Members of the crowd at Dodger Stadium, including owner Frank McCourt,… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
It is a recent tradition, a heartfelt tradition, but the absolute strangest of traditions, so unique it happens during every game in only three major league baseball stadiums in the country.
One of those places is Dodger Stadium, where the tradition requires one sentimental minute that some consider endless.
The Seventh-Inning Vex.
If you've been to Chavez Ravine any time during the last three years, you know what I'm talking about. In the middle of the seventh inning, you slowly stand up for the ancient ritual known as the seventh-inning stretch, yet suddenly find yourself in a combination church meeting and July Fourth celebration.
Before playing, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," the loudspeakers fill the air with "God Bless America," either sung by the anthem singer or played by organist Nancy Bea Hefley, and here's where the internal fireworks begin.
Maybe you are teary and thankful for the opportunity to remember the greatness of our nation. Or maybe you are red-faced and upset that the Dodgers are stopping the game with a ceremony that feels unnatural and forced.
Looking at the players who are suddenly frozen on the field, maybe you are thinking that this is inspirational and cool, or maybe you're thinking it's momentum-halting and dumb.
Then there is the whole God thing, with some of you praising his name and others wondering, why couldn't they just play "America the Beautiful?"
It's quite a moment, the Seventh-Inning Vex, and it's back in the news this week with the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 horror which started it all. In the wake of the tragedy, Commissioner Bud Selig ordered that every team replace the playing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" with "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch for the remainder of the 2001 season.
The following season, baseball suggested that teams continue playing the song on Sundays and holidays, but the New York Yankees, because of their proximity to the 9/11 events, kept playing it during every home game.
Then, three years ago, for reasons that can't quite be determined, the Dodgers joined them.
"As an organization, we feel that this gives fans an opportunity to reflect during the game and show their patriotism," said Dodgers spokesman Josh Rawitch.
But why do it every game when most other teams, including the Angels, only do it on Sundays and holidays?
"We simply decided it was something we wanted to do every game, for the same reason that we would do it every Sunday," said Rawitch.
At the time, some thought it was a clumsy attempt by owner Frank McCourt to win fans through overbearing patriotism. Others thought it was an attempt by the Boston guy to copy the hated Yankees. Even now, the battered Dodgers are probably waiting for me to uncover a bunch of disgruntled or disconnected fans and rip them for it.
They're wrong. I'm not. I honestly used to dislike the ceremony, but I've come to embrace it as one of the few occasions during a stereotypical earth-shaking sports event that allows reflection on how the game is a tiny piece of a much bigger world.
I used to hate the way the action was artificially stopped. There is nothing more sobering than a roaring crowd suddenly being asked to stand and remove their caps. But is this really different than asking a booing crowd to suddenly smile and sing, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame?"
I used to hate the way the song made folks uncomfortable and uncertain. There is nothing odder than rising to your feet in the press box while your colleague who stood for the national anthem refuses to leave his chair or keyboard. It was sad that it took a lawsuit for the Yankees to finally agree to allow fans to move freely during the song. But, then again, it's also kind of refreshing to see a nightly display of the sort of pioneer spirit that the song empowers.
As for the God thing, I recently debated this issue with a friend who claimed that if she were baseball commissioner, she would outlaw the song immediately on the basis of that word.
"This whole 'God' thing is what caused 9/11 in the first place," she noted.
Perhaps, but isn't it a belief in some higher power that also helped bring us back from 9/11? When asked how they handled the nightmare at the time, most survivors and first responders said they prayed their way through it. They didn't say to whom they prayed, but isn't God as good of a symbol of that deity as anyone?
From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans, white with foam … God Bless America, my home sweet home.
The collection of those powerful words of Irving Berlin, first penned in 1918, had been lost over time. The First Amendment prohibited it from becoming our national anthem. With the exception of hockey games in Philadelphia, it rarely appeared in a public setting.
But after 9/11, those were some the only words that made sense. Baseball brought the song back. Baseball helped bring all of us back. The Dodgers are only asking us to spend a minute each night remembering this. Is that really so much? One song, a few lines, forever carrying us thru the night with a light from above.