One of the most idyllic times in my life began with strife and discord — in the professional baseball world, that is. In August 1994, the Major League Baseball strike left me without my usual summer evening’s entertainment. When my wife, Mimi, brought home a book called Stolen Season by David Lamb, I spent several evenings enthralled. Lamb was a foreign correspondent who’d set out to clear his head of war and violence by traveling around America in an RV, visiting minor-league ballparks. He had found in the minors the soul of baseball — a place where innocence, idealism and romance thrived despite all too often being driven out of the majors by greed and hype.
My son, Marcus, was seven then. He and I enjoyed playing catch in Riverside Park near our Manhattan apartment, and he’d recently become interested in watching games. I asked him if he would like to go see some minor-league teams play. He said yes.
Our family caught games in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and New Britain, Connecticut. I was hooked. There were cheerful greetings at the gate by retired firefighters dispensing $3 admission tickets. Between innings, there were all kinds of hijinks — dizzy bat races, fat-suit wrestling matches, T-shirt tosses into the crowd — and there were homegrown promotions by local businesses. Mostly there was the thrill of being close to the action.
I had an idea. Maybe Marcus and I could have our own stolen season the next summer, when my work as a music professor at Brooklyn College and trumpeter with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra was finished for the year. We could spend a few weeks on the road going to minor-league games. I might even try to arrange to play the national anthem at some ballparks.
It was the start of a great adventure. That summer I performed the anthem solo on a cornet for several teams in the Southeast as my son stood next to me. From the second year on, Marcus joined me behind the microphone. He’d been playing the baritone horn in his school band and couldn’t wait to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” to kick off the games. Over the course of five summers, he and I racked up these stats: We played 70 anthems (63 U.S. and 7 Canadian) at 59 baseball parks (some were repeat performances). We logged 22,000 miles in the car and stayed in 91 motels in 35 states and two Canadian provinces. Marcus and I took to calling ourselves the Anthem Guys, a nickname given to us by a player in Fargo, North Dakota.
People responded warmly to our little father-and-son road show. They gave us souvenirs, and some newspapers wrote stories about us, resulting in pleasant meetings with others who came out to hear us play.
In Billings, Montana, at a game between the Billings Mustangs and the Ogden (Utah) Raptors, Marcus caught his first foul ball. The assistant general manager asked me to leave the ball with him, and a few weeks after we got home, a package arrived for Marcus. It was the ball from Billings, covered with autographs from the players. It confirmed that those who worked in minor-league baseball weren’t too busy or self-absorbed to make a memory for a little kid.
Once, in Toledo, Ohio, as we left the field after playing the anthem for the Mud Hens, an umpire approached us. As he got closer, he reached into his pouch and handed Marcus a game ball. “Great job, kid,” he said.
When we did have the opportunity to play for some major-league teams, we jumped at it, of course. The Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers, Montreal Expos, Milwaukee Brewers and Boston Red Sox all gave us a warm welcome. It was as thrilling for us to walk onto a big-league field as it must have been for a rookie called up from the minors.
When we got back home after our trip the third summer — a five-week odyssey that took us from New York to Washington State and back — we hung a map highlighting routes we’d taken in Marcus’s room. We would look at it as well as the team pennants and think of summers to come.
In June 1999 Steve Fennessy of the Rochester, New York, Democrat and Chronicle interviewed me before the tour that would bring us to his city. His story read in part: “How long will this go on? Marcus, after all, is 12. ‘We’ll do it together as long as he wants to do it,’ Hedwig says. ‘If he says “Let’s take a break on this,” that’s cool. It’s been a great joy to share together. But for now, I don’t see an end to it.'”
Ironically, by the time the article ran in August, our idyll’s finish was in view. That summer as we traveled around New England, upstate New York and eastern Canada on our fifth anthem tour, my son and I bickered. Sometimes Marcus wanted to skip the game and just stay in the motel. In the car, instead of chatting with me, like he’d always done, he kept his head bent over his Game Boy. Our last performance was for the New York Mets, a team I’d idolized while growing up on Long Island. On a drizzly day in 1999 we took our spots behind home plate at Shea Stadium before a crowd of nearly 50,000 and played the anthem. With us that day were my wife, my parents, my brother and his wife, and two of their three children. Suddenly, on the Diamond Vision screen, came our names, Doug and Marcus Hedwig. I thought, If it has to end, it’s ending with a bang.
I heard our harmonies resounding from the stadium’s giant speakers. I became aware of some of baseball’s greatest stars standing as we played.
“I was really nervous,” Marcus told me later. I put my arm around him and gave him a squeeze.
“You sounded great!” I said.
I resisted the powerful urge to ask him to play for just one more summer. I was learning (as all parents do) that despite loving your kids to bits, you have to let them go.
As the years passed, Marcus seemed to reject all that we’d shared. In high school, he spurned baseball. He favored his heavy-metal electric guitar over the tuba, which he’d started playing after our tours ended. I understood the psychology of this, but it still hurt. Sometimes, on our bookshelves, I’d catch a glimpse of the binders labeled “Anthem Guys,” where I’d saved the mementos and photos of our baseball summers. I just couldn’t bring myself to open them.
One evening in the fall of 2005, I got a call from my son. By then he was in college. Had I seen the game that night between the Chicago White Sox and the Houston Astros? he wondered.
“You’re watching the World Series?” I tried not to sound incredulous.
Yes, he said. He and one of his roommates had seen every game.
Weeks earlier, Marcus had amazed his mother and me by explaining that he’d chosen the euphonium, a smaller relative of the tuba, as his instrument in his college brass ensemble. He’d played the euphonium during our last summer tour. Had the memories of our anthem trips sifted down and left some meaning?
We chatted. I’d been having computer trouble, and with him on the line coaching me, I followed his clear, expert instructions. Soon the problem was fixed. I marveled at the new capabilities of my son — and hung up from our talk feeling deeply satisfied.
Sure enough, the journey of parenthood had taken a new turn. Marcus and I were traveling together again, in a whole new way. I couldn’t wait to see where we would go next.