Saturday, May 26, 2012

Spiked Interest: Game 50 in State College

Central Pennsylvania might be affectionately known as "JoePa" country, even after the fitting dismissal of Joe Paterno as head football coach at Penn State University, a termination that was quickly followed by his diagnosis, demise, and death from lung cancer.  Paterno was the winningest coach in major college football history and had spent almost a half-century leading the Nittany Lions to five undefeated season, numerous bowl game victories, and two national titles.  Because he is the icon of the region, it’s not too surprising that the State College Spikes play in football’s shadow, both figuratively and literally.

Penn State's football stadium hovers above the ballpark concourse.
The University’s football stadium looms above Lubrano Park, which is a facility shared between the Spikes and the Penn State baseball team.  By contrast, the football stadium dwarfs the baseball park by expanse and capacity.  Although the State College team is known as the Spikes, both Coach Paterno and the Nittany name frame the baseball field: Beyond the outfield fences, undeveloped Mount Nittany stands tall like Frank Howard towering above the first base bag, and opposite the preferred parking area for the ballpark, a dynamic statue of Paterno defines the entry to the stadium.

JoePa appears to lead his players toward conquest of the baseball field too.
There is a sense in which the name of the Spikes reflects the intellectual climate of the city and the literary bent of Paterno, who earned his Master’s degree in English literature. Their name generates a double entendre related both to the State College vicinity and to baseball.  For “spikes” is the name of the pair of undivided antlers on young deer, which are so prevalent throughout the region and which provide the logo for team; and “spikes,” of course, refers to the pair of cleats that baseball players wear.  I love the use of such a homonym, especially when the variant meanings of "spikes" equally apply to the team.

After spending the morning with Vincent Remillard exploring mountain scenery and sites near Ebensburg and Loretta, we descended by Horse Shoe Curve in Altoona and on to State College, where we parked at the home of Louise and Bob Griffin, one of Vincent’s colleagues whom I had met the previous day at the game in Altoona.  While the Griffins chauffeured the Remillards and me to the game, showers threatened the evening and eventually delayed the Spikes’ game for almost an hour.  During the rain delay, which had become a fairly common experience for me during the previous month, the Spikes' mascots Ike and Nookie entertained the crowd even more than the wind gusts wrestling with the tarp that covered the diamond.

Pre-game wind tents the tarp to mimic Mt. Nittany in the background.

At the State College ballpark I encountered several distinctions, in addition to ducking a wicked foul line drive that sliced past my head.   There I saw the professional debut of a “bonus baby,” I experienced my first "Bark in the Park" night, 
Perhaps "Spike" is also the name of one of these barkers.
and I shunned the thousands of calories of the most distinct hamburger of the summer: “The Endless Love Burger.”  It’s a standard bacon and cheeseburger, but with a unique twist—that it’s served on a glazed donut bun!  I’m certain that the sandwich affects some heart throbs, but I imagine they are ones of cardiac arrest, not eternal passion.

While the spirit of Joe Pa certainly hovered over the area, it was the initial appearance of Stetson Allie that dominated attention this night.  Drafted out of high school in the second round draft by the Pirates in 2010, Allie had delayed inking his contract until the deadline, finally settling on a signing bonus exceeding two million dollars.  His first professional assignment was to State College, the Pirates’ affiliate in the short season New York-Penn League.  Allie’s first professional pitch followed my singing the national anthem to open the Spikes second home game of the season.  Thanks to the hospitality of the Spikes’ management, I was allowed to stay at the end of the dugout to photograph Allie’s start.

Allie delivering his first professional pitch.
With his fast ball routinely registering in the mid-nineties and occasionally clocking in triple digits during high school, Allie commanded center stage.  He blazed his first pitch past the Auburn Doubledays’ leadoff hitter en route to striking him out.  But the next batter singled and following another strike out and a stolen base, a two-out double brought home Auburn’s first run.  Although Allie recorded a third strike out in the second inning, he lost command in the third, walking three batters and allowing two more stolen bases.  He was charged with three earned runs in less than three full innings of work, and his first professional decision was a loss:  an inauspicious beginning, and typical of his season totals, which showed no wins, two losses, 26 innings pitched, 28 strike outs, but 29 walks.

