Thursday night, as Randal Grichuk grounded out to end the Cardinals' half of the top of the seventh inning, I did what I always do at that point in the game: I sprinted up the stairs and headed to the bathroom. Baseball games are long, beer is abundant and I don't like to miss a single pitch. So there's no better time to run to the restroom than at the end of the top half of the seventh. That's the one moment when everyone is distracted.
I feel, as a baseball fan, it is time for a confession: I always skip the seventh-inning stretch.
The seventh-inning stretch is undeniably a wonderful thing in theory. It is a moment, previously decided upon, in which everyone in a stadium stops what they are doing and decides to sing a song together. Not to get all Carlin on you here, but it is impossible to imagine this happening at a professional football game. (Though they'd have plenty of opportunities to do so: Three-quarters of the NFL experience in person anymore involves sitting around waiting for television to let everybody know when they can play again.) It is lovely, and it makes me feel warm about the game I love so much.
In theory. In practice, though, I always skip it. When I did this on Thursday night, the people sitting with me looked like I'd just spilled a drink on them. I was begging off one of baseball's most beloved traditions.
But may I argue, perhaps, in an age of constant distractions and beeping objects and Fall Out Boy screaming that awful song from every speaker (Light a mup Light a mup Light a mup Light a mup Light a mup Light a mup Light a mup) and young pretty people hurling T-shirts at your head... that perhaps the seventh-inning stretch and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" is losing a bit of its signficiance? That it doesn't have the same oomph it once had?
After all: No one leaves it alone anymore. At almost every stadium anymore, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" is rushed through so they can get to some other, more modern musical number. In Atlanta and Baltimore, it's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy." In Milwaukee, it's the Beer Barrel Polka; in Texas (and until recently, Yankee Stadium), it's "Cotton Eyed Joe," disgustingly; in Seattle, "Louie Louie;" in Washington, it's A-ha. At Citi Field they play "Lazy Mary," which is actually pretty fantastic. The tradition in those places is local, and means much more to those local crowds than "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." That song is just the opening act, the obligatory nod before starting the song they really want to sing.
As a Cardinals fan, I can relate. Growing up, the Cardinals didn't play "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" until top of the eighth inning. Instead, the late Ernie Hays would dial up "Here Comes the King," the Budweiser Clydsdales song. Anheuser-Busch owned the team back then, and it made a welcome contrast to Harry Caray slobbering all over the poor souls who happened to be sitting under the WGN broadcast booth.
When I think of the seventh-inning stretch anymore, though, neither "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" nor "Here Comes the King" comes to mind. If there's anything that knocked out the seventh-inning stretch -- which turned it into the without-fail bathroom segment of my baseball game experience -- it was Yankee Stadium in the first three years after Sept. 11.
You remember Ronan Tynan, don't you? I profiled him for New York magazine a few years ago. He was the Irish tenor who sang "God Bless America" at the seventh-inning stretch at all Yankees games during the 2001 postseason and several seasons afterward. He's this guy:
Tynan was so popular after these appearances that he sang "Amazing Grace" at Ronald Reagan's funeral, but he would be fired by the Yankees in disgrace after he allegedly made an anti-Semetic remark to a neighbor on New York's Upper East Side. (Tynan vigorously denied this in my interview with him.) Anyway, Tynan's versions of "God Bless America" basically changed the whole notion of the seventh-inning stretch because they made everyone accept that it was OK if that half inning took a lot longer than any other half inning. It got so bad that opposing teams would complain that the delay was actually causing their pitchers to tighten up during the break. The Yankees were so serious about it that they would eject fans for trying to leave during the song, though they finally loosened up that policy. When they did, I discovered, rather quickly, that this was the ideal time to zip off to the bathroom. You had an extra few seconds, and because people were singing still, there was less of a line.
I argue, dear reader, that Tynan and the Yankees -- for a good reason, though the Yanks' insistence that they somehow were more patriotic than other teams did grow a bit wearisome after a while -- changed the seventh-inning stretch forever, and not for the better. It took the emphasis away from "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and put it more on whatever spin an individual team had decided to put on the break. And it made it the perfect time for a fan who can't miss a pitch to use the facilities. I'll always love the idea of 50,000 people putting their arms around each other and singing a song. I just don't want it to be about lighting mups.