UNIVERSITY PARK — No matter who was asked, the answer was the same — and it was easy.
What has been the highlight of the State College Spikes season so far?
It’s hard to top David Washington’s walk-off grand slam in an 8-5 win over the Connecticut Tigers on July 20.
“You don’t see too many of those,” said fan Dale Moore of Centre Hall.
“That was kind of a special night,” another fan, Bill Culp of State College, said. “Boy, that ball went out of here. Everyone said, ‘We need a grand slam’ and we got one.”
What has been special for Spikes fans is that there have been so many highlights from which to choose.
For the first time in the eight-year history of the franchise, the team is in the hunt for the playoffs. They have a 35-23 record and are tied for first place with the Jamestown Jammers after yet another dramatic win Monday, beating the Batavia Muckdogs 2-1 in 11 innings.
The players can feel it, the team’s staff feels it, and after so many years of teams with losing records, the fans most definitely feel it.
“It’s nice to be relevant,” Moore said. “As a Pirate fan, it’s been 20 years. At the minor league level we never had it either.”
While the attendance at Monday night’s win was relatively small at just 3,007, overall the crowds have been getting bigger. The Spikes had 5,317 on hand for Sunday’s 4-0 win over Batavia — the best turnout since the 2011 season finale.
It was the sixth time in the last 12 home games they had put better than 4,000 fans in the seats. Only the season opener had surpassed 4,000 before the run.
“It’s exciting for everyone involved,” general manager Jason Dambach said. “The employees are sharing in it, the ushers, the parking guys, our front office staff. It’s amazing when you come to the ballpark and do what we do, you focus so much on what happens outside the white lines as we always say, this year everyone has such a buy-in on the field. It makes for a special atmosphere in the ballpark.”
With that kind of turnout, the excitement can be felt around the park.
“They just get into it,” public address announcer Jeff Brown said. “They’re clapping, they’re cheering right to the last pitch. It can be very electric in the ballpark this year — it’s very cool.”
The more important surge has been on the scoreboard.
They are tied for the best record in the New York-Penn League, are second in the league in hitting and have the NY-PL’s top batting hitter in Steven Ramos (.360).
They have won 17 of the last 22 games, and 12 of the last 13 home games. They have a 22-7 record at home this year — by far the best in the league.
“The fact they’ve won so many of their home games here helps,” Larry Conaway of Spring Township said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how it is in here when we get some Penn State students back, and the Blue Band usually comes here at least once.”
Fans like Conaway and Moore have been season ticket holders since the franchise arrived in town in 2006, and only that first season had a winning record. A few years ago, the Spikes nearly broke the league record for the worst record ever, but avoided that honor with a win on the final night. A season like that one makes this year even more special.
“They seem to have a good team chemistry and everything,” Conaway said. “They’ve had a lot of nice walk-off wins.”
Those walk-off wins — there have been six of them with the addition of Monday’s win — have added to the excitement. The Washington grand slam was of course the best of the lot.
“I just wish they wouldn’t wait until the last inning to score,” Culp said. “This team especially really seems to be into it.”
“You can’t ever count ’em out this year,” Brown said. “That’s the cool thing about it. There could be a walk-off any night.”
Moore has a unique relationship with the team as one of the area’s host families.
Outfielder Jimmy Bosco, pitcher Arturo Reyes and catcher Dante Rosenberg are all spending the summer with the Moore family. His wife fixes dinner for the players after home games, and the late-inning dramatics have delayed her getting to the kitchen.
“They’ve been keeping her here a little longer than usual,” Moore said.
The irony of all this success is it comes after changing its parent club.
The franchise’s first season had the Spikes as an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, but then they switched to be with the Pittsburgh Pirates. They switched back to the Cardinals this season.
“Overall, the St. Louis organization seems to be more organized than the one from last year and the years before,” Culp said. “It’s just a nice environment to come in here for a game because these kids want to win, they let them try to win, which we haven’t seen before, and this year we have a chance to go to the playoffs, which is nice.”
However, the Pirates, who until a few days ago had the best record in the Majors this season, moved the short-season affiliation to Jamestown — the team State College is battling for the division lead.
“We’re just hoping, if we don’t make it, we don’t want Jamestown to make it,” Moore said. “I’m a Pirate fan, so I have to secretly wish they do well, but at the same time, these are our boys now.”
With a mere 17 games left in the regular season — nine of them at home – the Spikes also have brought out another first by putting playoff tickets packages on sale. Conaway already has his tickets for the postseason.
“That’s a new experience,” Conaway said with a big smile.
It has electrified the fans.
“Playoffs?” Brown asked. “We don’t do the playoffs around here. … Baseball in September? That can be fun.”