Editor's Note: Page 3 kicks off its summerlong series on Sports & Music with a look at the quintessential musical moment in sports: singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field.
CHICAGO -- The members of Journey stand in foul territory at Wrigley Field, accompanied by a coterie of stage managers, soundmen and handlers. Yes, that Journey -- the one that wrote your prom theme.
"Open Arms" plays on the public-address system as the Milwaukee Brewers take batting practice. It's "Classic Rock Night" at the ballpark. Guitarist Neal Schon will perform the national anthem. The band will sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch.
"Let me ask you something," says lead vocalist Steve Augeri. (He replaced Steve Perry in 1998, if you care.) "The singing -- is it a bigger deal here than it is at other places?"
Who doesn't know this?
Apparently people who travel inside a hermetic bubble in which it's always 1981, that's who.
Keyboardist Jonathan Cain, a native Chicagoan, understands the popularity of the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley. "It's an honor," he says. "We'll have fun with it." He looks toward Augeri.
"Maybe add some oo-la-la's." They shrug.
"I went to my first game here when I was 4," Cain says. "Used to sit in right field and watch Hank Sauer."
Back in Sauer's day, Harry Caray wasn't publicly performing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." He was merely the young radio voice of the St. Louis Cardinals on KMOX. Caray didn't make Chicago his on-air home until 1971, when he was hired by the White Sox. In the mid-'70s, he often sang a rousing, Falstaff-enhanced "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" with fans seated near his booth. In 1976, Sox owner Bill Veeck decided to turn on the PA. Harry was unabashed. His singing before the bottom of the seventh became a Comiskey tradition.
When Caray moved to the north side in 1982, he brought his seventh-inning habit with him. At Wrigley, thanks to WGN's broadcast reach, Harry's warm rendition became universally beloved. In particularly lean years -- the Jose Guzman era, for example -- it was perhaps the team's primary drawing card. And it was fun. Harry spoke hope, in spite of everything.
Harry died as spring training was getting underway in 1998. He was 80-ish. The Cubs recognized that so great a man needed more than a statue (which he has); he needed a living tribute. They kept singing. Hundreds of guest conductors have performed in the intervening years.
"Harry would love it," says Cubs broadcaster Chip Caray, Harry's grandson. "Nobody thought about having fun at the park more than he did. We get wrapped up in all the, 'Oh, it's pristine, it's tradition ...' Tradition's great. But the great thing about tradition is that over time it evolves."
Tradition gone wrong
Not even Harry Caray on his worst days butchered "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" as badly as Ozzy Osbourne did.
The unfortunate thing about evolution is that, sometimes, there are horrible missteps. A few notable singers have suffered national derision and embarrassment as a result of their renditions. Others merely should have.
Like Bernie Mac. He's one of many people for whom Steve Bartman quietly suffers. Mac sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. He exuberantly referred to the Cubs as "champions" six outs too early. Not many franchises can shrug off that sort of karmic gaffe; the Cubs certainly couldn't.
In 2001, former Chicago Bears defensive lineman Steve McMichael was ejected from a game after his rendition. He vaguely threatened home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez, following a close call that went against the Cubs. "Don't worry," he told the crowd. "I'll have some speaks with that umpire after the game." Whatever "speaks" were, Hernandez didn't want them. He glared at the booth like Ed Hochuli on fire.
Mike Ditka mitigated his seventh inning discomfort by singing like a Ramone, as fast as anyone could. "He was late," Caray recalls. "He came running up the stairs huffing and puffing. Steve (Stone, a WGN-TV analyst) and I were standing there waiting for him. We said, 'The coach is late. But he's in the building.' He gets in, grabs the microphone, takes one breath and spits it out. And he almost collapsed."
The definitive butchering of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" was offered by Ozzy Osbourne. He neither knew the words, nor cared. He made random sounds, animalistic noises which, when backed by a wicked Sabbath guitar, probably sound OK. But when they're backed by a ballpark organ, they're exposed.
Chip Caray loved him.
"Of all the people we had, he was one of the best," Caray says. "I firmly believe it was an act. You know, Ozzy Osbourne, with the bangle bracelets and the hair like Mel Gibson out of Braveheart -- his physical maladies notwithstanding -- and the tattoos and O-Z-Z-Y on the knuckles.
