In the summer of 2002, Chuck Greenberg was in his first day as owner of the Altoona Curve (Eastern) when he and longtime lieutenant Todd Parnell sat down for a meeting with Penn State officials to brainstorm the possibility of bringing a short-season minor league team to State College, Pa.
Greenberg loved the idea from the start. A new ballpark on campus would provide a home for both the Nittany Lions, who would play during the college season from March to June, and a minor league team that would take the field when the New York-Penn League season began in late June.
However, Greenberg had more pressing matters at hand that afternoon as his first game as a minor league team owner was fast approaching. “At the time I remember holding up a big key ring and saying, ‘We have a game in two hours and we don’t know which key opens up the men’s room. So how about we get back to you?’ ” he said.
Once Greenberg and his group opened the gates in Altoona and got that operation running smoothly, they returned to the Penn State idea. And it didn’t take long to strike an agreement. Four years later, through what Greenberg described as a true partnership with Penn State, they unveiled a unique ballpark and a team that has since been embraced by the football-mad populace.
“It’s a beautiful park that has fit so well in the community,” Greenberg said.
The State College Spikes may not seem like a natural match for a town that reveres its college football team like no other. But just because the Spikes sit in the shadow of Penn State football doesn’t mean that the team is obscured by it.
Sure, Medlar Field at Lubrano Park could likely fit in the end zone seating of Beaver Stadium, the behemoth next door that fills with nearly a minor league season’s worth of fans on a typical fall Saturday for a Nittany Lions football game. But the Spikes have managed to carve out an identity of their own over the past eight seasons, through a focus on customer service and affordable entertainment.
“We provide the things that minor league baseball as an industry brings—that connection to a community, affordability and a fun atmosphere,” Spikes general manager Jason Dambach said. “And that’s particularly true here in State College, where there is a void in the summertime. And I think we have filled that well.
“This is a minor league baseball market.”
The team made history before it ever took the field. Its 5,500-seat ballpark debuted on June 20, 2006, as the first stadium in the world to earn a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, an honor handed out by the U.S. Green Building Council for the construction and operation of a high-performance green building.
The $30 million project included a variety of environmentally friendly ideas from the beginning of construction, including the reusing of rock dug out of the outfield as fill material to level the outfield, using gray water (any previously used water except from toilets) for irrigation, recycling 75 percent of all construction material, and paving the parking lots with permeable material. Only recycled cooking oil is used for concessions and biodegradable hydraulic fluid is used in field equipment.
“To be the first LEED-certified ballpark in the world is a source of pride,” said Dambach, the former Altoona broadcaster who took over the State College operation after Greenberg sold the Curve in 2009. “It’s definitely something we are proud of and the folks at Penn State are proud of it . . . It’s hardly the sexiest stuff to show off during tours. ‘Here are some recycling bins and our gray-water pipes.’ ”
Penn State owns the stadium and the Spikes operate it year-round, including during Nittany Lions games and charitable events, of which there are many. The team hosts roughly 15 to 20 charity events each year, including five school programs and Pennsylvania’s Special Olympics opening ceremony for its state games.
The Spikes have also sought to be a refuge for the community when it was rocked by the abuse scandal in November 2011 that led to the arrest and conviction of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, the end of longtime head coach Joe Paterno’s tenure, and the restructuring of much of the school’s administration.
The scandal seemed to affect every aspect of life in State College, so it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that it also affected the Spikes, as attendance dipped by more than 10 percent in 2012 when the investigation into the actions of Sandusky and the schools administration broadened. The Spikes were at home when Penn State removed Paterno’s statue outside Beaver Stadium, when the NCAA announced sanctions against the school, and when Sandusky was convicted.
“Penn State football is part of the culture in our community. Joe Paterno is like a family member to a lot of people we do business with, and it was difficult to do business. It definitely affected us,” Dambach said. “It’s been a long climb, but the community is starting to heal . . . I think we saw last year that we are able to pull together and have a terrific year.”
Attendance rebounded in 2013 and the Spikes finished sixth in the 14-team New York-Penn League at 133,637 fans. The 2013 season was also State College’s first as a Cardinals affiliate since the two were linked in 2006. State College spent the previous six seasons with the Pirates before an acrimonious split following the 2012 campaign.
Greenberg admits it was difficult to part ways with the Pirates. A Pittsburgh native, he had the ballpark built with the Bucs in mind, as Medlar Field shares the same dimensions as the Pirates’ PNC Park.
But the change ended up being for the best, Greenberg said, because the Cardinals gave State College its first postseason berth in franchise history and a trip to the league championship series, where the Spikes lost to Tri-City in three games.
“In State College, performance matters,” Greenberg said. “(Fans) like to see the local team do well. That is what they are used to. We took a bit of a risk, but the affiliation change is something we are glad to see the community embrace.”