The Philadelphia Inquirer: Spike’s Trophies makes Hall of Fame-worthy move to save its business and help COVID-19 victims

At first glance, everything about Spike’s Trophies appears unchanged, even more than a month into the pandemic’s silencing of the city.

Outside, two walls of the company’s 25,000-square-foot headquarters, on Grant Avenue, are still splashed with the psychedelic murals that have long decorated Spike’s, which for years has supplied trophies, plaques, and a sizable inventory of sports merchandise and other paraphernalia to athletics organizations and businesses. One mural depicts the city’s greatest athletic figures; the other, newer, is a rendering of the Eagles’ 2017-18 Super Bowl team

Inside, the trophy showroom is still a field of marble and gold, acrylic and crystal, celebrating high school commencements, Babe Ruth League championships, and outstanding corporate leadership. And on a recent Thursday morning, Keith Baldwin, Spike’s CEO, was happy to escort a visitor to the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame preview gallery, housed at the site, and show off the memorabilia there.

But everything is not the same. In a cubicle near the gallery, Martin Guenther, who used to work in Spike’s assembly and graphics operations, wore a headset and made a phone call. It was only through Baldwin, and by a godsend of good timing, that he was still working there at all.

“I’m calling from the New York State Department of Health,” Guenther said, “regarding coronavirus testing.” INQUIRER MORNING NEWSLETTER

‘It’s my life’

Baldwin got his first job when he was 14, at Gold Medal Sporting Goods, where he sharpened ice skates and strung tennis rackets. When Baldwin was 18, Gold Medal bought Spike’s, which opened in 1929 but had been run-down since, and he volunteered to manage it.

“I was lucky enough and dumb enough that I didn’t know I should have failed,” said Baldwin, 61, his perfectly trimmed white goatee hidden under a black surgical mask.

He worked there for more than 25 years, learned the business, helped grow it, then bought it himself in 2004, eventually relocating it from Northern Liberties to the Far Northeast. The property is a big plot on a grassy hill, making Spike’s an easy-to-spot landmark.

“There’s a lot of sweat equity in this place,” he said. “It’s my life.”

In all that time, Baldwin never fired a single employee — never had to, never wanted to. When the Philadelphia Hall of Fame enshrined its first class, in 2004, president Ken Avallon turned to Spike’s for the inductees’ plaques. When the Hall needed a new site for its preview gallery in 2015, Baldwin offered Avallon space at Spike’s, gratis.

To punch their time clock, employees have to walk down a long hallway, past banners listing all the Hall’s members.

“I’m a big Philly sports fan,” said Sydney Doherty, who joined Spike’s last year as a customer service representative. “When Keith took me on a tour, I was like, ‘That’s so awesome.’”

Heading into March, Baldwin and his 50-person staff were preparing for what had always been their busiest time of year. The Penn Relays, the Broad Street Run, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia — they and more were Spike’s clients. By the middle of the month, though, the coronavirus was raging, the company’s finances were in danger, and Baldwin was desperate: Clients had been postponing or canceling events for weeks, out of fear of the pandemic.

Baldwin spent hours on the phone with Beth Packel, his relationship representative at Firstrust Bank, trying to figure out how Spike’s could weather the coming economic downturn. But then another, more intimate scare arose. One of Baldwin’s employees apparently contracted the coronavirus, which forced Spike’s to close for three days until the employee learned that the diagnosis was a false-positive.

Baldwin spent the morning of Thursday, March 19, calling his staff, telling them to take Friday off and to come back Monday ready to work. “It was a Twilight Zone episode,” he said. “I can’t tell you I didn’t cry a few nights.”

But then, Gov. Tom Wolf issued an order closing all “nonessential” businesses in the state. At 2:30 p.m. on March 20, Baldwin gathered his employees on a conference call and delivered the awful news. Spike’s was shutting down. Their jobs were gone. Then he called Packel at Firstrust to update her.

“He was devastated,” she said.

A roller-coaster hour

Packel’s call with Baldwin had been just her latest in a string of excruciating conversations with small-business owners, and minutes after she hung up, her phone rang again. It was another Firstrust client: Gary Pudles, the CEO of AnswerNet, a call-center outsourcer based in Willow Grove. “You could tell,” Pudles said, “she’d had the snot beat out of her all day.”

But Pudles had tremendous news. Earlier that week, AnswerNet had secured a contract with the state of New York to schedule coronavirus testing. Now New York needed AnswerNet to expand the program, to bring on more callers. We’re going to be working and hiring, Pudles told Packel. If you see activity on my line of credit, that’s why.

“It was karma,” Packel said.

At 3:27 p.m., less than an hour after Baldwin had laid off his entire staff, Packel called him back to put him in touch with Pudles. And at 4:30, Baldwin told his employees that he and Pudles had agreed to a partnership: AnswerNet had effectively hired Spike’s, a move that opened a revenue spigot for Baldwin’s company and allowed him to keep all of his employees at their full salaries and benefits. They were now an “essential business.” Instead of designing and selling trophies, they would be contacting New York residents to arrange coronavirus tests. Baldwin could save Spike’s staffers from the unemployment line — and help save lives, one call at a time.

“Manna from heaven,” he said.

From there, everything accelerated. Baldwin purchased 10 laptops for employees who didn’t have computers available at home. The staff spent the weekend in training, learning AnswerNet’s software and the script to follow for each call. Baldwin tracked down 50 pairs of headsets in an Arizona warehouse, bought them, and had them overnighted to Philadelphia. They arrived on March 25, and Spike’s went online as a coronavirus call center later that day.

Often, the calls are difficult. The patients are sick and scared, frustrated and angry over the delays in attention and care. “But you have others that make your day,” Doherty said. “The good ones outweigh the difficult ones by 10 times. ‘Oh, my God, I’ve been waiting for your call!’ That’s why I want to be doing this.”

Baldwin doesn’t know when Spike’s might go back to being a trophy business. For now, he doesn’t care. “You see what he’s done and the way he deals with people,” said Avallon, the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame president, “and it’s very, very heartening.” The Hall’s next induction ceremony is scheduled for early November. Perhaps this year, there will be another name on the ballot, in honor of the man who saved the Hall. And so much more.

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