What's It Like To Sing The Anthem At A Baseball Game? The Story Of One Man's Perilous FightS

When I was a kid, I used to sing in the school choir. We had recitals for parents and teachers, and for the recitals we'd have to dress up in chinos and dress shirts, and the music teacher would arrange us along a set of risers, with all the tall boys in back and all the short girls in the front, our feet pointed toward the center. For an hour, we'd subject the audience to seventh-grade renditions of all kinds of horrible shit—from classical pieces to Disney showtunes to Motown to then-contemporary hits, including "Hungry Eyes" by Eric Carmen. That last one was our teacher's idea. None of us supported it.

Anyway, some of these songs required the occasional vocal solo, which our music teacher handed out pretty much at random. Solos were a big fucking deal. If you got one, that was your chance in the spotlight. There could be a record company executive who might just happen to stroll by the Nelson Auditorium and hear you nail that verse to "Under the Sea" and then decide to sign you to a nine-figure record deal. That kind of thing seems realistic to a middle schooler, because middle schoolers are idiots.

I got one of these solos and I was shit-your-pants excited over it, only I didn't tell anyone I was excited about it because I was one of those kids who didn't want to be seen as liking choir because one of my friends said that liking choir "was for homos". But I was excited. I was gonna SING! And everyone was gonna hear it and OH SWEET JESUS EVERYONE IS GONNA HEAR IT WHAT HAVE I DONE?!

I remember the build-up to my solo. I remember standing there, singing along with everyone, waiting for my solo moment, and being horrified at the thought that maybe my mouth wouldn't open, or that maybe I would open my mouth and vomit would come flying out. It was an utterly terrifying moment, and I never thought I would experience that sensation ever again. Until last Sunday.

* * *

Like referees and offensive linemen, people usually only notice national anthem performers when they fuck up. Whitney Houston and Jimi Hendrix aside, I can't name a memorably good rendition of the anthem off the top of my head. All I remember are the same butcherings of the anthem that you remember: Roseanne, Carl Lewis, that little girl who needed help from Maurice Cheeks at that one Trail Blazers game, etc. The anthem is a rote exercise in sports fandom. You go to the stadium, you take your piss, you get your beer, and if you miss the anthem, you don't give a shit. And if you catch the anthem, well then you're probably spending it checking out boobies in the stands or staring at the players as they stare off into space. Everyone has heard the anthem. Every famous singer has sung it. It's difficult to do anything new and exciting with the anthem, unless you happen to be ruining it.

Drew Magary writes for Deadspin and Gawker. He's also a correspondent for GQ. Follow him on Twitter @drewmagary and email him at drew@deadspin.com.

But if you're the person singing the anthem (particularly someone young or someone undiscovered), that moment is a big fucking deal. It's an indelible moment of your existence, and that's true for you and only you. The other 10,000 people in attendance couldn't give a shit if you did a good job. They'll only care if you destroy it, and that fact is what causes many anthem singers to scream silently in mortal terror. Oddball that I am, I wanted to know what that fear felt like, so I asked around to see if anyone would let me sing the anthem for a crowd. I promised I would remember the lyrics and that I would be on key. I sent a demo to the Washington Nationals, and they didn't respond. I drove to Richmond to try to sing the anthem for an arena football team. The problem is that the arena team played outside, and there was a thunderstorm that day. Who plays arena football outside? ASSHOLES, that's who.

After those false starts, I finally got an offer from the Potomac Nationals, a Single-A baseball team, to come sing the anthem last Sunday. So I prepared the best I could. I sang the anthem in the shower. I sang it in the car. I hummed it to myself while cooking. And while that was all well and good, I knew that I wouldn't really be ready until I sacked up and practiced the anthem in front of live human beings. While we were eating dinner the other night, I told my family that I would have to rehearse in front of them.

KID: You're gonna sing?

ME: Yep.

KID: Can you sing right now?

ME: At the table?

KID: Yeah.

ME: URRRR DURRR URRR DURRRRR.

It's very awkward singing in front of people. Singing leaves you so vulnerable. People could laugh at you. They could punch you in the face. They could pull your pants down and tie a handkerchief around your dick. You're exposed both physically and psychologically. There was no way I was bursting into song at the dinner table. It just seemed like a horribly awkward moment for everyone involved. I deemed the basement a far more appropriate rehearsal space. So I dragged my two older kids down with me to practice.

KID: Can I sing, too?

ME: I guess. People sing along.

KID: Can I have a microphone?

ME: Hell, no.

So I started singing my brains out and doing fairly well. At least, it sounded good to me. But halfway through, both my kids started laughing their asses off, which enraged me.

