Come Opening Day, the Salem Red Sox and the Lynchburg Hillcats, like every other team in baseball, will use every fair and legal means to outhit, outpitch, and outrun their opponents.
But before the first pitch is thrown and the first ball or strike is called, there’s a moment when rivalries are forgotten and individual achievement is set aside–the singing of the National Anthem, a ritual as rooted in tradition as Cracker Jack, the seventh inning stretch, and booing the umpire.
Picking the anthem performer for each game does not require the same level of analytics, as, say, putting the shift on a pull hitter, but both the Red Sox and the Hillcats use care in choosing the singers who set the tone at the beginning of each contest.
Allen Lawrence is general manager of the Red Sox, who play in the Carolina League (which reverts to its historic name in 2022 after a season as the not very inspiring Low-A East).
“We’ve got a long list of people that have performed the anthem for us in the past,” he said in a Zoom call from his office at Salem Memorial Ballpark. “So oftentimes we will identify the ones that we think are above average, and we go back to them year after year after year and ask them to return and typically most of them do. However…on Opening Night we always try to get somebody a little more significant…whether it’s a bigger name or bigger kind of presence in the community.
“We also have a lot of theme nights throughout the season. For example we have a Frontline Worker Appreciation Night. We do a Teacher Appreciation Night. We have a number of nights dedicated to the military. So on all of those nights we try and find somebody specific to that theme night–see if there’s a vet that would like to sing the anthem for Military Appreciation Night.
“Normally we’ll do just kind of a quick audition, if they don’t send in a recording, We’ll have ’em out here to the ballpark. As long as they can sing the anthem and do it well…then we like to give ’em an opportunity.”
The anthem is usually sung but occasionally the Red Sox present an instrumentalist such as an electric guitarist or trombone player. “Probably because it’s somewhat unique, the instrumentals normally get a very good reception from the fans.”
One performance that was especially well received was by Red Sox catcher Jaxx Groshans, who sang it in 2021. Afterward, he told Lawrence he felt more nervous singing than catching.
Military Appreciation performances often get warm responses as well. “You just feel it. We introduce the person, they’re a vet, they’ve got a neat story behind them. And then they really just belt out this incredible rendition of the anthem.”
While the anthem usually goes smoothly, it is a live performance, and every now and then something goes wrong.
“I’ve been here about 21 years and I’ve seen a lot of National Anthems in my day,” Lawrence said. “The ones that seem the most memorable to me are the people that unfortunately forgot the words. That does happen and that’s honestly why we like to get people out here to audition. Sometimes singing it into a recording and coming out here and singing it on this large field in front of lots of people is different. We can’t always prep them for the number of people that are going to be here, but we can at least prep them for the facility.”
Another potential hazard is a dead battery in the wireless microphone.
“Actually those become memorable not because of the microphone going dead–because that’s very unfortunate, we try to avoid that of course, it’s a little unfair and a little embarrassing to the person singing it–but it actually becomes quite nice because the crowd will oftentimes join in and start picking up from where the singer left off. And they’ll do that too if the person noticeably forgets the words, and it actually turns into something that’s quite nice.”
Whether the peformance is flawless or not, the intention is always the same–to honor America.
“We always have the anthem singer facing the flag,” said Danielle DiBenedetto, promotions and social media manager for the Red Sox. “The fans are also facing the flag. We never want to have someone’s back toward the flag. We have the starting lineup go out first so all the players are in their spots, and then the [rest of the] team walks down the line and as they all take their ball caps off, we encourage fans to do the same.”
At Salem’s Carolina League rival, the Lynchburg Hillcats, Jeff Kent is starting his first year as manager of marketing and creative services.
“I kind of have three tiers that I look at when we’re booking performances,” he said. “The first one is any big groups that we have out, or any sponsors that are part of the night, we give them an opportunity if they have a family member or a co-worker or an employee who wants to perform, we’ll give them that chance.
“The second tier…is kind of new this year, we’re putting a heavy emphasis on youth fundraising programs. So, mainly elementary schools and youth sports leagues. If the elementary school has a choir, or a music department who wants to perform on a night that they’re coming out to the game, we’ll offer that to them if it’s available.
“And then the final tier is for the remaining games. Anyone who’s sung for us in the past, anyone who reaches out to us who’s interested, who submits a performance submission tape, we’ll fill in those remaining games with any of those individuals.”
At Kent’s previous team, the Vermont Lake Monsters, some of the best renditions came from kids, he said. “Whenever you can get a young kid out of elementary school or a middle schooler whose voice just really projects and is full and they have confidence, it’s always moving when a younger individual comes out and just crushes it.”
The anthem brings together people of all ages.
In 2011, Joseph L. Price embarked on a 25,000-mile odyssey in an RV, singing the anthem in 104 minor league ballparks in 40 states. Among his stops were Pulaski (the Mariners) and Lynchburg (Hillcats). Price, Director of the Institute for Baseball Studies at Whittier College in California, wrote a book about his experience, “Perfect Pitch: The National Anthem for the National Pastime.”
The “Star-Spangled Banner,” not yet the official national anthem, was first played at a major league game at the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, he said. It was part of set of patriotic songs.
“Thereafter, it became popular for the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ to be played for World Series games as, again, a part of a series of patriotic tunes. The ‘Star Spangled Banner’ did not become the National Anthem until 1931, when Herbert Hoover signed it into law as the National Anthem after public petitions had basically been circulated for a number of years. Even then, it was not performed regularly before games until World War II. And so, since basically World War II and the 1942 season’s beginning, the National Anthem has been a regular part of the opening exercises for major league games.”
Sybil Puruczky has been singing the anthem at the Salem ballpark since shortly after she and her husband moved to Salem in 2004.
“I was just so blown away with the beauty of the ballpark and the setting, I just had to be a part of it. I auditioned to sing and I’ve been singing there ever since,” said Puruczky.
“It’s one of the most tremendous honors that could ever be given to me. My father, my father-in-law, my [horse] trainer and my son-in-law, are all veterans. And they’re all heroes in my world, and anything I can do to honor them, to honor America and lift up the veterans that are at the ballpark and beyond, if I can do that by singing the anthem, that makes my heart very happy.
“My dad, my father-in-law and my trainer are all passed now. But when I step out on that field, and I start singing those first notes, all three of them, including my son-in-law, are on my mind and in my heart when I sing.”
The Red Sox open at home against the Hillcats on April 8.
The Hillcats’ home opener is April 12 against the Delmarva Shorebirds.