Fans Feel Sting of Pending Loss of the Cardinals State College and Johnson City Affiliates

photo: Williams Rojas

For many, Minor League Baseball has cemented their fandom for life, and it has remained a gift that has kept giving for decades.

Parents, children, grandparents, siblings, colleagues, friends and significant others share special memories from attending a minor league game.

But the expectation around baseball is there will not be a 2020 minor league season for 160 teams in their home cities across the US due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It doubly stings for those fans in 42 towns in line to lose their affiliated teams next year, as it appears they will not even get a chance to say goodbye.

The St. Louis Cardinals are expected to shed two affiliates in the reduction – the Class-A short-season State College Spikes and rookie-level Johnson City Cardinals.

Fangraphs estimates the contraction of 42 minor league teams will leave 14 million Americans with no source of affiliated professional baseball within 50 miles of their homes.

“When I think about the potential fans who will lose access to such games, it saddens me greatly,” Fangraphs’ Jay Jaffe wrote recently. “It’s a shortsighted strategy for a sport that desperately needs to find inroads to younger demographics, no matter how laudable some of the goals of the proposed contraction are.

“A sport with nearly $11 billion in annual revenue can certainly afford to pay minor leaguers a living wage without salting the earth in the communities that are growing the next generation of fans.”

The communities of many of the 42 cities are not going down without a fight, starting petitions in response to Major League Baseball’s proposal to cut about 25% of minor league teams.

For a snapshot of how this plan is affecting fans, The Cardinal Nation reached out to four residents of the State College, Pennsylvania and Johnson City, Tennessee areas.

Hearing from local fans

Meet Williams Rojas.

He is originally from Brooklyn, New York and moved his family to State College in 1995 to help his ailing father. Rojas works at the Courtyard by Marriott and his love for the Spikes began in 2013 when the hotel started receiving complimentary tickets to distribute.

“We started going to games and taking a lot of tickets because a lot of people didn’t want to go,” Rojas said. “I was like, ‘I gotta get me some tickets. I love these guys.’ I became friends with some of the players. I met them after the game in the back to talk. That’s how we became fans.”

Rojas said his favorite memories as a Spikes fan were when State College hosted the New York-Penn League All-Star Game in 2018 and in 2013, when former Cardinals farmhand David Washington hit two grand slams.

(Williams Rojas)

“Those are some of my favorite memories since I bought season-tickets — I sit right behind the Spikes dugout in seat 1-2 row three,” Rojas said. “That’s how big of fans we are. After making friends with them, they say, ‘Man, you have a big mouth. We can hear you down in the dugout.’

“I support them and they appreciate that. Being a big fan. I got a tattoo a couple of years ago of the logo and baseball around with it with the championship years underneath. Every year, I want to get another one. I want to keep adding and adding.”

There’s avid Johnson City Cardinals fan Neill Murphy, who has been a Cardinals fan since 1967. He has been attending Johnson City games since the late-1990s. Although he lives closer to Knoxville, Tennessee, Murphy loves to make the hour drive to Johnson City to check out the Cardinals next wave of prospects.

Murphy said seeing first-rounders like Delvin Perez and Nolan Gorman kept him at the ballpark during the summer over the last few years.

“Delvin’s got a good arm,” Murphy said. “I don’t know if he can hit. He can play shortstop, for sure. He can run. And then Nolan Gorman. I got to see him play. That’s the fun part. I like to project what they are going to look like in a few years and how they look against opponents at this age-level.”

A favorite memory for Murphy was when he caught a triple from Perez on video in 2017, extra special because he hadn’t seen him run yet. Murphy shared the feat on social media.

“I came up there specifically to see him,” Murphy said. “Everybody said this kid has got great physical ability with the possible exception of strength. He lined a shot to the right field wall and I just happened to be videoing the pitch. He got from home to third base in 11 seconds.

“That’s pretty good.”

State College Spikes season-ticket holder Victoria Raish and her family have been Spikes fans since 2012.

The Spikes Kids Club program is what attracted them to become regulars at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.

Raish said her favorite time to go to the ballpark is on a Sunday when kids can run the bases or for the fireworks show following a Friday evening contest.

“Our kids love staying for those types of things,” Raish said. “They love sitting behind the dugout and picking out whatever food they are going to get.”

Chris Arnold and his family instantly became Johnson City Cardinals fans after attending a home game at TVA Credit Union Ballpark in 2015. Arnold’s daughter had just started playing fastpitch softball and he used baseball to help “stoke her fire”.