ME: What are you laughing for?!

KID: We're just laughing!

ME: YOU CAN'T LAUGH DURING THE ANTHEM! YOU'LL BE BRANDED A TRAITOR AND THROWN IN JAIL FOREVER!

KID: Really?

ME: YES! Or an angry rent-a-cop will club you.

KID: What's a rent-a-cop?

ME: Just don't laugh! Daddy needs to start over.

So I started over and they began laughing immediately. I banished them from the basement and continued practicing on my own.

* * *

We drove 30 miles to the stadium through the tight sphincter of Northern Virginia traffic. We got jammed up on I-95 because it was a Sunday and because FUCK NORTHERN VIRGINIA TRAFFIC. We had the baby in the back, and the baby cried any time the car slowed down, which was often. I took 15 wrong turns on the way to the stadium, and now I hated the fucking world.

"You'll be all right," my wife said.

"I know, I know."

"Just skip ahead when we park the car and I'll deal with these three."

"OK."

We got to the stadium, and I went running to the entrance. Along the way, I saw lots of people parking and making their way to the game. Way more people than I expected. Hundreds of them. Possibly more. All of them were gonna be there, staring at my big mutant head while I tried to not fuck up the anthem. I began to feel uneasy.

P-Nats radio announcer Tim Swartz greeted me and took me to the field entrance, where he introduced me to Aaron, the team official in charge of coordinating all pre-game activities. Aaron took me through all the blocking for the song.

"The managers and umps are gonna meet at home plate to set lineups and talk about nothing," he said. "When you see that meeting break up, you stand behind home plate and wait for the presentation of the color guard."

"Color guard?"

He pointed over to the field entrance where a group of elderly veterans were standing in formation, ready to march the flag out onto the field. HOLY SHIT. Now I really couldn't fuck up. There were real men at this game. Men who had performed actual acts of bravery, instead of bullshit acts of bravery like being self-absorbed enough to want to sing in front of crowd.

"Once the color guard is in place," Aaron said, "They'll introduce you. You take a beat, and then you start."

"OK."

He handed me a wireless mic. No mic stand. I really wanted a mic stand. You can cling to a mic stand. You can hold onto it for dear life. You can play air guitar with it. A bare microphone is so, so much more awkward.

Aaron left me to hang out along the wall by first base and quietly rehearse. The low din of the crowd gave me ample cover to face the wall and practice the anthem out loud without anyone really noticing. The problem was that the PA was blasting Gnarls Barkley the whole time, which threw me off key. I kept trying to get back on track, but the competing song threw me off. I began to psych myself out. Maybe I couldn't summon then notes because I had forgotten them. Maybe when the music died down, I wouldn't be able to sing the fucker at all. I plugged my ears and paced by the wall, trying to get the melody back before Cee Lo could hijack it again. I thought about what people in the stands must have thought about a dude pacing the infield with his fingers in his ears singing to himself. I looked like a fucking moron. My wife and kids walked into the stands and waved hi, and that made me much more nervous.

The umps and managers met at home plate and talked for what seemed like six hours. I hope candlesticks were mentioned. I wanted them to leave home plate, and yet I never wanted them to leave. But leave they did, and it was time for me to take my place. The color guard was preparing to march.

* * *

Let's pause here for a second to talk about the anthem itself. A lot of people don't like the anthem. A lot of people think it should be replaced with "America the Beautiful" or even (GUHHHHH) "God Bless America," which is awful. The argument is that many people can't sing the national anthem. I hate this argument. Many people can't sing at all. You can't cater to them. And if our anthem is a little bit harder to sing than other anthems, so be it. I'm glad we expect a bit more of ourselves. I'm also glad we have a nice trap set for people who think it's a breeze. The anthem is designed to humble you. The anthem is designed to ruin your shit if you get too haughty, and that's a good thing. In fact, it's ready to challenge you from the very beginning:

O say can you see ...

That "see" is tricky. That's your first high note, and you have to sustain it for a second. You can tell whether or not an anthem is gonna suck usually by the time the singer has finished with just this line.

By the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed ...

Again, we have another trap. That high note on "proudly" sneaks up on you, forcing you to jump up higher than many people are comfortable with. Make it through here and you will be sufficiently warmed up and confident to get through the next part:

At the twilight's last gleaming
Whose broad stripes and bright stars
Through the perilous fight
O'er the ramparts we watched
Were so gallantly streaming

Loogit all the big words! I have no fucking idea what a rampart is. If you're unsure of the words to the anthem, this section will out you as an imitation Enrico Palazzo. Melody-wise, this section represents the end of your honeymoon period. The American Ninja Warrior portion of the course comes next. You better have taken in enough breaths before this happens:

AND THE ROCKETS' RED GLAAAAARE ...

