UNIVERSITY PARK — Every good Hollywood love story begins hot and heavy, and then cools as the pair inevitably goes through a breakup before reheating once again in a triumphant reconciliation.
The St. Louis Cardinals and the State College Spikes hope to find a mutual happily-ever-after as they combine once again in the Class A short-season New York-Penn League.
“We’re ecstatic to be back here in State College,” said Cardinals farm director John Vuch in a recent interview. “It’s a great fit for the organization.”
The Spikes found immediate success as a Cardinals affiliate in the inaugural 2006 season, after managing partner Chuck Greenberg purchased and relocated the New Jersey Cardinals to State College.
The team went 39-36 — its lone winning season — and eventually sent nine players to the major leagues.
However, the Spikes chose instead to affiliate with the Pittsburgh Pirates after the one-year contract leftover from New Jersey eventually lapsed.
What followed was a 191-260 run from 2007-2012 as a Pirates affiliate.
When the Spikes and Pirates’ Player Development Contract expired in 2012, the door was once again open for the Cardinals, who were then affiliated with the Batavia Muckdogs.
And what good breakup could happen without a “I think we should see other people” and a “it’s not you, it’s me?”
“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 to the Centre Daily Times last year.
Then it was St. Louis’ turn to extricate itself tactfully from its relationship.
“We weren’t unhappy with Batavia,” Vuch said recently. “There were no problems there, but we felt an obligation if there was a chance to improve our situation that we needed to explore it.”
The happy couple is now poised to give it another go as Monday’s season opener against the Williamsport Crosscutters nears.
Whether the reunion will end happily will be determined. Until then, it’s clear why the attraction is so strong.
The Cardinals bring a proven model of success that has yielded two World Series titles since 2006 and 11 overall, second only to the New York Yankees’ 27.
Vuch also said the franchise started the first farm system in baseball under Branch Rickey, who also helped break the league’s color barrier by eventually signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The historic success and significance of the franchise is unassailable.
Vuch said a key to the recent success is the cohesion between the minor and major league systems. He credits meetings with former manager Tony La Russa and others on the major-league level with universalizing the approach.
“Tony is a Hall-of-Fame manager and for him to take the time to sit down with me and sit down with the minor league staff, that’s something he doesn’t have to do,” Vuch said.
La Russa has yet to be voted into baseball’s Hall, but is third all time in managerial wins with 2,691 and has won three championships.
“But I think it ended up helping because that was between the 2010-2011 season and as it turned out we ended up with a lot of guys come up in 2011 that played a role in us winning the World Series.”
Now, the major and minor league staffs get together in spring training and strategize toward a shared goal, which Vuch said didn’t always happen in the past.
As for the Cardinals, it’s Medlar Field at Lubrano Park and the past relationships the club built in 2006 that made State College so attractive.
“It’s a great community and the facilities are phenomenal, and the facilities are a big part of it,” Vuch said.
Dwyer Stadium, in Batavia, N.Y, is the Muckdogs’ home field. It opened in 1939 and holds 2,600 people. Ground was broken in the State College in May of 2005 and the park holds 5,570.
However, Vuch said it was about more than just bricks and mortar.
“You’re basically entrusting your players with this franchise and we wanted to make sure we had a comfort level with the people who were going to be taking care of our players.”
Spikes senior vice president and general manager Jason Dambach couldn’t be happier with the reunion.
He said the Spikes owe the Cardinals a “debt of gratitude” for successfully starting the franchise in ’06.
And while winning games and sending guys to the majors is appealing, Dambach said the Spikes don’t expect that every season.
“There’s absolutely no pressure from our vantage point to win championships or get to the playoffs,” he said. “We know they give us and our fans the best chance to enjoy a fun, competitive product on the field and that’s really all you can ask for.”
The Spikes first manager, Mark DeJohn, who helped author the team’s lone winning season is now the Cardinals minor league field coordinator. He is back in town in preparation for opening day.
When asked about his time in State College and what feelings were engendered coming back, DeJohn, as he’s been known to do, used humor to convey his feelings.
“My first thought is when they say, ‘You had (nine) big leaguers on that club in 2006,’ I kept thinking, ‘Wow, I should have won the pennant,’” DeJohn said with a smile and laugh.
“We are so happy to be back in State College, me in particular.”