Spikes relish return to Cardinals organization

UNIVERSITY PARK – It was a six-year trot around the bases for the State College Spikes, and, for general manager Jason Dambach, he said he is back home.

The Spikes opened the 2013 season on Monday, no longer as the short-season affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, but instead returning to the franchise they began with in 2006 – the St. Louis Cardinals.

“The 2006 season, when we were affiliated with the Cardinals, absolutely was the highlight of the seven years of Spikes baseball,” Dambach said.

“You look back fondly on that first season. We owe a debt of gratitude to that Cardinal team. The team the Cardinals put here in 2006 really helped solidify the brand of Spikes baseball. We owed a lot to that group. It is like coming home.”

The Spikes fell in the opener to Williamsport, 4-2, before 5,155 fans at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.

“We had a great relationship with them back in 2006,” Spikes president and managing partner Chuck Greenberg said of the Cardinals. “It’s a pleasure to be back here in 2013.”

In the Spikes’ inaugural season, the team was affiliated with the Cardinals but quickly jumped to join the Pirates organization in 2007. But when the player-development contract ended during the offseason, the Cardinals and Spikes were reunited.

“We’re thrilled to be back here,” Cardinals director of minor league operations John Vuch said. “I’ve been here about a week now with the club. I’m happy we are playing the games now, but I’m really happy to be back here in State College.”

Dambach said he feels the Cardinals give the best chance to play competitive baseball, something he’d like to see.

“For the last six years, really for any minor league baseball team, you don’t have that opportunity to control the product between the white lines,” Dambach said. “This is not about wins and losses, this is not about playoffs or a championships. We just feel like the Cardinals, at the end of the day, give us the best opportunity to have a fun, competitive ballteam. “

The Spikes’ only winning season in franchise history came in 2006, the first year as a franchise. Nine players on that team went on to the major leagues.

While affiliated with the Pirates organization, the Spikes went .500 in 2009. Nine players from 2007-2012 – the years with the Pirates – went on to play in the major leagues. The team also eventually sent numerous players up to Double-A with the Curve.

“We got a tremendous reaction during the offseason when we affiliated with the Cardinals,” Greenberg said. “It’s nothing against Pirates at all. We are all Pirates fans, and we want to see them do well.

“For our franchise, the Cardinals were a great fit in ’06. They are a great fit again now. I wish the Pirates nothing but the best in Jamestown, but I’m very excited about being with the Cardinals now.”

Dambach attested to the relationship with the Pirates. He said he is still a Pirates fan and will remain one and added he isn’t worried about Buccos fans shying away because of the new affiliation.

“I [saw] a lot of Pirates fans, caps and gear out here [on Monday],” Dambach said. “But when I talk to them, you know that they like the experience of the Spikes game, and they are Spikes fans first and foremost.”

While Vuch couldn’t speak for what the Pirates did, he said that fans should expect the “Cardinal way” – a phrase used by the franchise to describe what the Cardinals want out of their players.

“I think people like to see good baseball,” Vuch said. “People will embrace these guys just like the Pirates players. It’s something where I think people will identify with the players being their players whether they are ultimately going to play for St. Louis or ultimately for the Pirates.”

The night also marked another point in Spikes history as the millionth fan entered Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. Dambach feels that the new Spikes affiliate will help the team bring in millions more, even if St. Louis doesn’t have as big of a fan base with Pittsburgh 150 miles away.

“This is a great group,” Dambach said of the Cardinals. “They understand people. They understand relationships. They understand the importance of using the Cardinal brand and assisting the Spikes in their community efforts.”