Patriotism has run high this summer, with a strong push by the USA squad into the knockout round at the World Cup in Brazil as July 4 approached.
Although the U.S. was stifled by Belgium on Wednesday, a hometown team kept the momentum going Thursday night, with the Zephyrs holding their annual Independence Day celebration a day early. Along with the usual $2 Thirsty Thursday beers, the team distributed miniature American flags, shot off their biggest fireworks show of the season and featured a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Joey Thomas.
Brandon Puls, the team’s director of promotions, community relations and merchandise, said he tries to fill the July 4 slot every year with a big name, in the past booking Irma Thomas, Kermit Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield.
Every other home game, however, opens with a rendition of the national anthem by members of the local community: children bonding and benefitting their schools, young singers starting their careers and older ones keeping up with something they love.
The opportunity affords a spotlight for unheralded performers, one they can use, as proud Americans, to salute their country and its veterans.
“It’s really an honor to sing the national anthem, and it always has been,” Harvey resident Kristina Donovan said. “It’s my way of honoring our veterans, our military and our country.”
Donovan, a Louisiana Rehabilitation Services counselor, has a long military lineage, her grandfather having stormed Normandy as a lieutenant in the Coast Guard and her father being stationed in Japan during the Vietnam War. Her husband’s father, stepfather and uncle also served.
Donovan’s sung for several of the Zephyrs celebrations of the military, most recently Thursday night, belting “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch. An intense feeling of gratification comes when veterans thank her after her performances, she said.
Donovan’s been singing for the Zephyrs for about 10 years, appearing seven or eight times, she estimates, one season. At 45, she’s been singing for nearly 30 years, keeping up with it off the diamond by leading worship at her church and performing at weddings.
Social anxiety racks her nerves standing in front of a wedding party, but not at Zephyr Field. Facing the flapping flag over the outfield wall with the audience behind her, singing a most familiar song, everything else falls away.
“I feel blessed every time they call and ask me (to come sing),” Donovan said. “I’ve never been to a major league game; this is all I know, but it still gives me chills every time.”
Donovan is one of two people Brandon Puls, director of the Zephyrs, knows he can call at the last second; the other is Gina Fortado, who is right at the Zephyrs’ “back door” working at Tulane’s Elmwood campus.
Singing since she was 9, Fortado is the cantor at Our Lady of Divine Providence and performs at weddings, funerals and Tulane events, aside from Zephyrs games. “It’s in my soul,” she said. “Music is a part of me.”
Fortado’s been associated with the Zephyrs so long, she doesn’t remember when she started, but it’s been at least since before Hurrican Katrina, singing the anthem at the Zephyrs’ final game on a Friday night before the city was pounded the following weekend.
When it was might escape her, but she remembers her audition. Organizers asked for volunteers and no one raised their hand, so Fortado stepped up. She sang acappella, navigating the speaker system’s difficult delay with her self-described “traditional” singing voice, and impressed the judges enough to win a spot. One literal nod, from recently retired New Orleans newscaster Norman Robinson, was particularly satisfying.
She now gets that good feeling from crowds of hundreds and thousands every time she steps up to the plate.
“I’ve always had this talent, but it’s nice to be recognized outside of my family, friends and friends of friends,” Fortado said.
Though she’s usually a last-second savior, Fortado in one instance had to cancel on Puls, but for good reason.
At age 49, two days before her daughter’s wedding, Fortado was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her first chemotherapy treatment was scheduled the same day as an appearance at Zephyr Field, and not knowing how her body would react, she called Puls to let him know she couldn’t come and why.
After making an announcement in a weekly meeting, Puls called Fortado and told her they were praying for her. Several months later she sang for the first time since her diagnosis with a cap atop her bald head, and, three years cancer-free, it won’t be the first time she’s opened “Pink in the Park” night when it rolls around July 11.
“I have a special tie to the Zephyrs,” Fortado said. “The staff has seen me and prayed for me, and they have a special place in my heart when it comes to that event.”