If the debut of Stetson Allie weren’t enough to lure the large crowd, the promotion known as “Bark in the Park” added to the attractions for the evening.  It was my first encounter with such a canine celebration.  Encouraging fans to bring a dog-on-leash to the ballpark, it came at an opportune time on my trip. Halfway through the tour, I keenly missed my two dogs.  
Toby, the Bernese, and Bella.
While I didn’t find look-alikes of Winston, my Havanese, or Tucker, my cockapoo, I did get to enjoy meeting another of my favorite breeds, a handsome Bernese mountain dog named Toby and his owner Bella.   

Because quite a few teams had introduced me with the simple phrase “Please rise for the national anthem, performed tonight by Joe Price,” I began to email ballpark contacts a couple of days before my scheduled game and request that that the public address announcer identify me as “Whittier College professor Joe Price.”  And I suggested that, if a supplemental sentence could be added to stimulate conversation with fans, I would appreciate the announcer adding, “During the 2011 baseball season, Professor Price is singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at more than 100 minor league ballparks in 40 states as he examines how the national anthem and baseball combine to shape the national pastime.” 

The honorary bat kid also appears to have pre-game concerns as players autograph his shirt.
As I had hoped, following the Spikes’ full introduction several fans approached me during the game.  A graduate student in sociology at Penn State approached me and inquired about the tour, especially my field of expertise.  Both he and a fellow grad student had bet that I was in sociology (like themselves, hopeful thinking), music, or anthropology.  When I confessed that I am a theologian, he looked stunned like Tony Kubek after the bad hop grounder deflected off his Adam’s apple in the eighth inning of Game 7 in 1960. 

Undeterred, the student began to talk about his love of baseball and the sociological observations that he often enjoyed at the ballpark.  As our conversation developed, he inquired about my work relating baseball to religious studies, and I summarized  two chapters in my book Rounding the Bases: Baseball and Religion in America that utilize sociological and anthropological methods of analysis.   In one, I explore the possibility of interpreting baseball in continuity with the ancient Green omphaIos myth by employing anthropological insights, and in the central chapter of the book I apply sociological methods to examine how baseball functions as a civil religion.  
At the ballpark, we engaged in serious scholarship!  I loved it, and so did he.  When I stepped toward the concession stand to get a look at the Endless Love Burger, which did not tempt me, I playfully chided him: “Don’t bet against religious studies, which can make sense of baseball and the ritual significance of the national anthem.”
Following the game, which Auburn won 7-6, I accepted the Griffins' gracious offer to sleep in their guest room rather than to return to Ebensburg before needing to double back through State College on my way to Scranton .  It was delight to extend the evening with Bob, an aficionado of minor league baseball.  He knew the strengths and weaknesses of players throughout the Pirates’ farm system, and he reported on records and distinctions of teams and ballparks throughout the region.  As I put my luggage in the guest room, I immediately understood more: Playfully framed on the far wall were ticket stubs from the ten minor league ballparks in Pennsylvania.  The caption read:  “Best Road Trip Ever,” a ball-planned vacation Bob had taken with Louise some years earlier.  Yet as heart-warming as this display of mementos was, adjacent to them hung photos of Forbes Field and the end of the 1960 World Series. 

Bob's shrine of Pirate and ballpark celebrations.
A devout fan of the Yankees during childhood, I recall having shed tears when I heard Ralph Terry hang a curve ball to Bill Mazeroski in the bottom of the ninth in the seventh game.  Now, here hung the images of Mazeroski rounding third on his Series walk-off homer and of the ecstatic celebration of Pirates.  I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to fall asleep beneath this bleak reliquary.  As sleep began to seep past these memories, I hoped that I wouldn’t have nightmares about Yogi Berra turning to watch Maz’s blast clearing the left field wall at Forbes Field.

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