The State College Spikes lost more games than anybody in the 14-team New York-Penn League over the past six years and they needed a late surge to avoid a humiliating distinction in 2008.
None of the poor baseball led to the Spikes making a geographically curious decision.
The seven-year-old franchise officially announced Monday that it is leaving the Pittsburgh Pirates to sign a two-year Player Development Contract with the St. Louis Cardinals.
In a phone interview with the Centre Daily Times, Spikes managing partner Chuck Greenberg said a “lack of communication” solidified the split. The Spikes wanted to sign a two-year deal with the Pirates like they did in 2010. The Pirates wanted to sign a four-year deal like the sides did in 2006.
The sides engaged in their final discussion last Monday. The Spikes became Minor League Baseball’s version of a free agent Sunday. Cardinals farm director John Vuch sent Greenberg a text message at 12:01 a.m.
“I wanted to make sure he was awake,” Vuch said Monday.
Greenberg immediately responded. Both sides classified the late-night conversation as encouraging. By Sunday afternoon, the Spikes and Cardinals had reached an agreement.
“We never heard back from the Pirates in those remaining six days before the free agency period started,” Greenberg said. “Once we became a free agent, we had no choice but to act. We didn’t want to be the last one standing in the game of musical chairs.”
The decision reunites the Spikes with their first parent club. The Spikes and Cardinals had a one-year relationship in 2006 because of an existing PDC between the club and the New Jersey Cardinals, the franchise a group led by Greenberg purchased and relocated to State College.
Greenberg, a lifelong Pirates fan who owned the Double-A Altoona Curve from 2002-08, said splitting with Pittsburgh isn’t easy despite a 191-260 record as a Pirates’ affiliate. The ‘08 Spikes went 18-56, the fourth worst record in NY-PL history.
“Anyone who knows me knows everything in my DNA reflects a love for the Pirates, whether it’s naming my youngest son after Roberto Clemente or designing Medlar Field to match the outfield dimensions of PNC Park,” he said. “We’re proud to have been affiliated with them the last six years. I don’t know why they didn’t respond to our proposal. There’s no hard feelings. I hope they do well.”
Splitting with the Cardinals also proved difficult. The ‘06 Spikes remain the only winning team in franchise history. The group went 39-36 and nine players from the inaugural team have appeared in the major leagues. Former Spikes Jason Motte and Allen Craig helped the Cardinals win last year’s World Series title.
The Cardinals worked to remain in State College, sending key executives, including then-general manager Walk Jocketty, to central Pennsylvania throughout 2006. Greenberg said geography led to the Spikes’ first affiliation shuffle.
“I remember Walt Jocketty asking me if there was anything the Cardinals could do to extend the relationship,” Greenberg said. “I told him, ‘You guys are tremendous and that if we could find a way for the Mississippi River to take the place of the Allegheny River, then we could continue this for a long, long time.’ At the time, geography made State College and Pittsburgh a natural fit. I don’t have any regrets. We enjoyed the past six years.”
The Cardinals are leaving a six-year affiliation with the Batavia (N.Y.) Muckdogs. The Spikes and Muckdogs play 10 times per season and members of the Cardinals brass often attended the series in State College. Vuch said the Cardinals “enjoyed their time in Batavia,” but the organization couldn’t resist an opportunity to return to State College.
“We love the area and the facilities in State College are top-notch” he said. “We really enjoyed working with the group up there and our people maintained a good relationship with them. One of the reasons we were able to pull this off is because we have always maintained a good relationship. We understand why they left us, but we didn’t get upset.”
A historically strong farm system has helped the Cardinals win 11 World Series titles. Three of the Cardinals’ seven domestic affiliates qualified for the postseason in 2012. Their entries in the rookie Appalachian and Gulf Coast Leagues, which filter players to the NYPL, went a combined 73-52. Both teams reached the playoffs. Batavia went 240-209 with two playoff appearances in six seasons with the Cardinals.
“We have a good combination,” Vuch said. “We haul some talented people in, polish them up and provide our big-league team with major-league caliber players.”
Greenberg said the Spikes are “honored” to be affiliated with the Cardinals again.
“The ‘Cardinal Way’ is legendary throughout baseball,” he said. “They are a first-class organization in every way from ownership all the way through their major-league and minor-league operations. They are the defending world champions. They are the standard bearer across the industry.”
The Pirates are moving their NY-PL affiliate to Jamestown (N.Y.), according to multiple league sources. The move makes little geographic difference for the Pirates. State College is 136 miles from Pittsburgh. Jamestown’s Diethrick Park is 147 miles from PNC Park.
“After several candid and productive conversations regarding our relationship and partnership, both the Pirates and the Spikes concluded it was in each of their best interest to explore other relationships,” Pirates assistant general manager Kyle Stark said in an email. “The Pirates enjoyed our six-year affiliation with State College and wish them well as they reconnect with St. Louis.”
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy