Oh, say can I sing?

For the TinCaps

Ben Smith, photography by Neal Bruns

“Any time you’re ready,” they say.

There are four of them, sitting behind a long table in the suite area of Parkview Field. They look at me. I look at them. A thought blooms in my head, three words that thankfully go unspoken, because if you’re going to sing the National Anthem you don’t want to look as if you’re stalling or hesitant or just a great big garden-variety chicken.

“You mean NOW?”

Those are the three words.

The answer is two words.

Yes. Now.

No one knows for sure when baseball and “The Star-Spangled Banner” got hitched.

As with much else about the national pastime, its connection to the national anthem is largely anecdotal, the stuff of tales worn smooth with the telling. As near as can be determined, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was first performed at a baseball game in Philadelphia in 1897. But it wasn’t until 1918 that it first drew national attention, when, at the height of America’s involvement in the First World War, a World Series crowd fired with patriotic zeal spontaneously began to sing it during the seventh-inning stretch.

The song was sung at every subsequent game of the Series. In 1931, “The Star-Spangled Banner” officially became the national anthem. Since World War II, every major-league baseball game has begun with it.

And every minor-league game, of course.

That works out to 70 home dates a year if you’re the Fort Wayne TinCaps, 70 afternoons or evenings when someone has to step to the microphone and start it off. And so every year in early March, with small dingy stripes of snow still frosting the grandstand seats and muffling the field in white, the team holds tryouts to choose its national anthem performers.

Some of those who show up are veterans from other summers, like Megan White from DeKalb County and the Because He Lives men’s ensemble from Bethlehem Lutheran Church, who have performed the national anthem at a TinCaps game three of the last four years. Some of them are not.

More than 130 showed up this year to try out, and they cut across every demographic.

“There’s obviously a lot of people who have done this for who knows how many years, even back in the Wizards days,” says Tara Cahill, communications engagement and promotions manager for the TinCaps. “Tom Didier’s one of them. He always sings for the Komets and everything, so he’s someone we invite every single year because he’s incredible and he does a lot of things for the TinCaps and things like that.

“But except for their contact information, so we don’t know any background (on a lot of them). How many years have you been singing or anything like that.”

“We’ve had someone show up as a young as 9,” says PJ Carr, who organizes the tryouts for the TinCaps. “We’ve had older gentlemen. We get all sorts of age range, races, different backgrounds of people. Really doesn’t matter as long as they can sing.”

White can. A former show choir singer at DeKalb High School and member of the Ball State University Singers, she sings with a band called Cadillac Ranch now, and also with the worship team at Brookside Church. She sang the national anthem at a TinCaps game for the first time two years ago, finding out about it from a Facebook post.

“It was fun,” she says. “My kids got to go down on the field with us, and that was really cool.”

So was she, you know, nervous?

“I think I was more nervous for the audition than I was for the actual thing,” she says. “That’s kind of scary, because if you don’t start off in the right key …”

I make a mental note: Start off in the right key.

This is important, because, before this day is done, I’m going to try out myself. Unlike White, I’m a 60-year-old amateur who once, long ago, was a serviceable tenor in the best high school concert choir in the state. Now I’m a baritone, the years having done what the years tend to do.

Whether I’m still serviceable will be up to the judges, who include Carr and Cahill, plus two professionals: Chris Murphy, the drama director at Concordia High School, and Kris Sanchack, the director of choral studies at IPFW.

So what they do look for, when someone stands in front of them and tries not to forget the words?

“I think I’m looking for the people who have the most pure sound, the sincere sound, not the ones that are trying to be like a rock star/pop star,” Murphy says. “I look at how they perform, too, what they do as they sing. Because it is a performance that they have to give.”

Sanchack agrees. He has an undergraduate degree in composition from Penn State and a doctorate from South Carolina, so he knows what he wants to hear.

“I listen for the quality of the voice,” he says. “You listen for the diction, can I understand the words, because it is the national anthem and you want people to understand the words. I’m looking for beautiful tone quality.

“I think what we’re looking for is someone who sings the song with sincerity and conviction, who feels the music and sings with their voice. They’re not trying to imitate someone else’s.”

“So does this mean I can’t do my Elton John impression?” I ask.

They don’t laugh nearly as much as I’d hoped they would.

Any time you’re ready,” they say.

And so now I look past the four of them (because if I look at them my voice will surely die in my throat), out the windows, into the snow-shrouded day. I clear my throat. Open my mouth. Try to keep my heart from leaping clean out of it.

Somehow sound comes out instead.

I don’t know if it’s good sound. Frankly, it’s all a blur now. But the four people behind the table look at me, and I look at them, and none appears to be suppressing either laughter or nausea. I count that as a victory.

Then I hear the next person, a young woman.

Wow, I think. She’s really good.

Tom Eggold admits it: He was nervous.

He and his fellow singers from Because He Lives all nod when asked if they were a little jittery the first time they walked out onto that expanse of Parkview Field green. It wasn’t as if they weren’t seasoned veterans; the group regularly performs at church services, organization Christmas parties, Concordia basketball games and worship for shut-ins on TV.

And, of course, three of the last four years at a TinCaps game.

The second time was easier, they say. And the third?

“It was fun the third time just in terms of ‘This is gonna be a good thing’,” Eggold says.

I sure hope so.

Not long ago, I checked my email queue, and there was message from PJ Carr. He thanked for me for trying out. Then he said I’d been chosen to sing the national anthem at the TinCaps game on June 10.

Pipes, don’t fail me now.

First appeared in the May 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.


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