Saturday, July 23, 2011

Tossed a Fatherly Curve: Game 49 in Altoona

Even the team's name curves along the hillside.
From previous posts, it should be obvious that I am fond of team names that connote multiple meanings, especially when a name reflects some distinct character of its community and an element of baseball.  When the name also happens to be a collective singular noun, I find that it somehow exemplifies the depth of teamwork that bonds individuals into a unit.  (I do experience difficulty, of course, in knowing what kinds of agreement need to be made with the collective singular noun, such as whether to use a singular or plural pronoun. Should I refer to the Curve as “they”—usage that would correspond to a reference to the plural name such as the Nationals; or should I specify the Curve as “it”—thereby spinning the emphasis to the collective entity.) 

While fans might associate the Curve’s name with baseball’s breaking pitch, the Altoona Curve’s name derives from the famous horseshoe railroad curve that rises through the mountains of central Pennsylvania a few miles west of the city.  Now designated as a National Historic Landmark, “Horseshoe Curve” opened in 1854.  

Portion of the graphic explanation on display at the National Historic Landmark.
Aerial photo of Horseshoe Curve on display at the Allegheny Portage exhibit.
An engineering feat that conforms to the contour of the mountains without the aid of a trestle, the tracks rise more than 100 feet in a distance of less than half a mile, a slope that is more than two and a half times greater than the average grade that trains usually negotiate. That slope is further complicated by the severity of the tracks’ half-circle, whose degree of curvature is 9 degrees, 25 minutes.

Boxcars negotiate Horseshoe Curve.

Remnants of the Portage Railway.
In the mid-nineteenth century Horseshoe Curve enabled rail traffic to move uninterrupted through the region, making the nearby Allegheny Portage Railway obsolete.  Prior to the completion of the Curve, the portage system had combined canal barges and rail lines with ten incline engine stations using counterbalances to lift and lower cargo and passengers 36 miles across the mountain ridge.  When completed in 1834, the Portage Railway had also featured the first rail tunnel in the United States, and its combined barge and railroad system had accelerated the exploration and commercial development of territory west of the Alleghenies.  

Placing the Allegheny Portage Railway in a cultural timetable.
But back to baseball and Altoona: Until the late 1990s history threw a curve to Altoona’s turn for professional baseball.  For less than two months in the inaugural season of the Union Association in the late 1800s, Altoona served as the home of a team in the new league that challenged the professional dominance of the National League and the American Association. Within weeks, however, Altoona’s team flailed and failed, drawing poorly and losing frequently.  After compiling a record of 6-19, the team was basically railroaded out of town, going far to Kansas City. 
In several years before the depths of the Great Depression, Altoona fielded minor league teams, twice watching them depart for other cities before the end of their first season.  When the Altoona Engineers left for Beaver Falls in 1931, more than six decades would expire before professional baseball would return to the mountain town in the mid-1990s with the establishment of the Rail Kings in the independent North Atlantic League.  While that team enjoyed relative success and enthusiastic support from the community, the League itself folded, forcing the team to join the equally hapless Heartland League the following year. 
Then came Major League Baseball’s expansion in the late 1990s.  Accompanying the development of two additional Major League teams—the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (as the team was initially known)—affiliated minor league franchises were also awarded to prospective cities, with Altoona winning out over Springfield, Massachusetts for one of the new Double-A teams.  So was conceived and born the Altoona Curve.
My predisposition to like the Curve because of the playful complexity of its name was heightened by the hospitality that I received in the mountain community and the special features aligned with the game on the date of my singing.  It was Father’s Day.  I had anticipated missing my family since Bonnie had remained in Washington to spend several days with friends, and my sons, both of whom phoned me before evening, were a continent away in California.  What I had not expected was that I could share the afternoon with the father of a friend and colleague, Art Remillard. 
A professor of American religious history at St. Francis University, Art has presented papers on religion and sport at various conferences that I have attended, and he has reviewed books that I have written and edited.  When he learned of my project, he invited me to stay in his home for the nights when I would sing for Altoona and State College, an hour’s drive away. The odd thing: Art and his family would be out of town for two months surrounding my time in the area.  Art said that I could get access to his house from his father Vincent, an ardent Curve’s fan who lives close by and who planned to attend both of my games.

Vincent Remillard at Horseshoe Curve Historic Landmark.
Although the age difference that I have with Vincent is hardly sufficient to allow for him to be like my father, we began our relationship on the basis of my friendship with his son.  To a very real extent then, we experienced Father’s Day with vicarious delight, recognizing that, while each of us missed being with our own sons that day, we could relate as father and son.  And the following day we continued to enjoy each other’s similar company while Vince showed me great sites in the region—the Horseshoe Curve, the Franciscan Monastery in Loretto, and the nearby St. Francis University campus before we headed out to State College for its evening game.
 In Altoona, the Curve’s ballpark is one of the most imaginative in all of baseball.  A couple of years after the Blair County Ballpark had opened in 1999, USA Today played with its description of the facility: “A minor league ballpark is one thing. An amusement park is another. But tucked in the Allegheny Mountains is a place where there’s really no difference.” 

 Skyiner makes its own horseshoe curve behind right field.

In large part the ballpark’s amusement ambiance is set by Lakemont Park’s Skyliner roller coaster, whose high tiers abut the right field fence.  While the amusement park dates from the late nineteenth century, the fifty-year-old Skyliner was purchased from another amusement park and installed at its present site more than a decade before the team was formed and the adjoining ballpark conceived.  The high wooden scaffolding and sweeping curves of Skyliner’s structure not only add a playful backdrop to the ballpark; they also mimic Horseshoe Curve, from which the team derives its name. 
At the Curve’s ballpark on Father’s Day afternoon, a sense of poetry also prevailed as a pre-game promotion allowed parents to play catch with their children in the outfield.  Generations of families participated in the activity, while many of the pairs of tossers and catchers called to mind poet Donald Hall’s signal essay in his baseball collection Fathers Playing Catch with Sons. 
The game was also distinct in several other ways.  Squeals of delight dopplered into the stands from the roller coaster riders swooping along Skyliner’s dips and turns.  Sprinklers sprayed the infield during the bottom of the first inning.  

I enjoyed my first in-stadium interview with a team’s broadcast crew, the local ESPN radio game-day host Josh Ellis. 

Curve's media man Josh Ellis interviews me on WVAM's pre-game show.
 And in his Double-A debut, the Curve’s Phil Irwin hurled six impressive innings, yielding two harmless singles (one on a hanging curve), showing good control with after hitting the first batter that he faced, and holding the Harrisburg Senators scoreless during his team's win 4-1.


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