~Story originally published Feb. 3
Very soon, baseball cap-wearing fans will walk through turnstiles with tickets in hand, ready to replace them with hot dogs and a bag of peanuts.
But before anyone can play ball at the Lake Elsinore Storm’s Diamond Stadium, ticketholders and teams will stand, remove their hats and face the flag for the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Unlike other teams that use recorded tracks more frequently, the Storm takes pride in always showcasing a live a capella performance of the national anthem.
It’s a way for the team to allow the community to be a part of what they do.
For players, taking the field can be the start of a major league career. For anthem performers, it’s a grand stage worthy of a check mark on a Bucket List.
A LABOR OF LOVE
The Storm will host its anthem auditions for 2012 season home games from 10 a.m. to noon on March 10.
IF YOU GO
National anthem auditions for the 2012 Lake Elsinore Storm season
Where: Diamond Stadium, 500 Diamond Drive, Lake Elsinore
When: 10 a.m.-noon March 10 (registration ends at noon)
Admission: Auditions are first come, first served; ages 8 and older only, with ages 8-15 accompanied by a parent/guardian
Registration: Download form on stormbaseball.com, or fill one out at the stadium
More info: 951-245-4487
Like every year at this time, Tracy Kessman is getting ready to make piles of yes’s and no’s, and then they get more complicated after that.
Storm Baseball’s assistant general manager has been in charge of tryouts since joining the front office in November 2000. And it’s no small undertaking.
For 15 years, even before her Storm days, Kessman has been providing feedback to anthem singers.
The same advice is given to all: traditional renditions kept to as close to 90 seconds as possible.
The focus is the song, not the performer, Kessman said, and the need to keep the rendition short and sweet helps the pitchers who are warmed up and ready to play.
“We have the people (who want to perform), so why would we not do that?” Kessman said of holding auditions. “I’m happy to give people a chance, because I would never get out there and do it. I give everybody who steps out in front of the mic all the credit in the world.”
Also, where else are they going to get the opportunity? It’s often difficult to get a chance to perform at a Major League Baseball park. And often, those performances are lip synced, she said.
“We don’t do lip syncing,” she said. “We are live all the time. There’s no musical accompaniment. It’s all a capella.”
Sometimes Kessman switches it up with a live instrumental performance, like a trumpeter, saxophonist, electric guitarist or violinist. Local middle school bands also perform.
Only in a pinch will they use a recorded track to supplant a live performance, which has happened a few times.
“I’ve had people cancel the day of,” she said, recalling instances of stomach flu or heavy traffic. “At that point, I just start calling all my local people — the people who live the closest.”
Sometimes even that doesn’t work. Cue game-day staff members such as an usher, a children’s face-painter or concession worker, or even a front office staffer.
For Kessman, it’s all worth it just to see people “succeed at something that they’ve wanted for so long … and helping their dreams come true,” she said.
When Storm players and the visiting team turn their heads in astonishment at some local kid’s powerful performance, she has to smile.
“There’s something to be said for when there’s a good talent out there, especially when it’s a little kid,” she said. “That’s always one of my proud moments: I got it. That was a good choice.”
THE ‘HUMAN FACTOR’
While sickness and traffic are uncontrollable at times, so, too, is one other aspect out of Kessman’s hands. There’s a difference between auditioning on the field for an empty stadium and then performing in front of 6,000 pairs of eyes at a sellout.
Mixed up, repeated or forgotten lyrics occur. Some performers stop and start over. Others sing the right words with the wrong melody.
“Just about every combination you can think of, we’ve had it,” she said. “They just lose it. It’s almost like a moment of stage fright because they realize where they are. They kind of open their eyes and look around and are like, ‘Oh, this is for real.’”
“You can’t control that,” she said.
The Storm has had singers as young as age 5 perform who charm audiences with the “kid factor,” although they usually stick to ages 8 and older unless.
If something does go wrong, the audience is there to help by singing the forgotten lyrics.
