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The strange tale of how the Pirates/Spikes affiliation ended

September 18, 2012
By Cory Giger ( , The Altoona Mirror

Fourteen days ago, the Pirates offered the State College Spikes a four-year extension to their player-development contract, according to Spikes owner Chuck Greenberg, and State College officials countered by saying they would like to re-up for two years.

Something happened -- and it's unclear exactly what -- during the past two weeks that led the Pirates to decide to end the affiliation altogether. An official announcement of that came Monday, when the Spikes revealed they once again will be affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals, while the Pirates are moving their short-season A-ball affiliate to Jamestown, N.Y.

"What had seemed to be a natural fit, both sides got to a point where it would be better to explore other options," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said.

Huntington went on to point out that "relationship endings are not always pretty," and this one appears to fall somewhere in that category.

Greenberg said that 14 days ago, when Pirates outfielder Starling Marte was rehabbing with the Spikes, Bucs assistant general manager Kyle Stark met with Spikes GM Jason Dambach and offered a four-year extension to the player-development contract. A deal could have been agreed upon that day, but the Spikes were more interested in a two-year deal, like the one they had that just ended.

On Sept. 10, Greenberg and Pirates president Frank Coonelly had a lengthy phone conversation.

Fact Box

No impact on Curve

The Pirates/Spikes affiliation changes have no impact on the Curve, general manager Rob Egan said. The Curve's player-development contract runs through 2014 -- then likely will be extended another four years -- and the strength of the affiliation is evident by the Pirates agreeing to come to Altoona for an exhibition game in March.

"We have a great relationship with the Altoona Curve," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said.

"I had a great discussion with Frank Coonelly and felt really good about it," Greenberg said. "There was nothing really even remotely contentious, and I looked forward to hearing back from them. And unfortunately, we just never heard anything."

The following day was a deadline for organizations to file paperwork saying they would be interested in seeking new affiliations, which both the Pirates and Spikes did. The next deadline came Saturday at midnight, and when that passed with no agreement in place, the Spikes became a minor league free agent.

"The discussions between Frank and Chuck there at the end, it was a situation where they appeared to us to have moved on, and so we cleared our minds and were ready to set up a new partnership and new affiliation," Huntington said.

The Cardinals called the Spikes shortly after midnight, and they quickly reached a deal. The two sides had been affiliated in 2006, the Spikes' inaugural season.

So what went wrong between the Bucs and Spikes?

Coonelly told the Mirror that the Pirates' views about the Spikes affiliation changed in early June, when Dambach made heavily publicized comments about the Spikes wanting to be able to field more competitive teams than they had as a Pirate affiliate since 2007.

"We weren't mad about J.D.'s comments," Coonelly said.

They did have an impact, though.

Up until then, Coonelly said, the Pirates had always been interested in pursuing a four-year PDC with the Spikes. But Dambach's comments served as a turning point, Coonelly said, that led the Pirates to believe the Spikes and Bucs might have different priorities.

"We were probably the aggressors at that point in time, and we were continually told, 'let's wait, let's wait,'" Huntington said. "And then we got to a point in time we decided if there wasn't the commitment, if there wasn't the belief then it was probably time to move on."

Dambach also said in June that the Spikes wanted to wait until the season ended to consider their options. The season ended two weeks ago, and the Spikes finished 35-41.

Greenberg noted the Pirates still offered a four-year extension as recently as 14 days ago, which would seem to show that the comments made by Dambach about having a competitive team were not a factor.

Huntington acknowledged that much.

"It was water under the bridge for us," he said.

Greenberg said the affiliation decision from the Spikes' standpoint had "zero" to do with winning and losing.

"When I spoke with the Pirates, I emphasized that in no way, shape or form did we have any thoughts, feedback or comments about the on-field product at all," he said.

"Obviously we would have liked to have had more on-field success over the past six years than we had, but we're Pirates fans, and if the Pirates believe that they're making progress in player development, then we're right there behind them and hoping for nothing but the best."

Huntington would not say exactly why the Pirates had a change of heart regarding the Spikes.

"I don't know," Greenberg said. "That's for the Pirates to answer. But to suggest that in any way it was affected by Jason's comments many months ago is flat out untrue, because as recently as two weeks ago the Pirates were offering us a four-year deal."

Greenberg and Coonelly had spoken about having better communication between the Spikes and Pirates and also closer marketing ties. The Spikes, Greenberg added, sought more symmetry in the working relationship.

The Spikes were prepared to sign for two years "unconditionally," Greenberg said, but the Pirates declined.

An industry source told the Mirror on Monday that Jamestown, N.Y. will be the Bucs' new affiliate in the New York-Penn League.

"We're really pleased about where we're going to end up," Huntington said.

It's also possible, sources have said, that at some point the Pirates could relocate that franchise to a new ballpark that potentially could be built in Morgantown, W.Va.

As for the Spikes, they are thrilled to once again be affiliated with the Cardinals.

"It's a real honor when the defending world champions, who created the modern player-development system and with whom we already had a great relationship with back from 2006 in State College, called to say how much they wanted to be affiliated with us," Greenberg said.

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