Bauman: Save the anthem at ballparks
Many perform painful versions of 'The Star-Spangled Banner'
We will all hear again this spring about "pace of game" issues, as Major League Baseball makes mild attempts to speed things up and trim that dreaded down time.
But let's take this issue from the top. Let's start at the beginning. Let's look, before the first pitch even occurs, at a related issue: "Pace of anthem."
"The Star-Spangled Banner" has been trivialized, tortured and trampled upon at ballparks throughout America. Obviously, there are completely acceptable renditions of the anthem sung before baseball games, but too many alleged singers, given the privilege of singing the national anthem, are acting like they are singing torch songs in a lounge.
They are singing painfully elongated versions of the anthem, in which the meaning of the song is distorted, warped, lost. All that remains is these people trying to impress the world with their vocal chops. Instead, in regard to this anthem, they become something like Roseanne Barr.
You've heard it. You've seen it, You've known it. What can be done with these people? Well, they could be arrested. What would be the charge?
You don't have to be a super-patriot to be offended by what is being done to the national anthem of our Republic on a nightly basis. All you have to be is an American.
Here's the deal: The United States Marine Corps Band plays the national anthem in 1 minute, 13 seconds. This is the standard version of the anthem and we can safely move forward with the notion that the Marines know at what tempo the national anthem should be played.
Get out your watch with the second hand at the ballpark. You are going to hear renditions of the anthem that exceed two minutes. You are going to hear versions that go on for 2:30. Some even crowd three minutes. These versions could be sung by the greatest voices in the world -- although that is clearly not the case in these examples -- and they would still be wrong.
This is martial music. The lyrics celebrate an American military victory. It is not to be sung at the pace of a dirge. It is not to be toyed with and turned into the equivalent of some gooey lover's lament.
Every child in America knows -- or is supposed to know -- the story of Francis Scott Key, the bombardment of Ft. McHenry in 1814, and the garrison American flag waving at dawn after the British attack. This is a song of a patriot's pride, a man moved to poetry by the sight of his country's flag waving in triumph above the site of a battle. This song cannot be dragged out at a funereal pace for the benefit of a singing megalomaniac.
Certainly, room has been made for individualized, stylized versions of the anthem. The most notable case was probably that of Jose Feliciano, the blind singer/guitarist who played the anthem before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series in Detroit.
Feliciano produced an anthem that was more syncopated and more soulful than anything anybody had ever heard. There was, of course, considerable outrage expressed because he had not played anything like the conventional anthem.
But Feliciano's version was both genuinely touching and ultimately respectful. (It took about 1:40, slow, for that time, rapid by today's standards.) He opened the door for individual interpretations of the anthem. That was very democratic in its way, but it did not turn out to be an unmixed blessing.
The other version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" that stands apart from all others would be the one delivered by Jimi Hendrix and his electric guitar at Woodstock in 1969. Hendrix was a guitar genius, but this rendition leaves no basis of comparison. Feedback, distortion, emotion and all, it went almost four minutes.
To cast this in baseball terms, many people want to put asterisks next to the records of players who have used performance-enhancing drugs. We can also put an asterisk by Hendrix' anthem, because he was using performance-enhancing drugs. But Jimi lasted less than one year after this performance, dying at age 27. He was, at least, posthumously elected to a Hall of Fame.
In the Feliciano version what we have is an argument that once a generation somebody can come through with a completely different, but truly compelling version of this song. This version can introduce a different cultural background, a different musical outlook, a new anthem perspective, because this is, after all, America.
But that doesn't mean that everybody gets to croon a tune with the anthem; that everybody gets to stretch this song until it is no longer recognizable.
Yes, it is a difficult song to sing, and we all appreciate the effort to sing it in public before large crowds. The venerable Michigan rocker Bob Seger, given the opportunity to sing the anthem before Game 1 of the 2006 World Series in Detroit, pleaded advancing age, and sang "America the Beautiful" instead. He was of course criticized heavily in some quarters although his "America the Beautiful" was a stirring rendition.
Being chosen to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" before a baseball game remains an honor and a privilege. But it is not a license to commit mayhem on the musical representation of the United States of America.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.