BRADENTON — Killing time before Sunday’s Super Bowl in Tampa, Pittsburgh resident Patrick Lanigan stopped by Bradenton’s famous baseball stadium Saturday morning to check out where his other favorite team holds spring training.
Finding McKechnie Field’s gates open, Lanigan discovered the team was auditioning people to sing the national anthem before each home game. Even though his only experience was karaoke, church and the shower, he decided it was that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I’m here for the Steelers’ game, but if I get selected I’ll come down here and sing the national anthem,” said a smiling Lanigan, the only man dressed in shorts on what could be considered a cold Florida day. “I’ve always wanted to sing the national anthem at a baseball game.”
About 45 people braved brisk northerly winds and temperatures in the 50s to sing America’s theme song in front of four judges and an audience of more than 50 family and friends. The judges needed to fill spots for the 21 home games the Pittsburgh Pirates will play during spring training at McKechnie, according to Ryan Taylor, an intern in sports management for the Pirates.
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Taylor coordinated the auditions.
The team plays its first home game Feb. 25 against the 2008 World Champion Philadelphia Phillies.
Judges will make their singer selections this week based on Saturday’s auditions and schedule availability, Taylor said.
“The Star-Spangled Banner,” written by Francis Scott Key in 1814, was adopted in 1931 as America’s anthem. Traditionally, the tune is performed before sports games, and singing the tune is a huge honor, Taylor said.
“For a lot of people, this is something big,” he said. “It’s something they hold sacred.”
Groundskeepers raked the sand between the bases and mowed the infield grass as the first singer, Mary Akemon, 16, took the field behind home plate.
Akemon had been taking voice lessons with the help of her father, a 21-year veteran of the Bradenton Police Department and a Pirates’ security officer. He had told her he would pay for the lessons as long as she tried out to sing the national anthem for Pirates’ games.
“She has a love of music,” said her father, Darrell Akemon, as he anxiously watched from the stands and listened. “I just thought she had talent so she should go for it.”
The father-daughter bargain played out even though the Braden River High School junior thought her performance was a little lackluster. “I’m kind of sick,” Mary Akemon said.
Taylor Shrum, 9, one of the youngest candidates performing, said her only singing experience was in a talent show at Virgil Mills Elementary School. She was nervous about making a mistake with the song lyrics in front of the crowd.
“I was trying hard not to slip up and sing something stupid,” said Shrum.
The pressure did get to a couple of potential anthem singers, who stopped and started, and then stopped altogether. They apologized and handed the microphone to the next person in line. Still, the audience applauded their efforts.
A snowbird to the area for the past 16 years, Canadian Gwen Moffatt, No. 16 in the competition, didn’t take a chance messing up the lyrics. Instead, she sang the anthem from her own country, “O Canada.” Afterwards she was apologetic.
“I love the American anthem, too, but I don’t know all the words very well,” she said.
The Pirates will need “O Canada” sung before the Toronto Blue Jays play March 27 at McKechnie.
No. 25, Debbie Grubb, wasn’t worried about missing lyrics, but more concerned about just getting out on the field. The audition has special meaning to the visually impaired woman, because she hopes to be chosen specifically to sing at the March 12 game, the day the Pirates will honor the Southeastern Guide Dogs organization of northern Manatee County.
“We thought it would be kind of neat to have a guide-dog user sing on that day,” said Grubb, who often sings at fundraisers, nursing homes and schools accompanied by her guide dog. “If it wasn’t for the guide-dog school, I wouldn’t be singing, because I’m kind of shy.”
As the auditions drew to a close shortly before noon, head stadium usher and Pirate booster Dick Davis compared the event to the late 1970s television talent competition, “The Gong Show,” but with more talent and significance.
“The game doesn’t start without someone singing the anthem,” said Davis. “It’s our custom. I think it sets the tone. A good singer gets everybody in the feel for it.”