It’s moments before I am introduced as the game’s National Anthem singer and I am standing just off the grass, singing the first lines of the song over and over again.
Every so often, I blow the note D3 on my pitch pipe. That’s the D below middle C, my starting note.
Today I’m in Sevierville to sing the National Anthem for the Tennessee Smokies, the Double A team in the Chicago Cubs organization. It’s the first stop on my campaign to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” for all the teams in the Cubs’ farm system.
You see, I love to sing the National Anthem at baseball games. Even more so, I love the Chicago Cubs, my favorite baseball team during my entire 56 years of life. This love is hereditary; it was passed down by my father and by his father before him. Growing up in Rockford, Illinois, a mere 80.5 miles from Wrigley Field, gave me many birthdays and family outings to enjoy in the Friendly Confines.
Once I even sang the National Anthem at Wrigley Field, but that’s a story for later.
This year and next, I hope to earn a repeat appearance at Wrigley by “working my way up” through the Cubs’ farm system, performing at each minor league park like the 20-year-olds who hope to one day don a major league uniform with the blue circle and the red letters that spell out “Cubs.”
But like every player on the team, I need to perform well when given the chance.
Smokies Stadium is a very attractive and comfortable ball park set in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. You enter the park to a concourse that curves around from the left field foul pole to the right field foul pole. The concession stands are on this concourse walkway. All the seats are in the bowl area below the concourse.
To get to the field, I walked down “Ryne Sandberg Way,” the aisle named after the Cubs’ Hall of Famer who managed the Smokies in 2009. My youngest sister Angela is with me to serve as my videographer, set to capture my performance on digital film.
After blowing the pitch pipe and softly singing the beginning lyrics, Hillary (who works for the Smokies) hands me the microphone and motions me to stand on the grass behind home plate.
The time to sing is now.
Unlike “America the Beautiful” or “Oh, Canada,” the “Star Spangled Banner” is not the easiest of songs to sing. Whenever I perform it, I try to remember three things: (1) Be precise going up and down the notes because the song has a fairly wide range between the lowest and highest notes; (2) Stay on pitch while singing a cappella, an Italian phrase meaning to sing “in the manner of the chapel,” which is singing without an instrument playing along; and (3) Concentrate on the lyrics since I am singing by memory, without a visible lyric sheet.
It’s this last point that concerns me the most when I sing. Whether it’s my familiarity with the song, my many years of singing in front of large crowds, or my (gasp!) age, I always try to stay “on the edge” when singing the National Anthem – keeping my energy up and really concentrating, without relaxing. I try to think ahead as I sing, visualizing the next phrase. To guard against faltering on the lyrics, I keep a small, laminated card with the lyrics in my left pocket. It’s really just a crutch, a safety measure I know that I have, even though the print is probably too small to give me the help I need if I pause. Still, I keep it with me because I never, ever want to be on ESPN’s Sports Center for messing up the Anthem.
The announcer’s voice echoes throughout the stadium: “Ladies and gentlemen, please rise and remove your hats, veterans may render a hand salute, please join Chris……” (Uh oh, whenever the announcer pauses after my first name, I know that my last name probably won’t be pronounced correctly.) ….”Fin-erero in performing today’s National Anthem.”
Geez, is John Travolta in the press box telling the announcer how to say my name? I guess it’s the silent “g” that causes many people to stumble. I bet Cubs pitcher Ernie Broglio (acquired in the infamous Lou Brock trade) had the same problem.
“Oh say, can you see…” I start the song strong and relaxed, my voice booming through the sound system. As I sing, I try to look left and right, changing my view to connect with the audience.
The first half of the song goes well and I add strong accents to the phrase “the bombs bursting in air…” Then I finish the line with a deliberate emphasis on the phrase that means the most: “that our flag was STILL THERE.”
As I near the end with “…o’er the land of the free,” I hold the note for a good couple of seconds as a final crescendo before finishing with “and the home of the brave.”
It feels great to sing again in a ballpark; it’s been many years since the last time. The crowd’s applause comes next, which pleases me. As I hand the mic back to Hillary, I break out into a big smile.
But the fun wasn’t over yet.
At the seventh inning stretch, I’m given the opportunity to sing both “God Bless America” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Both songs are shorter and are easier to sing. I especially like singing “Take Me Out…” because I am able to slip on an old pair of glasses (no lenses) and start the song with my Harry Caray impersonation. (Note to self: spray paint the glasses black so they show up better).
The game was a slugfest! Right fielder Jorge Soler blasted two homers and drove in a career-high five runs as part of a three-hit game while second baseman Stephen Bruno had three hits and produced three RBIs. The Smokies beat the Jacksonville Suns 14-8.
This day was so much fun, especially since I met people like Wells Ford and was able to share it with friends from In10sity Interactive, a web services company that I work with to produce our LifePoint hospital websites. More importantly, I shared the day with my brothers Steve and Andy, my sister Angela, my nephew Kieran and my son Connor. Having family in the stands made it all that much sweeter.
Like I wrote above, our love for the Cubs is hereditary.