No, it's not Steve Perry. Steve Augeri is the new frontman for Journey.
"In the end he did something that has never been done before."
Bite the head off a cardinal?
"As everyone just stands back in shock, he says to every member of our crew that was in the booth -- the cameraman, the lighting people, Steve, me, our production assistant -- 'Thank you very much. My wife and I had a lovely time. Give me a hug.' And, you know, we meet a lot of celebrities and a lot of people come up there, and most of the people are very, very nice. But not a single one of 'em until Ozzy Osbourne actually stuck his hand out and said, 'I want to thank you for showing my wife and me a lovely time.'
"You're supposed to have fun at the game. Ozzy did it his way," Caray says. "While it wasn't the most perfect rendition of 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame,' it was a lot of fun."
Journey in Harry's footsteps
Neal Schon has a lot of fun with the "Star-Spangled Banner." Journey erected a frightening sound system behind home plate for his performance, a miracle of amplifiers stacked 20 feet high atop plywood platforms, riding on John Deere tractors. A sound technician named Rocko explains, "To properly do a sound system in here, what you need to do is to have fidelity." He points toward the Wrigley PA system in the rafters. "Old tin horns from 1940 are not fidelity."
Schon is bent over his guitar contorting his face, wringing out notes. Lots of notes. More notes than anyone remembered the anthem having. His version lasts longer than the attack on Fort McHenry that inspired the song. Dusty Baker chews his way through, like, eight toothpicks and wears out two sets of wristbands during the anthem. Carlos Zambrano will be eligible for arbitration by the time the song ends. Schon grits his teeth, shakes his head. Fans applaud, thinking it's over.
It isn't. But it's pretty good. No one ever said Journey couldn't play their instruments.
Chip Caray certainly isn't troubled by Schon's deathless anthem. Chip brings an electric guitar with him on road trips. "I play a Gibson, Les Paul. I've got an ES-355," he says. "So I just schlep it around. People don't know."
In some years, Harry Caray's singing was the biggest draw at Wrigley.
They do now, Slash.
"I can't wait to talk to Neal. Say hello to him, talk a little music," Caray says. "Hopefully, he'll show me a few chops 'cause my guitar playing sucks."
Caray's singing is respectable, though. At least by his grandfather's standards. When home games go 14 innings, Wrigley fans get a second stretch. The singing burden falls upon the WGN broadcasters. "That's happened a couple times," Caray says. "By that time, Steve and I are just losing our minds. We have an unspoken rule. We'd like to keep our singing to a minimum."
No one seems to enjoy the song the way Harry did.
"A lot of people, when they get done, they're just drenched in perspiration," Caray says. "Professional athletes come up there and they think, 'Oh my God. What am I gonna do?' The most telling thing we hear is a lot of guys say, 'I'm glad it's over.'
"I think people forget how badly my grandfather sang."
Fans haven't, and they loved him for it. What most guest conductors forget, or can't recapture, is Harry's timing. He wasn't rushed. He was exactly where he wanted to be. He rarely varied the routine. It went like this:
Crowd noise built.
"Let me hear ya!
"A one, a two, a three.
And then there was this incredible pause. You could fit Ditka's entire rendition in the pause between Harry's "Take" and his "me." It was long enough that you recognized how sweet the moment was, but short enough that you couldn't get weepy.
"... me out to the ball game, take ..."
A shorter pause, but it recalled the first.
"... me out with the crowd."
Then Harry was rolling. That's generally the way fans still hear the song.
Tonight, it's not exactly the way Journey plans to perform it. Augeri and Cain are directed to the small cafeteria in the Wrigley Field press box during the sixth inning. The press box is entirely incongruent with the rest of Wrigley Field. It's inhospitable. Institutional. Dull white walls, steep stairs, narrow hallways. Large bulletin boards have lists of things you can't do. It feels like high school for sportswriters. (How bad would those varsity teams be?) The cafeteria is chilly and cramped.
Journey and its entourage have spent the game in a private suite. They're given hats with "7TH INNING STRETCH 2004" embroidered on the side, and jerseys with the retired numbers of Ron Santo and Ernie Banks. "CAIN 10" and "AUGERI 14."
