A Pirates game first: Machine tosses first pitch

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By 1:17 p.m. Sunday, the kids, the designer and the handmade pitching machine they'd dreamed up were in place a few feet behind the mound at PNC Park in front of thousands of people waiting to see the Pirates play the St. Louis Cardinals.

Christian Tsu-Raun, teaching artist and trebuchet designer for the Makeshop program at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, did a little dancing around while three youngsters held up a banner and the shockingly green Pirate Parrot waited behind home plate.

At 1:24 p.m. -- on schedule -- Mr. Tsu-Raun set the catapult in motion. A baseball flew up, then landed in the Parrot's waiting glove.

The crowd cheered, pictures were taken and Mr. Tsu-Raun hurried to push the 100-pound contraption off the field on its wheels made of repurposed yellow rain barrels. He took a breath. "I tried this thing between 300 and 400 times and I was still just crossing myself inside," he admitted.

Almost a year's worth of effort went into that historic moment -- "We've never had a machine throw the first pitch," said Joe Arnstein, account executive, corporate sales for the Pirates -- along with between 40 and 70 hours of construction work that included many visitors to the North Side museum helping saw wood and place screws.

Those involved seemed to be feeling pretty good Sunday about the finale of the project that started out as part of a discussion on how to market the Makeshop program, which launched in October 2011 and is a partnership among the museum, Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center and the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Learning Out-of-School Environments.

Makeshop is meant to be a do-it-yourself kind of area, where kids can try building or sewing or even animation. "We were talking about how can we attract more kids ages 8-12 to our Makeshop area," said Bill Schlageter, director of marketing for the Children's Museum.

A traditional advertising effort didn't seem the best way to reach that audience, said Dan Ayer, with South Side agency Gatesman + Dave, which had taken on the project pro bono.

So they dreamed up the idea of building a pitching machine that could have a big moment at a Pirates game.

First, there was a contest in which children submitted drawings of what such a machine could look like. Jackie Kobeski, 11, of Upper St. Clair did hers while attending the museum's anniversary event in June. Josh Kraus, 7, of Gibsonia drew his vision at a booth at a Pirates game on a rainy Father's Day, despite heavy rain showers and his father's efforts to hurry up and get under cover in the ballpark.

The contest drew more than 300 entries. Jackie, Josh and the third winner, Andrew Ammerman, 10, of Cranberry, could see some of their ideas incorporated into the final design as they looked it over while waiting to go out on the baseball field with the banner. "It looks like the catapult," Andrew said.

Mr. Tsu-Raun said a number of drawings showed machines on wheels and some looked like medieval catapults.

The final product used plywood and other parts that can be picked up at most hardware stores. Part of a bicycle can be seen below the main frame, reflecting an early vision making it possible to pedal the machine, but that didn't really work out. There were even parts made using a 3-D printer, which builds objects out of materials like plastic and metal.

It's not entirely clear where the machine will go next, although it won't just be taken apart. It might be shown off at a national fair to celebrate ideas and inventions. Mr. Tsu-Raun even sees potential for trying it as an entry in the Anything That Floats race at next year's Regatta. It seems those rain barrel wheels could be repurposed yet again.

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Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.


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