Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Singing 4 the Cubs – Spring Training

I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time.

Not only would it be the first time I attended a Chicago Cubs spring training game, I would also complete my quest to sing the National Anthem at all of the current Cubs ballparks.

Growing up in Rockford, Illinois and listening to Cubs games on WGN Radio on 720 AM, or watching the Cubs on WGN-TV Channel 9, I had always heard about glorious spring training baseball games. We may have been shivering during February and March snow storms, but 1,700 miles away the sun was shining, white puffy clouds dotted the Cubby-blue skies, and the crack of the bats and the pops of the balls in mitts echoed off the cactus on the butte.

Going to a spring training game had been a long-time dream for both my Dad and me. I don’t think he ever went to one, but he was certainly on my mind as my son Connor and I checked our bags at the Nashville airport.

We wouldn’t be boarding this flight to sing for the Cubs without the help of my friend Margo Anderson. I met her and her husband Bob, both die-hard Cubs fans, years ago at Wrigley Field. Their season tickets were next to the two my brother Steve had when he lived in Chicago. The more games they attended together, the better they got to know each other and all the Cubs fans around them. They were even on a first-name basis with the beer vendors who worked the box seats near the old bullpen on the first base side.

Margo and Bob were at Wrigley when I sang the Anthem there in 2004. I also remember another game against the Pirates when we enjoyed a post-game beer in the Stadium Club. They have followed my quest to sing at all of the Cubs ballparks and were instrumental in helping me complete my quest.

Since they are also season ticket holders at Sloan Park for spring training games in Mesa, they know the Cubs personnel who work there. Thanks to Margo’s connections, I was finally able to get an official invitation to sing the Anthem from Lauren, the Cubs’ manager of Fan Experience for their Mesa operations.

I even had a few choices of games at which to sing, so I checked with my uncle Mike. He and his brothers, my Dad’s brothers, always spend one week in Mesa every March playing golf and watching the Cubs. With a little coordination, I was able to pick a singing date when family members could attend. This was working out well!

With a morning flight and gaining a couple of hours flying west to Arizona, Connor and I would have all Wednesday afternoon and evening to enjoy before Thursday’s ballgame. He searched for fun adventures and found a guide who gives all-terrain vehicle tours in the desert! I don’t think that would have been my first choice, but my oldest son, the one who always wanted to “go bye-bye,” was super excited.

I’m so glad I trusted him – we had a blast!

After taking an Uber ride to our desert destination, we had to don safety equipment for the drive. Even though we were strapped into the open-air, two-seat vehicle with roll bars, which we took turns driving, we had to protect our heads, eyes, and mouths from the dusty drive. We each wore a motorcycle helmet, goggles and a bandana over our nose and mouth. We may have looked like Imperial storm troopers, but the equipment worked well.

We spent more than two hours driving the trails between cacti, sagebrush, and lots of rocks and sand. Some of the trails had gulleys carved out by rainwater, so we had to keep a good eye on the trail to avoid the pits. Since Connor drove twice and I drove once, I had plenty of time to enjoy the scenery!

Near the end of the trail we climbed a large butte and stopped to rest and look around. We were higher than the surrounding area and had a great view of the desert landscape. Even though that land doesn’t have the typical lush green trees I’m used to, I recognized its beauty nonetheless. We both went outside our comfort zone, were rewarded with a great experience shared with a loved one, and gained an appreciation for a new kind of beauty. Isn’t this what makes life so interesting, challenging, and rewarding?

We finished out the evening with fajitas and margaritas at La Fonda Mexican Restaurant. It was a wonderful end to a surprising day, one I won’t soon forget. Thanks Connor!

The next day we woke to a sunny and warm morning. My brother Steve arrived in Mesa the night before and was staying at Bob and Margo’s house. We met up with Steve for breakfast at the nearby Sunny’s Diner.

It was great to walk into the diner and see a few folks wearing their game day Cubs shirts. Living in Tennessee, I don’t see a lot of Cubs fans, though certainly more after the 2016 World Series win than before. Still, whenever I fly through Chicago or when we drove around Mesa, it was great to see the familiar logo on blue shirts.

While Steve shopped after breakfast, Connor and I returned to the Days Inn to get ready for the game. As I learned well at Myrtle Beach and Eugene, my pre-game preparations make all the difference in the quality of my singing. That’s Cub!

