Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On Deck

Because I had performed the National Anthem for scores of Major League games and numerous collegiate events in recent years, my invitation to sing for the 2011 season opener between the University of Georgia Bulldogs and Stetson University Hatters initially seemed somewhat routine, especially since an academic setting has been my professional home for three decades.  To my surprise, however, I found my first anthem rendition of the year nerve wracking. 
Like the crowd at the Minor League games where I’ll be singing throughout the season, most of the 2200 fans paid to see the game, while students and faculty from the University were admitted free.  It was the latter group—including colleagues at Stetson—that prompted my nervousness because I find it more difficult to sing for friends and folks who know me than for strangers. 
Joe at Washington's Nationals Ballpark
Usually when I sing for ballgames, I know the names of most of the players on the home team. But in a recognition reversal, this time the players knew me, not I them.  Two nights before the game, I had presented a lecture on “Sports as Religion” to an overflow audience of Hatters student-athletes.  Stetson Professor Don Musser, my good friend and co-author on several projects, played with hyperbole as he introduced me.  For one thing, he likened my expertise on the topic to All-Star credentials, citing my lectures and presentations at Harvard and the Mayo Clinic.  Then praising my Anthem performances for Major League games, he promoted my Anthem Tour this Spring by adding a few ballparks to the total.
Most of Hatters’ hard-ballers attended the event with their coach Pete Dunn, who ranks eighth in total wins among current NCAA coaches and who sat on the floor with some of them.  And they were joined in the room by rosters of student athletes from the women’s softball, soccer, volleyball, golf, and tennis teams.   
My invitation to lecture and sing had been proposed by Dixon Sutherland, member of Stetson’s Faculty Athletic Committee and a long-time friend from our Louisville days during seminary studies.  Working with Dixon, Athletic Director Jeff Altier coordinated the event. Both Dixon and Jeff wanted to ratchet up the academic identity of Stetson’s athletic program by sponsoring intellectual programs for the student athletes. 
Joe's catch at dawn!
At the ballpark during warm-ups and batting practice, I stood in the dugout chatting with Coach Dunn about fishing rather than the game’s lineup, the season’s promise, or ideas prompted by my presentation.  As we scanned the stands behind home plate, I saw our fishing guide Larry Blakeslee, who had guided Don and me to big fish on multiple occasions, including the previous day. That morning with the first cast, I had landed a seven-plus pound largemouth bass. 

A native Michigander and a lifelong Tigers fan, Larry often jokes and talks baseball with Don and me while we wait for the water to roil with striking bass.  Most often, we tell stories about our favorite teams decades ago, intoning with affection and reverence the heroes of our childhoods: Norm Cash and Bill Freehan for Larry; Bill Mazeroski and Roberto Clemente for Don; Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra for me.  Larry now rarely has time to attend games although he counts several current and former Major League players among his frequent clients. 
In the dugout I looked at the players who had sat in front rows listening to me two nights earlier. Then, they had been individuals; now in uniform, they blended together as a team, jawing and jostling anxiously, wanting to get the game and season started. 
Besides Larry and the student-athletes who had heard my lecture, I knew that Dixon, Don, and his wife Ruth stood nearby.  Friends, for sure: and that’s the main reason why my Stetson performance was so unnerving. In addition, the performance was almost within echo’s reach of Christina Aguilera’s mangling of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl days before. 

In most of my anthem performances I am more concerned about dealing with feedback from auditory system’s speakers positioned in the outfield.  But his time I was more nervous about remembering words than I had been on any occasion since my first baseball performance at Comiskey Park in 1977. 
Joe's first anthem rendition at Comiskey Park.
Although the “Fan Appreciation Day” crowd almost reached 50,000 on that sunny Chicago Saturday, my greatest concern then was remembering the words, not how the fans would respond.  I confessed to the White Sox’s staffer who set up the microphone near home plate that I had written the words on a note card, which I kept within easy reach in right-hand pocket of my denim blazer.  Laughing, he said that if I forgot the words, I’d join the good company of Nat King Cole, who had stumbled through the words and scatted more than half the anthem.  But, I protested, I was not Nat King Cole and I couldn’t scat!

My restlessness about singing for the Stetson game was also intensified by the pre-game ceremony.  Throwing out the first pitch was Chipper Jones, third-baseman for the Atlanta Braves and future Hall of Famer.  A native of nearby Pierson, Florida, which is the “Fern Capital of the World,” Chipper is celebrated in DeLand as a home-town boy, with frequent reference being made to his having been the Number 1 draft choice in 1989. 
Chipper serves on Stetson’s Athletic Board and is the godson of Coach Dunn.  Sporting the tuft of a Van Dyke beard, Chipper wore a fitted western-style shirt and fashionably frayed blue jeans.  Coach Dunn introduced us, and Chipper extended his thick, calloused, right hand, which had gripped the bat on more than 400 productive home run swings and had scooped up at least that many unsuccessful sacrifice-bunt attempts.  I tried not to look awestruck as I shook his hand.
Despite a delay for the pre-game ceremonies, the February evening proved splendid: mosquitoes and gnats had not yet begun to swarm, the humidity and temperature blended together at a comfortable level, and a rising orange moon appeared as full as championship hopes for the season. Chipper threw a knee-high strike with a fastball that rivaled that of most Major League pitchers, and I sang the anthem traditionally and fervently.  Although the microphone was inactive during the opening phrase, I proceeded without hesitation.  Baseball season had started and my National Anthem Project had begun.  And the home team won: Stetson Hatters 6, Georgia Bulldogs 3.