A little more than five months out from the start of their 15th season, the State College Spikes have their rally caps on.
But this isn't about a late-inning comeback. This is about rallying support to ensure the team takes to Medlar Field at Lubrano Park for a 16th season and beyond as an affiliated Minor League Baseball club.
Joined by a large group of community leaders and local, state and federal officials on Thursday at the Centre County Visitors Center, the short-season single-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals launched the #SaveOurSpikes campaign to fight back against a Major League Baseball proposal that if enacted would eliminate affiliations for State College and 41 other minor league clubs. That list also includes fellow New York-Penn League team the Williamsport Crosscutters and AA Eastern League Erie SeaWolves.
"Since November... when our club appeared on a list of 42 minor league baseball teams that would potentially leave their baseball affiliation under a proposal by Major League Baseball countless fans have asked us how they can help us keep the Spikes here in State College," said Spikes General Manager Scott Walker. "It greatly energizes me and it greatly energizes everyone in the Spikes organization to know we can come together and we can safeguard that investment we have all made."
Walker and others urged community members to visit SaveOurSpikes.com, where they can find information on how to help, including about writing to elected officials to advocate for the team to MLB.
Vern Squier, president and CEO of the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County, which is helping lead the campaign with the Spikes and Happy Valley Adventure Bureau, said fans have three actions they can take immediately: "Buy tickets, buy tickets and buy tickets."
"Pack the ballpark this summer for the 15th season of Spikes baseball," Walker said. "We need to show Major League Baseball and the rest of the baseball world that this community supports an affiliated Minor League Baseball team."
To make games even more family-friendly and encourage turnout, Walker said this season games on Monday through Saturday will move back 30 minutes, with first pitch at 6:35 p.m, while Sunday games will start at 4:05 p.m. Fireworks nights will be on Fridays and Saturdays, and outfield bleacher seating all season will be rolled back to $6, the price during the club's inaugural season in 2006.
Fans can also display free promotional materials — from window signs and car magnets to keychains and koozies — which are available at the Visitors Center, 800 E. Park Ave.; Downtown State College Improvement District, 127 S. Fraser St.; CBICC, 131 S. Fraser St.; Bellefonte Intervalley Area Chamber of Commerce Office, 320 W. High St.; and Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
Promotional items for the Save Our Spikes campaign are available at multiple locations around Centre County. Photo by Geoff Rushton | StateCollege.com
A CATA bus decked out in red with "Save Our Spikes" messaging also will soon be seen around the area, Walker said.
Walker noted that an innovative partnership between Penn State and what would be the Spikes' ownership brought the club to State College and led to the construction of Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified baseball stadium. The model of a college and minor league team sharing a ballpark has since been emulated around the country.
A nearly $14 million state grant helped to fund the park's construction, and that wouldn't have happened without the assurance of an affiliated minor league team, former Gov. Ed Rendell said in a statement.
“Over 15 years ago, Chuck Greenberg and Penn State University presented a unique vision for a shared baseball facility, one that would be a state-of-the-art home for a short-season affiliated Minor League Baseball club that came to be the State College Spikes and for the Penn State baseball program as well," Rendell said. "Put simply, this ballpark would never have been built, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would never have contributed the financing, without the certainty that the facility would be home to an affiliated Minor League Baseball franchise. The plan only justified an expenditure of state funds at this level if there was a minor league professional baseball club as a significant user of the stadium."
Since then, the Spikes and the ballpark have been part of the fabric of the community, with the team donating more than $5 million to local organizations and hosting numerous charitable events. State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, said he knew the Spikes would be popular but did not envision how much the club would become part of the community. He noted the special excitement when Bellefonte won its first PIAA baseball championship at Medlar Field in 2016 and how the Spikes have provided family entertainment that is vital to any healthy community.
"It’s hard to imagine 15 years later, with all the success we’ve had, that now we’re facing this moment," Corman said. "This process [MLB is] going through is one that has put us in a situation where we’re now fighting to save our team. And that’s ok, because we’re going to do it.