While we waited for Steve to pick us back up, I walked around the motel parking lot, blowing my starting note on my pitch pipe, singing through the song, and warming up my voice.

I talked to two Cubs fans who were going to the game and I invited them to sing along with me at the ballpark. I even got “Good Luck!” wishes from Don Larson. This was not the Don Larsen who pitched a perfect game for the Yankees in the 1956 World Series. It was the Don Larson who is the track coach of the North Dakota State University track team, who stayed in our motel and enjoyed the pool. They were in town for a track meet that weekend at Arizona State University.

Once Steve returned to the motel and picked us up, the clock began ticking and the countdown to the Anthem had begun. I remember trying to relax and stay calm, even though (1) I wasn’t driving, (2) we had to backtrack around some closed roads near the ballpark, and (3) traffic was heavy on the one main road to the ballpark. Even though he had a parking pass in a lot close to the ballpark (thanks again to Bob and Margo), I decided to get out of the car at a red light and walk the rest of the way.

Perhaps I needed to be in control of when I got to the stadium, or perhaps I was too nervous to sit still and wait in the car. Probably both. Anyway, it felt good to walk by myself the last 200 yards or so to Sloan Park.

This gave me some time to take in the ballpark and the artwork adoring the outside of the buildings. There was a mural of Cubs logos through the years, large baseball cards of current Cubs stars, and artwork for each of the Cubs’ three World Series titles in 1907, 1908, and 2016.

Palm trees stood as sentinels throughout the parking lot. Succulents and hearty desert plants decorated the rock gardens that bordered the stadium and buildings.

I picked up our tickets at the Will Call window and then waited for Steve and Connor to walk up after parking. I drifted among the Cubs fans, feeding off their excitement. I saw four white-haired gentlemen who must have been close to 80-years-old. I considered asking them how they felt in 2016 when the Cubs won the first World Series in our lifetime, but I decided not to distract myself too much.

Once we entered the gates and found my contact at the information desk, we were escorted to the guarded elevator and descended to the field level. There we exited to a tunnel decorated with the words Respect 90.

This was the motto that then Cubs manager Joe Maddon wanted to remember during the upcoming season. Respect 90 is a reminder to respect the 90 feet between home plate and first base. Run hard, play hard, respect that distance and respect will come back to you. Like in life, “whatever you put out there will come back to you.” It was a great motto to remember as I prepared to sing the National Anthem at the end of my quest.

While we waited in the tunnel for the start of the pre-game activities, Steve and Connor stood close to the entrance to the field. They could even view into the Cubs dugout. However, I stayed back in the tunnel by myself, minimizing distractions and repeatedly singing through the song. As I learned years ago in Jackson, it’s best to have good “muscle memory” when singing the Star Spangled Banner.

As I was softly singing the first verse of the song, I heard the click-click sound of metal cleats on the concrete hallway. I looked up and saw Cubs first basemen Anthony Rizzo walking down the hall. At 6’3” with a muscular build, Rizzo was an impressive sight as he carried his game bag to the dugout. Without making too much of a fuss, I turned and shouted “Connor!” up the tunnel where Connor stood, wearing his #44 Rizzo jersey.

I turned back to look at one of my favorite players. Do I say “Good luck!” or “Go Cubs!” Do I quickly introduce myself and thank him for the kindness he once showed to my cousin Jennifer’s son Jacob the Brave? No, once I made eye contact, I could see he was “in the zone” and had his “game face” on. I nodded at him and went back to warming up.

Connor, on the other hand, had the courage to extend his clenched fist towards Rizz and got a welcomed fist bump in return! A few more starters appeared and I got fist bumps from shortstop Addison Russell and starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks.

After these encounters, it was time to move to the pre-game staging area on the field between home plate and the dugout. From there I had a players-eye view of the entire ballpark: the covered stands rising above the third base line and circling home plate around to the first base line, the grassy slopes behind right and left field where fans sat on blankets underneath white puffy Arizona clouds, and the large digital scoreboard that towers above left centerfield. The stands and outfield slopes were packed. We found out later that the attendance that day was 15,829, the second largest crowd in Cactus League history.

