is some cleanup involved afterward.
“Somebody’s got to clean it up; I’ve cleaned it up myself before,” Walker says. “You go from one day doing that to the next day meeting in a bank with executives on partnerships.”
Such is the unique business of minor league baseball. There is little glamour, but much satisfaction in creating a fun atmosphere for fans who come to the ballpark for a summer outing. There is also the love of baseball.
“We’re the fun factory; we make the fun happen,” says Spikes manager of communications Joe Putnam, a Bellefonte native whose many hats include providing stats to the coaching staffs of both teams and to the media, developing radio and TV commercials, handling social media, working with Steve Jones on radio broadcasts, sometimes acting as an on-field host, and riding team buses on hours-long road trips.
“Sometimes, we have six-game home stands and it takes a lot of work to make the fun happen," says Putnam. "But at the end of the day, there’s really no experience like putting smiles on thousands of peoples’ faces, giving them a great night of entertainment.”
Walker, Putnam, and the rest of the dozen or so full-time Spikes staff members will get the chance to showcase that hard work and creativity under a brighter spotlight when the team hosts the 2018 New York-Penn League All-Star Game on August 14 at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
The game will feature 60 of the best players from the NYPL, a Class A professional league whose 14 teams act as developmental squads for the Major League teams with which they are affiliated. The Spikes are part of the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization.
The Spikes, like other teams in the NYPL, feature a number of former college stars fresh from the June professional draft.
Beyond the opportunity to see some future Major League players in action, the All-Star Game festivities will be a showcase of their own.
Highlights include a big tailgate party at the ballpark on August 13, the evening before the game, during which fans can enjoy food, drinks, music, and a chance to mingle with the players and celebrities on hand (including a number of former Penn State football stars led by Ki-Jana Carter). There also will be chilled sips of cinnamon whiskey available from a hole drilled in the 16-foot-tall Fireball bottle depicted on a sign in right field.
“Something different – it’s what we do,” Walker says.
“It’s two weeks before college football, and this being one of the college football capitals of the world – and the tailgate capital – we figured we’d throw a little bit of that into the mix,” he says of the tailgate theme.
All-Star Game day begins at 3 p.m. on August 14, as fans can watch the teams take batting practice and get autographs from the players. A celebrity softball game at 5 p.m. will feature teams captained by Carter and Josiah Viera, the Spikes honorary bench coach who has a rare childhood disease that leads to rapid aging. Then comes the real game at 7:05 p.m., followed by fireworks.
Beyond the events at the ballpark, it’s also a chance for the region to show off a bit to the visitors from other NYPL teams. The league, founded in 1939, has teams in Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, Vermont, and West Virginia.
The Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau is the presenting sponsor of the event, “so we have all kinds of good marketing content and all of the other clubs in our league promoting the All-Star Game and to come to Central PA and check out all that we have to offer,” Walker says. “That's one of the reasons we came up with a hashtag, #814inthe814. Just a little play on words with the date being August 14 and the area code we live in being 814.”
Preparation began a year ago, when the Spikes learned from the league at last year’s game in Troy, New York, that they’d been selected to host in 2018.
“We jumped at the opportunity,” Walker says. “We love showcasing our area. We love showcasing our ballpark.”
That 5,570-seat ballpark, with a sweeping view of Mount Nittany beyond the outfield fence, opened when the Spikes began play in 2006 as a result of a first-of-its-kind partnership between Penn State and Chuck Greenberg, head of the Spikes ownership group. Penn State owns the ballpark – which is also home to the Nittany Lions baseball team – and the Spikes operate it.
“Without the partnership, I don’t think we would have such a nice ballpark,” Walker says.
The park is active well beyond the baseball season, hosting a variety of charity events and even renting prime space for tailgates on football weekends, complete with food and beverage.
“There's probably over 100 events a year here,” Walker says.
Being the only professional sports franchise in a major college town has its challenges.