Singing this part feels like jumping a motorcycle off a rising drawbridge. It's just a straight crescendo, going up and up and up. If you trip anytime before "glare," you're fucking dead. You won't make it. Now for the comedown:

The bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there

And then we get to the money part:

O say does that star-spangled baaaaaanner yet wave ...

The "banner" in that line has been buried in melisma by singers the world over. That's the part of the song where Christina Aguilera decides to start scatting. Francis Scott Key never should have allowed that door to be opened.

(By the way, did you know the anthem has three more verses? I had no clue. Try singing those other verses. It's impossible.)

O'er the land of the freeeeeHEEEEEEEEEEEE!
And the home of the brave

Make it past "free" intact and you'll begin to hear hooting and applause. That was my goal. All I wanted was to make it that far. To survive the gauntlet. I was not at all confident that I would.

* * *

The color guard came out onto the field, and you couldn't hear a sound. There were babies in the stands but I didn't hear a goddamn peep out of any of them, not even my own. I saw the flag flapping above one of the vets, and I concentrated on it with all my power, enough to drill a hole through it with my mind. I wanted to trick myself into believing that I was singing to the flag and that no one else was around. Just like in the shower. The one mercy I was given was that I was to sing facing the outfield and not toward the stands. It made tricking myself a whole lot easier. For a second, I thought about what would happen if I screamed, "FUCK AMERICA!" into the mic and then walked off. I probably would be murdered. I should probably not do that. I like America.

"And now, ladies and gentlemen, we ask that you please rise and join us in the singing of our national anthem. Today's anthem performed by Drew Magary."

And ... begin.

O say can you see ...

The second I began singing, I split in two. There was one Drew, who was doing the singing. And there was a second Drew, who was evaluating the first Drew's singing the entire time. I felt my control of the second Drew was much stronger than my control of the first. I got through the first line, and I could hear myself speeding up, trying to get through the song as quickly as possible so that any glaring fuckups wouldn't be noticed. Aaron warned me not to "swallow the mic," to get it too close to my mouth and cause distortion. Now I wanted to eat the thing in one bite to muffle myself.

By the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed
At the twilight's last gleaming
Whose broad stripes and bright stars ...

I closed my eyes at various points because I was too scared to look. If couldn't see anyone, maybe they couldn't see me.

Through the perilous fight
O'er the ramparts we watched
Were so gallantly streaming

I could feel my own voice quaking while I was singing. The scary part of singing a song like this isn't the high notes; it's the moments BEFORE the high notes. I could hear the second Drew (Record Producer Drew) noting how wobbly my voice was. I pictured my old music teacher screaming at me to sing from my diaphragm, to sing from deeper inside my body. I was already thinking ahead to the next note while trying not to fuck up the current one. All through the above lines, all I could think was ROCKETS' RED GLARE ROCKETS' RED GLARE RED ROCKET RED ROCKET RED ROCKET. The suspense was excruciating. But there was no opting out now. I was here, so I may as well go for it, and I did ...

AND THE ROCKETS' RED GLAAAAARE ...

On key! No one tied a hanky around my dick! NICE. I settled in for the rest.

The bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there
O say does that star-spangled ...

Dramatic pause!

bannnnnnnner yet wave ...

And take it home!

O'er the land of the freeeeeHEEEEEEEEEEEE!

I tried to stretch out the "free" for as long as I could, until I got scared my voice would crack and I moved along. I wasn't gonna get caught showboating.

And the home of the brave

And then I heard clapping. Regular clapping, not wild applause. But fuck that, I'll take regular clapping. Beats having pretzels hurled at you. I scurried off the field—watch in the video as I run from my spot as fast as humanly possible—and gave the mic back to Aaron before I could do any further damage. I asked one of the team officials how I did.

"We've had worse," she said.

YES! That was all I wanted. That's the goal of any anthem singer. You never want to be the worst. You can be average. You can even be somewhat bad. But you never want to be the worst. You never want to be remembered for how awful you were. You want to be good enough to be forgotten. Because that's the point of the anthem. The anthem is what gets remembered, not you. The anthem isn't about you, and it never will be. The anthem is about all of us. The anthem is here to challenge us, to inspire us, to force us to do things we wouldn't normally do. And it will endure long after you and I are gone. The anthem stands alone.

Image by Jim Cooke