Once I took this look around, I got back to the task at hand: preparing to sing the Anthem. I stood by the wall behind home plate and tried to block out the pregame music and messages so I could hear myself sing. I would take a short break from singing to wave to Margo and Bob, and my uncles and cousin who were sitting on the first base side. They remarked later that they could tell that I was “in the zone” as well.

Lauren then walked over to hand me the microphone. She said it was turned on, but that they would control the volume once it was time for me to sing. She told me where to stand and asked again how to pronounce my last name. After I told her about the silent “g,” she repeated the pronunciation to the press box. Finally, she told me it was time to sing and to take my place.

I walked calmly to my spot, very mindful of the moment, the fans, the P.A. announcer, and the unique opportunity I had before me to sing for my favorite team, their fans, my family, and show everyone how I can sing our National Anthem.

“Oh say, can you see…” I started out confidently, but also concentrated intensely on the first two phrases. I did not want to repeat the problem I had in Myrtle Beach. Once I got through the first verse and was smoothly into the second, I began to relax a bit, but not too much. I needed to keep my concentration and energy up for the song, as I was coming to the “fireworks” of the third verse.

Some stadiums, like Vanderbilt’s football stadium in Nashville, like to actually shoot off fireworks as the Anthem singer gets to the lines “And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” Fortunately, Sloan Park didn’t produce any pyrotechnics, so I had to provide them myself.

I had been considering small changes to the song to make it “my own” without copying another singer, especially regular Cubs singer Wayne Messmer. His signature moment is at the end of the song when he sings high notes on the last two words “the brave.”

I decided on a different crescendo, one that went up the scale on “was still there” at the end of the third verse. This change, delivered with a strong emphasis, re-emphasizes the main point of Francis Scott key’s lyrics: that after a long night of British bombardment on Fort McHenry on the Maryland coast during the War of 1812, in the morning the flag of our fledgling country “was still there.”

After that high note, it was time to wrap things up with a confident and clear ending. My final note resonated across the ballpark and I received a nice applause. Just like I did at the end of my performance at Wrigley Field, I pointed up to heaven. This time, I was thinking of both Dad and Nono, our two patriarchal Cubs fans who, I like to think, were smiling down from heaven at what I had just accomplished.

Thrilled with my performance, I handed the mic back to Laruen and received high fives from Connor and Steve. On our way back to the tunnel, we walked past the Cubs dugout. Standing at the end was Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who looked up at me through his black frame glasses and said “Well done.” His praise set my spirits soaring and I was giddy with excitement as we rode back up the elevator and walked to our seats.

Watch out for the killer cactus at Uncle Bill’s house – it will attack!

The rest of the day was very enjoyable with my family. They congratulated me on my performance as we all stood in front of the Cubs marquee for a family photo. Present were my dad’s brothers Bill, Dave, and Mike, along with my brother Steve, cousin Todd and son Connor. We even held up a photo of Dad and Nono in their Cubs shirts, as they were with us in spirit. My family’s presence made this day extra special.

Later as I walked around Sloan Park, I talked to three Cubs program salesmen who collectively had 40+ years of working for the Cubs. I enjoyed a stroll around the ballpark and even chatted with former Cubs stars Garry “The Sarge” Matthews, Bobby Dernier, and batting champion Bill Madlock who were signing autographs for the charity Cubs Care.

Even though the Cubs lost this spring training game 3-2, we knew they were just warming up for the 2018 season. We got into our car and headed to Uncle Bill’s for dinner, convinced that this would not be our one and only visit to Sloan Park.

Connor and I checked out of our motel the next morning and took an Uber to Matt’s Big Breakfast before catching our afternoon flight. After the hearty breakfast, we even had time (and strength) to climb the Tempe Butte on the edge of the Arizona State University campus. The summit rises 1,496 feet above sea level and our climb was rewarded with a spectacular view of the desert city.

As Connor and I boarded our flight home, I scribbled some notes about the three days for this website (though it would take me three months to finally write the recap).

Through it all, I felt blessed, empowered, and thrilled to have the opportunity to share my singing with my family and especially my heroes – the Chicago Cubs.

Will I ever get the chance to sing for the Cubs again? I would certainly enjoy another trip to Wrigley Field to sing the Anthem again.

But even if that doesn’t happen, I am satisfied with my efforts over the past 14 years to sing for the Cubs. It’s been a great journey from the minors to the majors for this National Anthem singer!

Thank you, Chicago Cubs, for all the memories!


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