The Durham Bulls put out an open call for anyone who wanted to audition to sing the National Anthem to show up at the ball park last Saturday and take their best shot. I got there about thirty minutes before auditions were to begin, only to find I was sixty-eighth in line. Fortuitously, Number Sixty-Seven was my friend Terry. Neither of us knew the other was coming. Our serendipitous encounter turned the day from a lonely audition to an adventure in friendship. We took our seats on the third base line and waited our turn.
“Number One,” said the first woman who took the mic, and she began to sing, setting the pattern we would all follow. All 164 of us. The paper they handed us in line spelled it out. We were to walk down to the field when it came our turn, take the mic, say our number, sing, and then hand the mic to the next person in line. We had to sing the anthem in seventy seconds or less without venturing from the traditional melody because, should we be selected, we would be leading the crowd in the song, not performing for them. If we were good enough, we would receive an acceptance letter in a couple of weeks, though that didn’t guarantee we would sing at a game. If an opening came up, we would get a minimum of one week’s notice before our turn to sing. The best news for me was the tryout was for real: I got to stand at home plate and sing the song over the PA. Whether or not I get selected, I got to sing the National Anthem at the ball park.
The first woman started singing at ten o’clock. It was ten minutes till twelve when I held the mic for Terry to play the anthem on his harmonica (he rocked!) and about sixty seconds after that I took my turn. By then we had heard sixty-six renditions of the song. I can do without if for awhile. I think we were fifteen versions in or so when Terry turned and said, “It’s kind of fun to hear the different takes and see all the different people here. I wish we could hear the stories behind why they showed up and why they want to sing.”
Yet all we were allowed to do was sing. There was no time for stories. The first woman, white and middle aged, offered a comfortable version, followed by any number of elementary and middle school students. The four older men did a precise barbershop version that was harmonious and somehow lacking in passion. The twenty-something couple offered their version with acoustic guitar and bluegrass harmony and gave the song new life. An African-American woman sang it like a gospel song and almost brought us to our feet, even though we had already heard it twenty-five times. One young boy picked it out on classical guitar, and then a teenager did an electric version without most of Hendrix’s improvisation. The teenage girl right in front of Terry was taken over by her nerves after the first line and two hours of waiting and handed me the mic as she walked away in tears.
It’s not an easy song. The range is wide and the lyrics are, well, a little foreign to us in these days. I think it’s safe to say the only time most of us use the word rampart is when we’re singing the anthem. The lyric is more militaristic than inspiring. I would much rather “America, the Beautiful” took its place, yet there I was on the field, microphone in hand, singing with all the power I could muster. The scene is not without its irony because I don’t have a nationalistic bone in my body. Being an American doesn’t always come easy for me. I didn’t grow up here. I don’t always know how to belong here. Yet, there’s something about baseball that connects me to my country in a way I only know how to describe as a “Field of Dreams” moment. Remember Terrence Mann’s speech in the movie?
The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.When I took the mic, there were no corn stalks to be seen, nor ghosts of players past. I looked out over the left field wall where the flag hung motionless in front of the Tobacco Road Sports Bar and the office building that houses it. I was singing due north, aiming my voice at our home which lies a little over a mile from the park, beyond the bar and the Performing Arts Center, and the prison, and the Farmers’ Market, and the old Bulls’ park where they filmed Bull Durham, and the skate park, and Fullsteam – my favorite pub. I sang because I love to sing, I love baseball, and I want to feel connected to my country even though that’s not always comfortable. I sang and, in that moment, I felt unabashedly American.
And when I finished, I wanted a hot dog with everything.