Fans’ help is “always very heartwarming, at the risk of sounding corny,” Kessman said. “That’s what you hope happens.”
The Storm always offers singers the opportunity to face the flag in the outfield rather than the crowd to help curb unforeseen nerves.
“If you ever do get caught in a moment like that, take a breath and keep singing, keep going,” Tracy said. “If you have to, start over but just do something.”
A record number of local performers — nearly 130 — auditioned last year. Typically the Storm sees between 30 and 40 auditions.
Kessman attributes the increase to mentions on the Storm’s social media outlets. Also, area vocal coaches are now aware of the auditions and find value in them for their students.
She recommends that all participants really want to audition.
“Take it seriously, because we do,” Kessman said. “Fans, players, the Storm all take it seriously. We want someone who is going to represent us well.”
While Kessman said the auditions are like the Storm’s version of “American Idol,” she is careful to note that the song is the star of the show. The fewer vocal embellishments, the better.
“The song means so much to some people,” she said. “And a lot of our fans are very traditional.”
No matter what happens, though, the object is to enjoy the experience.
“Just have fun with it,” Tracy Kessman said. “Relax.”
A LAUNCHING PAD
For many of the national anthem singers at the Storm, they go on to pursue music in college, perform in local theater, or even break through to the mainstream.
Storm favorite Joelle James, a Murrieta native, signed to R&B artist Chris Brown’s label, Chris Brown Entertainment, in February 2011. She wrote and sang a duet with Brown on his “BID” mixtape in August. James performed frequently at the Storm over the years.
“The nice thing was she was very talented. And she was just a normal kid,” Tracy Kessman said.
Part of the fun for Kessman is being able to watch kids like James develop their talents from year to year.
“We were just a step along the way,” she said, smiling.
For the Parish family — Mike, 48, Rhonda, 42, and daughters Brianna, 21, Brooke, 17, and Bridget, 15 — performing the national anthem has become part of their yearly routine. They’ve performed multiple times per year since 2005, performing on opening day in both 2010 and ’11.
“They’re such a nice family, and they’re so talented,” she said. “It’s really such a beautiful rendition. They’re one of my favorites.”
With the Parishes, that “human factor” is less of a factor.
“I don’t have to worry about (their performance). I don’t have to hold my breath. I don’t have to pray,” said Kessman lightheartedly.
“It’s an honor to sing the national anthem and to sing it at a baseball game,” Mike Parish said. “We take it seriously, and we try to do the best job we can do.”
Though they sing the anthem in harmony, he said the family also makes sure to provide a straightforward rendition.
“It deserves to be done reverently,” he said. “You need to remember that it’s about the song and not about the performer. It’s kind of easy to get carried away with putting in a lot of trills.”
SETTING A TONE
Sean McCall, the Storm’s radio broadcaster who is entering his 17th season with the team, estimates he has seen nearly 3,000 anthems throughout his 25 years broadcasting college and professional sports. At any sporting event, he’s sure to be there in advance specifically to hear the anthem.
“I think it sets a patriotic tone,” he said. “I think it’s important to show respect for our freedoms and for the people who serve our country. When you hear a great anthem and the crowd responds, it’s a nice charge to a positive night.
“I’m just a fan of that time of the game as we move forward with some fun in store.”
McCall said he appreciates the Storm’s commitment to live anthem performances. When broadcasting away games, McCall said it is “a mini let down” when there’s a recorded track. He would like to believe that there’s at least one person who would have wanted to perform the anthem.
“I trust that there is that excitement there to perform in front of a live audience,” he said. “I think it’s important to encourage that.”
McCall said, ultimately, the Storm wants the experience to be enjoyable for the performers, because it’s always worth it to listeners. Even after experiencing thousands of them, national anthems have never, and will likely never dull for McCall.
“I love the anthem. I look forward to it at any sporting event, and you can quote me on that,” he said. “I hope the people appreciate the singers we have here at the Diamond every single year.”