Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Visit to the State College Spikes

Living in State College for the summer, I have not been privy to attending many games at PNC Park this season. Although not seeing the Pirates underperform in person on a regular basis was almost unbearable, I was pleasantly surprised to hear last fall that the Pirates were planning on moving one of their single A teams to the area. I attended one of their games for the first time last night, full bent on trying to scout and learn about the future of the Pirates' organization, and maybe yell a few choice words at Brian Tracy to relay to his dad. My experience with the farm hands is after the jump...

First off, I'll give a little recap on where the team came from, for those who don't religiously follow the superb minor league system the Buccos possess. Last year the Pirates moved their short-season single A affiliate from Williamsport to State College, in a move designed most likely to try and gain some fans of the major league club in the middle of PA. The team was formerly part of the St. Louis Cardinals organization, and called themselves the Spikes, a name the team kept through the transition. One of the many definitions for the word "spike", according to Websters, is "an unbranched antler of a young deer." The name was obviously chosen to commemorate not only the rich tradition of hunting in Central and Western PA, but also for the growth and developmental connotations, while not sounding as childish as, say, the Baby Penguins. From my own experience, it seems that the locals (aka non-PSU students) are generally excited about the team, as many houses proudly display signs in their yards usually reserved for political campaigns that has a slogan for the Spikes. Even so, there seems to be a small underswell of disappointment with the transition from the Cards to the Bucs, as the farm systems vary significantly in terms of impact prospects.

The Spikes stadium, Medlar Field at Lumbrano Park, is in the shadow of Beaver Stadium named after an old coach (Medlar) and, naturally, a donating alumnus (Lumbrano). The first feeling you'll have almost immediately after entering the park is a sense that you've been here before. That's because the actual field is modeled after PNC Park, a good choice if you ask me.

The most striking similarity is the right field wall, which is 320 feet from home plate and 18.55 feet tall, in honor of the year Penn State was founded. The Spikes also have a fun deck, which didn't look that fun until the 7th inning when attendants started passing out Spikes' mouse pads to all those watching from the deck. I was not lucky enough to acquire one. Medlar Field even has the crazy nook in left center field:

The Spikes utilize the nook more than the Pirates for promotions. Every time the Spikes score a run the Nookie Monster, a mascot with a bad cookie monster outfit, pops out of a trap door which is barely visible in the above picture on the Nittany Bank advertisement (the bottom-right corner of the door is part of the N in Nook). Yes, that's right, the Nookie Monster. According to Urban Dictionary, a Nookie Monster is, "a pet name for someone you have a sexual relationship with". Obviously, the Spikes try to maintain a family environment. The best part about the monster though, as I said before, is that he pops out and does a little dance every time the Spikes score a run, which means the mascot sits behind the left field wall the entire game. It could emerge with 2 outs in the bottom of the ninth, apparently. I'm sure the left fielder has to love that.

Sadly, I had no idea about the Nookie Monster until he came out in the 2nd inning when the Spikes scored their two runs, and I was too slow on the camera to get a shot of him before he disappeared. I also was unaware of the rules for his emergence, so I waited in vain every time the Spikes were up, camera ready, not realizing he only came out when they scored. After the second inning there was no more Nookie Monster, as the Spikes were shutout from then on, which brings me to my observations of the actual game.

Before last night, the Spikes stood a respectable 13-12 which encompassed a 9 game winning streak, a 1-5 stretch at the beginning of the year and a 1-6 stretch they had coming into the game. They played the Brooklyn Cyclones, a part of the Mets organization, with the starting pitcher being Duke Welker, the Pirates' 2nd round pick of this years' draft. Considering this is the highest draft pick we have signed (nice work on Moskos, fellas, turned out to be a real easy signing), I was excited to see his stuff. Welker's line: 4.2 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 4 BB, 4 K. Welker is a big dude at 6'7", so I expected to see an above average fastball, but it topped out at 93 MPH (I was sporadically watching the speed, however). To sum up the pitching in the game, I have one stat: 5 batters were hit by pitches (Spikes 3, Cyclones 2). None of the pitchers were thrown out of the game, although Spikes' firstbaseman Justin Byler was thrown out for arguing with the Ump. He was hit on two occasions.

The Spikes' position players impressed me though, as they put up 9 hits. They seemed to fit right in the Pirates' system too, as they could only generate 2 runs and swung on a ton of first pitches. The player that stuck out to me the most due his play was Marcus Davis, a 22 year old left fielder who went 1-3 with a triple and a walk. Other than the triple, he also made a nice, although awkward, sliding catch which he then tuned into 2 outs by doubling off a Cyclone that didn't tag up. Sadly his night didn't continue as well as it started, as he misjudged a ball, tried to recover by diving for it only to have the ball bounce and, what looked like to me, hit him in the face. By the end of the game, the Spikes had lost 4-2. In the 8th inning they loaded the bases, but could not score, and in the 9th they got 2 people on, but again could not score. Call these guys up, they'll fit right in at the major league level.

The pitching wildness, baserunning errors, and mistakes in the field I expected to see. This is single A after all, and the kids are just starting to develop. What I couldn't excuse was the lack of plate discipline. One game is a ridiculously small sample, but nonetheless it would have been nice to see the players wait on a few more balls. At this point plate disicpline has to be taught to them or they'll never learn it, especially when the pitchers they face are so wild anyway. At this rate, the Pirates will continue to make bad pitchers look good for the next 5-7 years.

Overall, the experience was a good one, the promotions were as goofy as I anticipated for a minor league team, and the view of Mount Nittany in the background, although not as stunning as downtown Pittsburgh, was still rather surreal and beautiful. I plan on going back later this week in search of the Nookie Monster. Expect video in the next few days.


Pat said...

The Nookie Monster? That's too good to be true.

SeanCollier said...

I saw a PSU game there in the spring, and I'm looking forward to getting out to Spikes games in the fall. Even if it is Single-A, pro baseball in walking distance from my place is an awesome thing.

Sam said...

It really is, Sean. Add in the fact I didn't spend a dime, as students can get tickets for free, and you really can't beat it. Now if only they could expand the student section in beaver stadium...