Before "Play ball!" sounds the start of the action at Myrtle Beach Pelicans games at BB&T Coastal Field, "The Star-Spangled Banner" is sung to set the mood of America's favorite pastime.
That puts singers, musicians and choirs in the batter's box to deliver a performance of the national anthem for each of the 70 home games, and maybe, a playoff round or two.
Jen Borowski, director of promotions and marketing for the Pelicans, said that when the team spent March 5 in a day of auditions for the public, 71 people tried out.
As of Monday, performers were booked for most of the 70 games, and the slots aren't just for singers doing the anthem solo.
"We have several choirs coming out from the area," Borowski said. "We have two people who play it on electric guitar."
Individuals who lend their voice by themselves to the song for its roughly two-minute length remain the biggest way to render Francis Scott Key's melody, Borowski said. Someone who played the trumpet also turned out in the past two years as well.
"The little kids are probably the crowds' favorites," Borowski said. "They always get the biggest applause - about ages 7 or younger."
Dressing in red, white and blue to perform remains another way to hit a homer with the audience, she said.
Backups on deck
Sometimes, a scheduled singer can't make it to the game because of illness or an unforeseen last-minute change that comes up.
"We always have a backup plan ready," Borowski said. "We have at least one season-ticket holder who's our backup, ready on any given night."
About four other people, including the wife of a Pelicans chef, also can pinch hit. One woman can sing "God Bless America" to start the seventh-inning break on special occasions such as Memorial Day or Independence Day, or a California-Carolina League All-Star Game.
Interest in performing the anthem doesn't wane when baseball season ends, either. During the fall and winter, the Pelicans field at least an inquiry a week by phone from a potential vocalist, Borowski said.
Everyone who contributes their chops on the field receives complimentary tickets for him or her and a guest, Borowski said. Children who share the honor at the mic also receive a first-pitch ball to bring home as thanks.
"Usually, they're the ones who get a little nervous," she said.
Folks who sing the anthem at a game become part of the action on the video scoreboard in center field.
"They are probably, throughout the ball game, one of the most recognized fans in the stadium that night," Borowski said, "because everyone just saw them. They're constantly getting high-fives and congratulations and all that."
A baseball fan outside of work, watching many games on TV as well, Borowski said despite seeing and hearing "The Star-Spangled Banner" about 250 times annually, the song never "loses its luster."
"Even though I hear it so many times a year," she said, "it still means a lot to me."
Teaming up at the mic
Cathy Seman, a longtime band director who teaches chorus at Forestbrook Middle School, has organized a choir of nine eighth-graders, including one boy, who will sing tonight for the Pelicans' season opener against the Wilmington (Del.) Blue Rocks.
Seman said this group, who tried out within the school for this performance, has flourished.
"I wanted to have them create something they're proud of," Seman said.
Practices have proceeded in the past month, all in class, sometimes in a small group or with the whole school choir of about 30 students.
Three of the performers also had auditioned on their own last month at BB&T Coastal Field.
"Each got the gig," Seman said of the soloists garnering their own dates.
April Ballard, director of the Loris Middle School Orchestra, will lead 38 students in grades six through eight on Saturday night before the Pelicans' second game against Wilmington.
The whole string instrument family will be represented, including violin, viola, cello and bass. Ballard said although the ensemble earned the gig without having to commute as a group for a formal audition, the students have had regular rehearsals in the past several weeks, especially because they recognize the importance of this recital, in front of several thousand people.
"It's so important for our country," Ballard said, "and so important for the community also."
Sixth-graders who joined the orchestra in August have embraced the need for home practice as well as a daily group session in school, and the upper grades have rehearsed at least three times a week.
"It definitely motivated the students to practice at home in order to improve themselves with the music and to improve the sound of the group," Ballard said. "They know that each member has to contribute 100 percent for us to sound our best."
Ballard sees such dedication to a project carrying values for students to live by "at home, at school and in the community."
"I think the kids have gained a lot of self-confidence," Ballard said, adding a planned contingent of about 100 parents and students plan to attend the game on Saturday.
"The community's coming out and showing their support, which means a lot to the students."
Ballard remembered how moved she felt singing the anthem as a student with her college choir before a home game for the Atlanta Braves
"I think I've told the kids a hundred times I'm sure they'll feel that feeling," she said.