State College Spikes

State College Spikes: Happy fans fill stadium for season opener

CDT photo

The scenes were universal, happy sights at any ballpark.

A dad in a shirt and tie was walking with his pre-teen son, who was carrying a baseball glove.

They walked past a table with what appeared to be three generations savoring their dinner.

Not far away, Ike the Spike and other mascots were cavorting with fans young and old and posing for pictures.

And all over the ballpark, it seemed there were numerous reunions among fans and even ballpark personnel.

“I’m just happy to see everybody here,” State College Spikes General Manager Scott Walker said. “It’s a community gathering place.”

The Spikes opened their season Friday night at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, falling to the Williamsport Crosscutters 3-2.

The outcome was more important to some fans than to others.

Some were checking the roster, wondering if this season would bring a repeat of last year’s New York-Penn League Championship.

“It’s pretty cool,” State College resident Andy Gaertner said. “I’m hoping for a win today. I’m looking forward to it.”

Gaertner has a flex book and gets to a number of games, and caught most of the exciting end to last season.

“A lot of new faces out there,” Gaertner said. “It’s a new season.”

Others were just making it a special night.

Andy Weaver of Lock Haven made the trip with seven other family members, including his 11-year-old son Tyler. Four generations on hand, they were enjoying Father’s Day weekend at the ballpark.

“We just got done with Little League,” said Weaver, who coaches a team. “It’s nice to be able to sit and watch a game.”

The evening started with a little more celebration of 2014 before the first pitch of 2015.

Several Spikes players who returned from last year’s team entered the ballpark in a Corvette convertible with the championship trophy.

Walking alongside the car was pitcher Tyler Bray, and riding on his shoulders was Josiah Viera. Viera, 11, has been the team’s inspiration for several seasons as he battles through a rare, fatal disease, Progeria, which accelerates aging in children.

As Bray and Viera walked past the Spikes dugout, Viera got high-fives from each player, and he got a loud ovation as he walked out to the middle of the field to deliver the game’s ceremonial first pitch.

Then, once the game began, it time to enjoy baseball, even as Spikes management, and anyone who is involved in minor league baseball, knows, the nights are about so much more.

“It’s not about the baseball,” team President Jason Dambach said. “We’re opening the doors for the community. This is really, as we talk about here a lot, a community gathering place. It’s somewhere where folks don’t necessarily worry about who’s pitching or what the final score is, this is a night out and it’s an essential part of summertime in State College.”

Dambach had long been the team general manager, but was elevated to a new post and is also working with the Frisco Roughriders, an affiliate of the Texas Rangers that is also owned by Chuck Greenberg. Dambach has been spending most of this year in Texas with that organization, but he knew where he had to be Friday night.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Dambach said. “I grew up in Pennsylvania my entire life, I have a lot invested in this franchise, and there’s something special about walking into this ballpark … that’s unlike anywhere I’ve been or where I’m at now.”

Standing in the press box in the fourth inning, gulping down a quick bite of food and wiping sweat from his forehead after sprinting from one end of the stadium to the other, Walker was beaming with pride over the sellout crowd for opening night, the culmination of months of planning.

“To get to June 19 and finally have professional baseball on the field,” Walker said, “is a good feeling – with a full house.”

With the stadium also hosting so many other events, from charity functions to 5K runs, from Penn State football tailgate parties to high school games, there was a little relief to get to Friday. He also admitted he’s already well into planning for the 2016 season.

But he did take a moment to enjoy the fruits of all that labor, showing off his giant championship ring he was wearing while racing around the stadium.

It was a nice reward for the 12 months of hard work they put in, almost as good as seeing the gates flooded by fans on a warm summer evening at the ballpark.

“The ring is awesome,” Walker said. “I’ve been a part of a lot of losing seasons in my career … but this is tremendous.”