SAN DIEGO — Accustomed to defending their team's dismal play this season, San Diego Padres officials found themselves facing an even bigger public-relations nightmare Thursday as strident criticism of TV comedian Roseanne Barr's rendition of the national anthem at a baseball game here poured in from around the country.
The chorus of stadium boos that greeted Barr's screechy, off-key, seemingly flippant rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner," followed by what some perceived as an obscene gesture, at Wednesday night's game drew a louder accompaniment Thursday. Veterans groups, radio talk-show hosts and others condemned Barr for what they regarded as her denigration of the anthem.
"This is a national disgrace," said opera star Robert Merrill, who has sung the anthem in New York's Yankee Stadium for 18 years. "It was to me like burning of the flag."
But Barr's husband said that while the actress-comedian is upset over the negative reaction, she feels that "she doesn't have anything to be sorry for." Saying that his wife "sang the best she could," Tom Arnold angrily insisted that the fans who booed her or those who have criticized her did more to harm the anthem's meaning than his wife's singing did.
Padres officials, seeing a promotion they had hoped would be a big hit strike out badly, apologized Thursday, and then did what any red-blooded baseball team in serious trouble would do: They called in the Marines, who provided a tape recording of a U.S. Marines Corps Band rendition of the national anthem for Thursday night's game.
Barr had been invited to sing the national anthem before the second game of Wednesday night's Padres-Cincinnati Reds doubleheader by Tom Werner, the Padres' new general managing partner and executive producer of her TV show, "Roseanne."
When the invitation was announced this month, Barr said that she intended to sing the song seriously, not jokingly. Her performance, however, left that pledge open to varying interpretations--mostly unflattering.
In a rendition lasting slightly under one minute, Barr screeched out the anthem's lyrics, plugging her ears with her fingers part of the time. The boos began before she had even completed "Oh, say can you see" and rose to a crescendo of catcalls by song's end.
After she finished singing, Barr--in what her husband and Padres officials insisted was intended to be a parody of ballplayers' sometimes indelicate mannerisms--grabbed her crotch and spat on the ground as she walked off the field. That gesture, interpreted by many in the crowd as Barr's reaction to their reaction, produced even louder boos.
Not needing to wait to see an "E" flash on the scoreboard to realize that this one would go down in the books as an error, Werner huddled with top Padres executives for about half an hour before declining comment. Other Padres officials, however, defended Barr's performance, blaming the trouble in part on a time delay and echo in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium's sound system.
In a statement Thursday, however, Padres President Dick Freeman was more contrite.
"While Roseanne has indicated she did her best under some very difficult circumstances, it is apparent we did not do our part because many fans were offended both by the rendition and Roseanne's gestures," Freeman said. "To those fans, we apologize and make the commitment that in the future we will strive to see that the anthem is presented with the dignity it is due."
Pushing aside Supreme Court nominations, budget battles and myriad other typical radio talk-show topics, the episode--which one day might well be remembered in prose as "Mighty Roseanne at the Mike"--dominated Thursday's programs in San Diego and elsewhere. On one San Diego radio station, some listeners used phrases such as "obnoxious pig" and "disgusting joke" to describe Barr, while others called for boycotts of Barr's ABC television show and the Padres.
Disc jockeys on another local radio station drew cheers from onlookers by having a bulldozer crush a cassette of Barr's performance.
"This was an insult to all Americans," said Steve VanBuskirk, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "Whether it was a joke or just very bad singing, it reflected very bad judgment."
Although supporters clearly constituted a small minority of those who voiced their opinions Thursday, one unidentified radio station caller was among them.
"Tell the people of San Diego to lighten up. It's just a joke," the caller said.