While Donovan and Fortado seem to always be available, Puls is constantly trying to build a roster of singers. Holding auditions and lining up performers was one of Puls’s first responsibilities when he started working for the Zephyrs six years ago as a community relations intern, despite having “no musical background whatsoever.”
But he heard plenty of renditions at Astros and Oilers games growing up in Houston, and at advanced-A Wilmington Blue Rocks games during a short stint in Delaware. And since he started, he’s become an anthem expert.
There are three parts to which he really pays attention to during auditions: the early, sudden step up at “ramparts,” the few sustained notes starting with “rockets’” and the extended finale at “free.” His biggest pet peeve is when someone puts their own tune on the song or goes on joyrides with the notes of their choosing.
“In my opinion, this should be sung one way and that’s the only way to do it,” he said. “Ninety seconds from start to finish. Flow smooth, and no long wailing out there. It’s written one way, go with it.”
This is a cause for stress, because like Puls said, he “has no control over the (microphone) once it’s on the field.”
Another stressor can be booking children, who are more unpredictable than the adults.
Like the time when a little girl, at her cue, turned around and high-tailed it to her mother. Puls frantically yelled “Click FX, Click FX!” into his radio, and while the prerecorded track was playing, the girl’s mother said the girl was ready and couldn’t understand why he couldn’t put her on. Or in another instance, when another youngster stopped dead in her tracks halfway through the song. He followed the umpires’ lead and stepped up to the plate himself to help feed her the rest of the lyrics.
On the other hand, they sometimes produce some of the cutest scenes he’s seen, like when a bunch of kindergartners had hand motions to go along with the lyrics.
Puls likes booking school groups not only for the joy they bring himself and the audience, but also the joy it brings the kids after the fact through coordinated fundraising efforts.
“I feel like that’s a really cool way to put some butts in the seats, and at the same time we can do a split ticket where they can go out and sell 100 tickets and take $600 back to the band for instruments or uniforms or busses, whatever they deem it for,” Puls said.
Principal Patience Clasan and the St. Andrew the Apostle PTA organized a family fun day at Zephyr Park in April. The dance and cheerleading teams performed and music director Greg Merritt pulled the choir, chorusters and acappella groups together to teach, polish and lead them in the anthem.
Not only was it an educational opportunity, but one for building a sense of camaraderie in the community and confidence in the students.
“We got to go out and support the Zephyrs, but also show off the talent at our school,” Clasan said. “To be able to showcase our students, what they learned and their talents, to the other people that were there, it just makes your heart smile. We were so proud to have them show what they know and what they can do.”
It might have been the first major performance in a long music career for some of the students. Take for instance Lindsay Mendez, who sang for the Zephyrs for the first time at 8 years old.
It was her third time singing in front of a crowd and easily the biggest, and her dad Willie was so worried she would be too nervous to go through with it that he tempted her with a $5 bill. She went on and “killed it,” she said, rewatching the video Willie recorded over and over, showing it to all of her friends and family.
“The Zephyrs really helped me when it came to breaking out of my shell,” she said. Now, when Puls emails and ask for her available dates, she replies that she’s always available for the Z’s.
Ten years later, she’s getting ready for her 25th appearance at Zephyr Field with a contract from Rabadash Records and an album, “Reaching Out,” under her belt.
“It’s cool to see some of these kids throughout the years grow from the little tyke that was out here to the 19-year-old boy or girl who’s trying to take their music to the next level,” Puls said.
For Puls, watching Mendez progress is one point of pride in a responsibility that is also in parts patriotic and helpful to the community, but she has also proved there are exceptions to his rule.
That first Zephyrs performance was a traditional rendition, but as her voice developed, she developed several versions of the anthem along with it, with key changes and variant phrasing for a bigger impression. The version she sings for the Zephyrs now is her most powerful, she says, and she debuted it at age 13 as Puls, with his aversion to personal spins on the song, looked on.
Upon completion, she turned around and Puls’s jaw, she claims, had dropped.