You don't have to tell actor Gary Sinese what an honor it is to sing at Wrigley.
Here, in the cafeteria, they decide to practice.
It's not that they're nervous -- these guys still have uncashed checks from their Frontiers album. It's just that they're pros. Augeri and Cain retreat to the kitchen. The cook is flushed out. The muffled sound of wailing rock stars seems to puzzle the beat writers who pop in to refill their sodas. "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" isn't necessarily a song that can be improved by preparation. Beer, yes. Preparation, no.
The game is tight, tied at 1-1. Jose Macias reaches on an error to start the Cubs' sixth. Corey Patterson singles, and Macias takes third. Runners at the corners, nobody out. Wild pitch. Macias scores. The crowd is pulsing. Journey emerges from the kitchen. Cain is way into the game. "See, this guy has trouble with that curveball," he says, essentially to no one.
The Cubs score three runs in the inning. Augeri continues his preparation. He's bending at the knees, twisting, getting limber. He goes back to the kitchen for more vocal exercises. Exit the cook, again. Cain gets Santo to autograph his jersey.
In the top half of the seventh, Journey slides into the WGN booth. Milwaukee records three quick outs. Augeri and Cain lean toward the crowd. They have the audacity to preface "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" with the chorus of "Don't Stop Believin'." The crowd is uneasy, but they're accepting. South Side fans would never stand for this self-indulgence. But at U.S. Cellular Field, they'd probably get Dokken for "Classic Rock Night."
Journey adds a few flourishes to the song, like it's a candlelit power ballad, but the Wrigley crowd doesn't really object. They're happy and swaying; they keep Harry's time. Augeri and Cain astutely avoid blurting "Let's get some runs!" at the end of their rendition. Harry used to implore the Cubs to score, but only if they were tied or trailing. He never asked them to pile on, just to win. Guest conductors frequently botch this element of stretch etiquette.
When Augeri returns to the cafeteria, he seems satisfied and relieved. Cain remains in the booth, talking to Chip and Steve. The game moves along.
The Cubs are ahead 4-1, beer sales have ceased, and the stretch is over. For a certain contingent of Cub fans, it's time to leave. A pair of sloshed girls trundle down an exit ramp. They're belting out "Don't Stop Believin'" and holding half-empty plastic cups aloft.
"Just a small town girl, livin' in a loooonley woorrrld
She took the midnight train goin' aaanyyywhere ..."
Jimmy Buffett and Cubs fans waste away another seventh-inning stretch.
They sound like sick cats, but they're way past caring. They bump into a group of middle-aged men who seem pleased to have drunk girls bumping into them.
"Just a city boy, born and raised in south Detroi-oit
He took the midnight train goin' aaanywhaaaayre ..."
They can't recall exactly what the subsequent lyrics are, so they deliver them Ozzy-style, with lots of protracted vowel sounds. And they compensate for their lyrical inadequacies by singing louder.
"Aaaa-eeey uh-eeeeay smoky rooo-ooom,
Smell of wine and cheeeap perfuu-uume
Aaa-aaah-aaay uuuhh-aaay niiiieeaaay
It goes on and on and on and on ..."
Cub fans can sing their way through anything. At least the fun ones can. This coping mechanism is part of Harry's vast legacy. Sure, there are plenty of Cub fans who can offer a damning critique of Dusty's bunting strategies based on probabilistic outcomes. And many of them can tell you which low-level prospects Baseball America really likes.
But those people don't add to the allure of Wrigley Field. The folks who give the park its flavor are usually the ones singing the loudest. If the mood strikes them, they'll stumble toward an exit in the eighth, content that a game is mostly won.
Such fans are undeterred by the fact that St. Louis leads the division by 10 games.
"Doo-ooon't stop belie-eeevin' ..."
Or that Mark Prior left this game with an elbow injury.
"Hold on to that fee-ee-eelin' ..."
Or that Kyle Farnsworth just loaded the bases.
"Streee-eeetlight peee-ople ..."
Maybe this is the year, or maybe it isn't. But the song never ends. It goes on and on and on and on.
Andy Behrens is a freelance writer in Chicago.