Celebrity Guest Conductor: Save This Awful Tradition

CHICAGO - AUGUST 17:  Celebrity Ozzy Osbourne and his wife Sharon sing 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game' during the seventh inning stretch of a game between the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers underneath a sign which pays tribute to the late former Cubs announcer Harry Caray on August 17, 2003 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Dodgers defeated the Cubs 3-0.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
He’s the prince of Cubbie darkness.

I probably change my mind on this every other time I hear another semi-famous person butcher “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” but for now I’ve made up my mind. The Cubs should continue the tradition that has lasted into its lucky 13th season. Here’s what has ended the back and forth* for me: everything about it reminds me of Harry Caray.

They sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” 
Duh. Hear me out. I grew up with Harry Caray being the Cubs’ biggest star, and that lasted right up to the day he died. Out of all the things people loved about Harry, his leading the 7th inning stretch was his most popular gimmick. It was just that, a gimmick, but when I first observed it in person at Wrigley, it was an extraordinary phenomenon. Everyone stood. My mom told me right where to look. “There he is, do you see him?”

And I did see him, which felt pretty incredible to me since I was about three feet tall and could never see anything in a crowd. During that and every other game I went to while Harry was alive, the stretch seemed to make everyone so happy. I mean, big, beaming, geeky smiles sprang up on every previously slackened face in their various states of drunkenness. The guest conductors don’t achieve that same effect exactly, but they’re reminiscent of it, and that’s good enough for me.

They sing terribly.
Yeah, that’s a plus. The recorded versions of Harry’s greatest 7th-inning hits sound like they were hand-selected from his most coherent performances. They weren’t all like that. As I remember, Harry almost always strayed from his original key and then waved the mic until he could relocate the tune. Kind of. It was always bad, and it was always wonderful. So when Mike Ditka charged through it, Denise Richards drop-kicked it, and Chester Taylor didn’t even realize he was supposed to sing it, I couldn’t help but think of Harry.  (Special thanks to Eddie Olczyk for reminding me by merrily skating around each and every note tonight.)

Harry sang at the top of his lungs with boundless enthusiasm despite the obvious fact he wasn’t a good singer. I love seeing people who are otherwise excellent at what they do (give or take a few exceptions) subject themselves to ridicule in an unfamiliar element. Singing the stretch is a chance to say, “Forget what anybody thinks. I’m having some fun.” Being a Cub fan is kind of like that, too. There’s no sense trying to act cool. We’re not. This team sucks. Stop trying to make it look good.

They get in the booth and don’t talk about baseball.
Harry was the king of directing the conversation away from baseball. He’d say names backwards. He’d commend Arne Harris on his ability to find nice . . . hats in the crowd. He’d break into a chorus of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” even though, as far as I could tell, there were no bubbles anywhere to be seen. Steve’s cigars. Ron’s gamer. Arne’s dog-racing gambling problem. The Cracker Jack conspiracy. Harry was at his best when he wasn’t talking about baseball.

I really don’t care when guests steer the conversation away from baseball. Whatever Rob Dibble thinks women are talking about at baseball games, my experience has shown most people regardless of gender don’t talk much about baseball. I mean, come on, I love baseball, but I talk about other stuff at baseball games. Baseball discussion is the pepper on the steak of conversation at Wrigley or any ballpark. A lot of people like to think they’re all baseball from batting practice to “Go Cubs Go,” but they’re kidding themselves. Watching this game is incredibly conducive to good conversation. Sometimes we talk about baseball. Other times, we talk about whatever comes to mind, like . . . what other people in the crowd might be talking about.

So when Kellie Pickler talked about Apple Jacks and milk vendors and not camping out in the middle of the infield, I loved it. It was hilarious. Did it belong on a broadcast of Major League Baseball? Of course. It belonged just as much as Bill Murray dropping into the booth and asking Harry if he wanted another Budweiser out of the fridge. That is to say, it totally belonged. Is anyone that enthralled with what Len and Bob have to say about every single player and every single pitch sequence? Of course not! It’s TV. You aren’t missing anything while Shawn Johnson discusses Dancing With the Stars. You just aren’t. Even if it’s the radio and Santo is going on about soup or Acapulco Taco Pie, if something important happens you’ll know.

By the way, do you remember Harry on the radio? “And Mary Lou Greenberg is here from . . . Hey! It’s a line drive deep to . . . second . . . Oh! No! You gotta . . . well, the side is retired. No runs. One hit. None left.” Even when he missed a detail or two, we got over it. He was fun to listen to regardless.

They draw a small amount of attention away from the losing.
Harry did it. Eddie Vedder does it. I see no problem with it. Seriously . . . is anyone complaining that not enough words and airtime are dedicated to discussing the state of Cubs baseball?

Not me. Let’s keep this tradition going strong.

*If I ever do change my mind, it will probably be something along the lines of ditching the losing attitudes of the past. We’re no longer going to have fun losing. No more lovable, no more losers. That kind of crap. The reason I doubt I’ll change my mind: this stuff has nothing to do with why the Cubs lose all the time. Nothing. You can’t speed up traffic by turning down the radio. You can take the edge of the gridlock by singing along. Alright, let me hear you. A one, a two, a three . . .

7 Replies to “Celebrity Guest Conductor: Save This Awful Tradition”

  1. I agree with everything you said here. My only preference is that the guest be real Cubs fans, and not just celebs wanting some more exposure. The worse they sing, the better. It baffles me when people complain that they "can't sing" and shouldn't do the stretch. Obviously these people weren't old enough or were too drunk at the time to remember Harry Caray.

  2. As someone who won't let my wife throw out my ratty "Harry Caray World Tour" t-shirt from (I think) 1994, I thoroughly approve of the guest conductors. It's not the same as Harry, but it's an acceptable substitute most days.

  3. I have to disagree here…

    All that this tradition does is veer not only the fans attention away from baseball, but the attention of part of the front office as well.

    I really wish they would put an end to this….or let Todd Ricketts go up there and sing it every day.

  4. Thanks, Doc, but veering fans' attention away from baseball at Wrigley is a public service. The Cubs should win a Humanitarian Nobel Peace Prize for it. And I doubt any significant member of the front office (that is to say, anyone with anything to do with actual baseball decisions) is distracted in the least. I'm sure there are members of the front office whose attention goes to waste management, but I don't think they should ignore that. [insert Soriano/Fukudome contract joke here]

  5. Judging by attendance and tv ratings, it looks like fans have done a good job of ignoring baseball at Wrigley already.

    But I swear, if I have to sit through listening to another interview with Jim Belushi, I'm going to snap.

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