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Anthem auditions bring McKechnie to life

BRADENTON

There wasn’t a ballgame.

It looked like it was going to rain anyway.

Yet McKechnie Field still rang out Saturday morning.

The quaint ballyard on Ninth Street West was graced by the voices of 45 people auditioning for the privilege of singing our national anthem at 16 Pittsburgh Pirates spring training home games.

One candidate was Chloe Tomlinson, a charming 6-year-old missing her two front teeth.

Another was Bill Martin, whose goal was to remember all the words.

Then there was Shirley Johnson, a familiar face around downtown Bradenton; she dispenses tickets as the police department’s parking enforcement specialist.

That she was No. 42 and sang before a tiny audience mattered not.

“If I can sing to one person, I’ve done what I’m supposed to do,” said the McKechnie audition newcomer.

Johnson will be in good company if she makes the cut.

“There were definitely some standouts,” said Dan Wolfert, general manager for the Bradenton Marauders, the Pirates’ new Florida State League team. “It’s a tough song to sing. Our biggest thing is knowing the words. It’s a little different when you (sing) in front of 20 people as opposed to 6,000.”

Chloe sang before twice that number at a United Football League Florida Tuskers game at the Citrus Bowl.

“They’d launch fireworks right off the field and she didn’t flinch,” said Danny Tomlinson, her father. “I’m nervous just watching her.”

Nervous? Not Chloe.

“I practice a lot, so I didn’t feel like I was going to mess up,” said the Lakeland first-grader.

That was foremost on Bill Martin’s mind after blanking during last year’s auditions.

“I didn’t get through the song and got the Dear John letter,” said Martin, 45. “This year, if nothing else, ego and pride was at stake. I’m getting through the song even if they don’t call me back.”

Ted Meekma, a retired lawman, showed why he sang at Milwaukee Brewers games, belting out his rendition of the national anthem.

“They used to call me the ‘Singing Sheriff of Dodge County,’” he said, laughing.

A pregnant Nicole Wishon, who sang before a game last spring against the Yankees, led off Saturday’s audition with an ovation-worthy performance.

“I was extremely nervous, full of adrenalin,” she said. “All I wanted to do was get through it. I’ll let others decide how good I was.”

Wishon, 28, was good, alright.

Take it from Maria Wirries, a gifted 12-year-old, who performed our national anthem — and Canada’s.

“It helps to have someone set the bar for what we’re going to be singing,” she said. “You can step it up.”

The audition was a different experience for Zach Callahan, a Pirates batboy.

“You’re used to hearing it from somebody else,” said the King Middle Schooler. “So to sing it yourself is an unbelievable feeling.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055, or write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, FL 34206 or e-mail him at vmannix@bradenton.com. Please include a phone number for verification.

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