“She’s motivated and learns from seeing the intensity and skill of these players,” Arnold said.

“I’d looked into attending a game and always guessed it to be overpriced. I was surprised at the ticket cost compared to the spectator experience.”

Responding to MiLB contraction

On Jan. 16, the Spikes announced their “Save Our Spikes” campaign to fight back against MLB’s plan and encourage community members to visit SaveOurSpikes.com. On the Spikes official site, people can find information on how to help, including writing to elected officials to advocate for the team to MLB.

Raish started a petition on Change.org in November, which has over 1,000 signatures in support of the Spikes. She said she started the petition for multiple reasons.

“We go to a lot of games during the summer,” Raish said. “We don’t want that to go away for our kids. For the community, it’s good for the economy, it’s good for tourism, and people coming up for maybe like an hour where they don’t have many things going on in their local community.”

When Raish investigated why the teams were getting cut, she learned that MLB’s key reasons appear to be sub-par facilities and poor attendance.

“Neither of those things apply,” Raish said. “We have good attendance and a really nice field. I felt that way and I knew my friends felt that way. I wanted to try and get more support.

“And then I wanted to share that information with Scott Walker (general manager of the Spikes). I wanted them to see like, ‘Yes, they have community support and all of these people cared enough to sign the petition.’”

Johnson City is more likely to be cut than State College because  Appalachian League teams are owned by their MLB parents. As such, they can all be easily contracted.

However, community members of cities in the Appalachian League have also started a petition on Change.org called “Save The Appalachian League”. The petition has over 2,500 signatures currently.

Murphy said if Johnson City loses the Cardinals in the contraction — the city would lose its link to baseball – a partnership that began with St. Louis in 1938.

“It’s really sad because to me that is a piece of Americana,” Murphy said. “The minor league ballpark and the experience. All of the food and beverages are reasonably priced. The baseball is good. It’s just a nice little slice of America.”

The closest major-league city to Johnson City is four hours driving distance. If people want to see a game in-person in the corner of east Tennessee, the two closest franchises are the Cincinnati Reds and Atlanta Braves.

The next closest minor league team is the Tennessee Smokies (CHC), which is an hour drive each way.

“If they don’t have (the Cardinals), they don’t have any baseball,” Murphy said. “It’s a shame because you see a lot of kids at these games. You don’t want to lose the exposure to the next generation. That is the other thing. It’s a family atmosphere. You get families that come to the games. They can afford it and revel in all of the excitement.

“It’s a generational thing. Fathers passing that on to their sons. It’s a way to bond. It’s a timeless experience and they are going to be missing out on all that.”

Arnold said it is “surreal even thinking about” losing the Cardinals in Johnson City. For him. the thought is “sickening” that a single MLB player’s salary could save and improve the minor league teams that are to be cut.

“These large city MLB teams rake in the cash, but the hometown minors are the heart and soul of the game,” Arnold said. “The love of the game is the feeder for MLB. The minors make the game more personal for the rest of the population and provide everything that watching MLB on TV can’t.”

If State College loses the Spikes, Rojas said it would be a big loss for the town not only economically, but for entertainment as well.

“That is one thing we don’t appreciate because it’s entertainment for the town,” Rojas said. “It brings a lot of people.”

The future of local fandom

While State College will still have Penn State baseball if the Spikes are disbanded, Raish believes that it will not be the same.

“People are pretty apathetic to Penn State baseball because they are not very good,” Raish said. “It’s just not a sport of Penn State that is popular. Football is the most popular at Penn State.”

And losing the Spikes would cause a lowering of interest in baseball in the community, according to Raish.

“The Spikes do a lot of work with little-league players and softball players,” Raish said. “They have the Pennsylvania State Championships, which are at the Spikes ball field for high school. I think it would negatively impact people’s interest in baseball around here (if the Spikes lost their minor league affiliation).”

Among regulars who attend Johnson City games, Murphy said the Cardinals will be missed if they are indeed cut from minor league baseball.

Murphy believes the interest in baseball would drop dramatically if Johnson City added an independent team or summer college wood bat league because it is not going to be as competitive as affiliated baseball.

Arnold said Johnson City will not be the same without the Birds on the Bat in town. He said his family’s attention will be on local college, high school and travel teams, which play for the “true love of the game instead of big money deals.”

“It’s a huge let down from MLB,” Arnold said. “I watched the 2019 World Series with my kids and after Game 1, I watched it alone. It’s just not the same. If televised World Series can’t hold the attention of a young ball player and a minor league stadium experience does, the decision makers aren’t in it for the love of the game.”


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