"The first step is to make Major League Baseball understand how wrong they are in their thinking... The second part is to make sure everyone knows — Major League Baseball and every team in the country — that State College is a place that will support a Minor League Baseball team."
Squier and Fritz Smith, president and CEO of Happy Valley Adventure Bureau, both emphasized the economic impact of the Spikes and Medlar Field at Lubrano Park in attracting visitors to the region, as well as in recruiting businesses and professionals by helping to create a vibrant community.
Neil Weaver, executive deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, said the Spikes provide a low-cost source of fun and bring the joy of America's pastime to the region.
"But this team does more than just boost the community," said Weaver, a Bellefonte native. "It boosts the local economy. It’s not just the jobs that the Spikes and the stadium provide. The Spikes sell about 125,000 tickets on average every year. That’s 125,000 people who are eating in local restaurants, shopping at local stores, filling up for gas at local stations and staying in local hotels. That is a huge downstream economic benefit that the Spikes bring to Happy Valley and the entire region... It would be a huge loss for this local economy if Major League Baseball’s proposal were to move forward."
Gov. Tom Wolf wrote to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred in December, urging him to rethink the proposal. In a statement on Thursday, Wolf reiterated his support for the minor league teams and condemned the position in which MLB has put the clubs and their communities.
"The MLB’s antitrust exemption and exclusive control of local professional baseball operations unfortunately could make this decision life-or-death for these community teams," Wolf said. "The MLB needs to do the right thing and recognize the value of community institutions like the State College Spikes that have been part of the league’s success."
Representatives for Centre County's two congressmen — Fred Keller, R-Kreamer, and Glenn Thompson, R-Howard Township, who were both in Washington on Thursday — delivered statements expressing their support for the Spikes and Pennsylvania's other imperiled minor league teams.
"We all must work in a way that ensures the continued viability of these teams and the family-friendly entertainment they provide," said Keller, a founding member of the congressional Save Minor League Baseball Task Force and whose district includes State College and Williamsport. "I look forward to fighting for the Spikes, the Crosscutters, and the perseverance of Minor League Baseball across America.”
Thompson also has already voiced his support for keeping the minor league clubs and said that on Thursday he was hosting MLB representatives to further make the case.
"America’s pastime should be accessible to all Americans, and any plan that would eliminate 42 Minor League teams would be a great loss here in Centre County and across the entire country," Thompson said. "I’ve been happy to work with more than 100 members of Congress, from both parties, to ensure that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred understands the great impact their decisions could have throughout the nation."
Few people have seen up close the personal impact the Spikes can have the way Dave Bohner has. His grandson, Josiah Viera, was an honorary bench coach for the Spikes after visiting and forming a close bond with the team in 2013. Viera battled a rare and terminal childhood genetic disorder called Hutchinson-Gilford progeria. For years before his death in December 2018, he was an inspiration to players, the local community and fans around the country for his love of the game, perseverance and impact on the team, which he was part of for two New York-Penn League championships.
"I want you to know that the name Josiah Viera would have probably never been known in the world of baseball had it not been for a phone call inviting Josiah to a ball game at the State College Spikes," Bohner said. "Little did we know the incredible journey that was ahead.
"From his very first game, through his time as the Spikes’ bench coach, and all the way until his number 10 jersey was retired by the Spikes at the 2019 Opening Day game celebrating his life, Josiah left a legacy that will live on at the State College Spikes. Our friends at the Spikes are and forever will be our extended family, and we thank them for allowing us to be part of an incredible baseball franchise."
Dave Bohner, wearing a "Never Give Up" T-shirt designed by his grandson, Josiah Viera, speaks at the launch of the Save Our Spikes campaign on Jan. 16, 2020 at the Centre County Visitors Center. Photo by Geoff Rushton | StateCollege.com