A friend of mine once pointed out that I’m the only person he knows who critiques the performance of the national anthem at each baseball game. Here comes another shameful musical confession: I love the Star-Spangled Banner. I love that its tune is an eighteenth-century drinking song, I love that no one can remember the convoluted words, I love that it’s about Baltimore (the home of Cal Ripken, John Waters, crabcakes, and kickass collections of Matisse and outsider art), I love that audiences always applaud the wrong high note, and most of all I love that no one can sing it. A couple of years ago I was at the annual World Series party given by friends of mine and when Josh Groban didn’t even attempt the high note I announced that he was a pussy. Yes, beer was involved – kids, beer and baseball are a deadly mix! The woman sitting next to me, whom I didn’t know (at this point in the story a female friend of mine started laughing at me uncontrollably and justifiably; at this point in reality I thought to myself, Whoa! Dude! Slow down on the beer! They haven’t even thrown the first pitch!), explained that she didn’t mind that I used that word but she really objected when her boyfriend said things like “what a typical woman.” It became pretty clear that their whole relationship consisted of bickering, leading me to think that they’d be either married or split in a year; at the next year’s party he was there alone. Ironically I never think of “pussy” as a word referring to women, but only as one directed towards guys. I think this because it was regularly directed at me on the playground, which is why I do not have that boyhood nostalgia about baseball or any other sport (or nostalgia about boyhood, either). I recently heard Simon Williams give a fascinating lecture to the Wagner Society, and at one point, almost as an aside, he suggested that perhaps the reason opera audiences crave traditional realistic productions is that it reminds them of the ones they saw when they first fell in love with opera at a young age. This is an interesting theory, though I suppose there’s no way to test it outside of applying a universal madeleine, and it would go far to explain the infantile nostalgia of most opera audiences and why I lack it, since I was in my 20s before I saw much opera, and I saw about half a dozen offbeat works (Rameau’s Zoroastre, for one) and Peter Sellars stagings before I saw a mainstream, conservative, and entirely inadequate production (Rigoletto done by the Met tour in Boston). The theory also makes me wonder if future audiences raised on regie theater will grow up bemoaning the lack of on-stage defecation and the reluctance of the inadequate current generation of singers to perform in their underpants. Anyway that was around the same age when, to paraphrase one of Larkin’s essays, I realized it was not sports but other children I hated. In 1986, after another legendary Red Sox loss in the World Series, I saw that, contrary to popular belief, sports are not about winning but about loss, and I finally understood. As a resident of Boston, of course what the sports writers called the Carmine Hose, those poster boys for sports as loss, became my team, though I’m actually fairly casual about my baseball loyalties, another result of not being a boyhood fan. But I just can’t cotton to the Yankees. I finally saw a game on TV this season (more and more of them are only appearing on cable stations I don’t get, and that includes ESPN) and even though the Oakland A’s put their names on their home uniforms, the Yankees do not even put them on their visitor uniforms. Please. There’s a point where tradition becomes affectation and arrogance and then finally veers off into delusion (something proponents of “traditional” staging might remember).
I have been to one game so far this year. The Giants lost to the Dodgers and the Sippy Cups performed the anthem and Take Me Out to the Ballgame for the seventh-inning stretch. The audience didn’t seem to like them. I don’t know why. I thought they did a clever job within the limits of what they could do (no high notes here!). I did understand why the old man next to us looked pained at their rocked-up version. There’s always the next performance.
I can’t remember the anthems for the last games I saw live last regular season, but I remember the games. First the A’s played the Angels in one of the best games I’ve ever seen. My favorite Barry Zito was pitching, the post-season was at stake, the game was electric and ran into extra innings, and there would be a (literal) fireworks show afterward, and yet I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I was seated next to an enormously fat father and his adult son. The old man was bad enough, but then he switched (I guess so he could slop over into the aisle) and the even fatter son sat next to me. I’m not the slip of a lad I used to be and pretty much need the whole seat, but this guy was so fat he bulged over into about a third of my space so that I was sitting at a 45 degree angle most of the night. I could feel the damp heat rising from his body. I could also smell first the strong laundry soap he used, then the orange glop on his nachos, and then the nacho cheese gas he kept passing. I was with a friend and his six-year-old son and I tried suggesting that his son, being a small person, switch seats with me. My friend misunderstood and switched seats with his son himself so that I was now sandwiched between two grown men instead of one. (Later he explained that he was afraid his son would make some loud comment about the man’s size or smell; I had to admit he had a point.) If that game were on DVD I would buy it, but I was in agony during it and because it was such a good game it wasn’t until almost the very end that the stadium emptied out enough for me to move over a few seats. That’s the problem with living in the moment: so often the moment is just excruciating. We did reunite under more physically comfortable circumstances for a first-round play-off game, but Zito, pitching again, was having an off day and the whole thing was a bit of a letdown even before the A’s were eliminated.
I was thrilled that Zito joined the Giants, since I had feared he would jump to the Yankees. Perhaps he learned from others who made the switch and ended up the worse (hello, Jason Giambi). I opened the sports page one day last January and there was a full page ad from Zito thanking the players, management, and fans of the A’s and the journalists who covered them. I’ve never seen any player do anything like that. He also is actively involved in helping wounded vets and their families who aren’t getting the help they should from the government that put them in the line of fire. Very classy guy!
I also ended up at the Giants’ last regular season game. In the few days between my buying the tickets and the actual game, the Giants went from wild-card contenders to possible spoilers to a team just playing out the string, which means I overpaid for the tickets. I hear people complain about theater ticket prices, but a few days before the game I had paid around $60 to sit about five feet away from Dawn Upshaw performing at Davies Hall and I spent almost as much to sit about a mile above Barry Bonds, and that’s not so far from the usual price for those seats. Plus I don’t think Davies Hall charges as much for beer. It was a nice way to spend a sunny fall afternoon, but the Giants lost and when I got back home my neighbor, who was having a birthday party for his children, brought over a plate of food for me and told me that he was sending his senile father back to the Philippines. In my years in this house I’ve watched this old man get increasingly obsessive about leaves and greenery to the point where he physically attacked me while I was raking up my lawn. You don’t feel at your manly best knocking down an old guy, but then he’s not that much older than I am and I’m not going to be attacked on my own property. His son and I actually kind of bonded over it. I’m a quiet and considerate neighbor, I must say, and I have several times cut back my trees at great expense and I regularly sweep their driveway during my weekly clean-up, but I’m not willing to cut everything down and pave it over with concrete because of a nutjob’s obsession. What can you do with someone who goes out in a storm to sweep leaves? Are they that potent a reminder of impending death? I realized long ago that there was no real solution here, since basically this is an aesthetic difference: he wants to see completely bare concrete, and I think a few golden birch leaves are always preferable to dead pavement. My somewhat malicious diagnosis of Alzheimer’s turned out to be accurate, which added to the feeling of a season ending when I heard that his very patient son couldn’t take anymore. I did notice yesterday that apparently the old man is back, though he looks much deteriorated. It ain’t over till it’s over.