“Everybody knows who big brother is, right across the street,” Walker says, referring to Beaver Stadium, where the Nittany Lions football team draws crowds of more than 100,000 on fall Saturdays. “But I think we've done a very good job over the years of carving out our own niche. Over the summer, there's some fun stuff to do in town, but I think we’ve become a premier destination as far as a place to get together. I think we've become a community gathering place.”
Last year, the Spikes drew 123,401 people over 38 home dates, an average of 3,247 per game. Crowds are often larger on nights of popular promotions such as fireworks and, of course, the Human Cannonball, Dave “The Bullet” Smith Jr.
The Spikes have worked to create a welcoming atmosphere that includes an array of food choices from pulled pork to Rosie’s Pierogies to Penn State Creamery ice cream. And there are 70 beer taps serving a number of varieties from the national standards to local craft brews. The new Bottom of the 5th bar serves wine and spirits.
On July 3 (which was also $2 Walking Taco Tuesday) a crowd of 4,423 showed up to watch the game and to see the Human Cannonball and fireworks blast off.
“The Human Cannonball is a great favorite,” says Putnam. “It’s one of those where you may have seen it once, but you can see it again. It doesn’t get old.”
“We’ve had him out for the past few years,” Walker says. “It’s one of the more recent unique ones, and we’re always looking for that new one. We just try to do stuff that’s going to get people talking.”
The Spikes plan a salute to the 40th anniversary of the movie Animal House on August 4, complete with college sweater-like jerseys and a toga party. (The jerseys will be auctioned off to benefit the Children’s Miracle Network.) Other upcoming promotions include bobble head giveaways featuring Carter on August 10 (he’ll be there) and former Penn State receiver and Spikes intern DaeSean Hamilton, now of the Denver Broncos, on August 24.
But the most tried and true promotion continues to be fireworks.
“Fireworks are the No. 1 promotion in all of minor league baseball, and always have been and always will be,” Walker says. The Spikes have 12 fireworks nights over the course of the season.
At the core of the fun, the Spikes are about community, says Walker, who grew up in Pleasant Gap.
“We have a very talented young staff. The amount of work hours all of our folks put in is amazing,” he says. “And I just hope folks realize how much we as the Spikes care about our community.
“We're about family, fun, and entertainment, about always doing the right thing with our fans and trying to have a lot of fun doing it.”
Here’s what the Spikes have planned at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park for the All-Star Game festivities. Visit the box office, statecollegespikes.com, or call (814) 272-1711 for more information and tickets.
Monday, August 13
All-Star Tailgate Gala
Features a cocktail hour, food, musical entertainment, tailgate games, a ballpark tour, and an opportunity to mingle with the All-Stars and celebrities from the softball game. Don’t miss the chilled Fireball served out of the sign on the right field fence.
Tickets are $50.
Tuesday, August 14
NYPL All-Star Game
Gates open; teams will alternate taking batting practice and signing autographs.
Celebrity softball game, with teams captained by Ki-Jana Carter and Josiah Viera.
The NYPL All-Star Game begins, following on-field ceremonies. There will be fireworks after the game.
Tickets range from $10-$16.
ON TO THE SHOW
For many players, the road to the Major Leagues has passed through Happy Valley. Here’s a brief look, by the numbers:
12 players from the 2009 NYPL All-Star Game hosted by the Spikes have gone on to play in the majors.
2 players from that 2009 game have played in All-Star games in the big leagues: J.D. Martinez and Brock Holt, both now with the Boston Red Sox.
53 Spikes alumni since the franchise began in 2006 have made the majors. Their photos are on a growing wall display as fans enter Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
105.1 mph is the speed of the fastest pitch thrown in the Major Leagues this season – by Spikes 2016 alum Jordan Hicks, of the St. Louis Cardinals. As of mid-July, Hicks had thrown seven of the 10 fastest pitches in the big leagues in 2018.
Mark Brackenbury is editorial director of Town&Gown.