Perfect pitch: Salisbury singer delivers Major League hit in Cincy
CINCINNATI, Ohio ó Rosie Red, one of the Cincinnati Reds’ mascots, came up behind Neal Wilkinson and started rubbing his shoulders.
Wilkinson had to laugh, and you could see a flood of nervous anxiety pour from his body.
Until then, he had been pacing behind home plate at Great American Ball Park, just minutes before he would sing the national anthem ó the fourth time he has done so at a Major League Baseball stadium.
This time his singing would usher in a regular season Reds game against the Houston Astros.
Until that shoulder rub from Rosie, he was flicking his wrists, as if trying to loose a pesky bug. He constantly sipped from a water bottle, making sure his mouth was a little bit wetter than the Sahara.
Now the 52-year-old Wilkinson took some deep breaths. He handed his water bottle and field pass to one of the Reds’ promotion people, Casandra Ersel. He then walked toward the on-deck circle next to the Reds’ dugout, where he was handed a microphone and led to a spot in the grass between the first baseline and the stands.
Wilkinson stood alone out there, waiting for the Army ROTC honor guard from Western Brown High School to present the colors.
He seemed far removed from his job as a structural product manager for W.A. Brown in Salisbury.
He seemed distant from his wife, Sandra, and a group of other friends and family in the crowd.
On the field next to the backstop, friends Gary Earnhardt and Bob Heffern stood for moral support.
They might as well have been in Alaska. Wilkinson wasn’t looking their way. He stared out toward the honor guard in left field and anticipated his cue.
It came when the public address announcer introduced him simply as Neal Wilkinson. And at 6:58 p.m. and a few seconds, Wilkinson was singing, loud and forceful, without any accompaniment.
He wore a Reds golf shirt, contrasting nicely with the row of Reds players in pristeen, white uniforms standing behind him. Every now and then, the giant scoreboard would show Wilkinson belting out the song.
His voice reverberated through the stands, bouncing off the seats on a sparsely attended Monday night.
Many people nearby sang with him, caps or hands over their hearts.
The lyrics to the “Star-Spangled Banner” streamed in verses below the scoreboard.
When Wilkinson reached “And the rockets’ red glare,” fireworks burst from the two smokestacks in right-center.
But he had been warned, and he didn’t miss a beat.
In a minute and a half, Wilkinson boomed to a finish, and the crowd clapped and whistled their satisfaction with his performance.
Wilkinson strode over to Ersel, Heffern and Earnhardt.
“Great job!” Ersel told him.
“Neal does it right,” Heffern explained.
The group waited a moment until Zack Bonkowski of the Reds’ promotion staff brought Wilkinson a game ball to add to his collection.
Earlier, Bonkowski also had prepared a package of souvenirs Wilkinson planned to deliver to Bryston Foster of Concord.
Foster, 10, is the son of a former co-worker of Wilkinson. The youngster suffers from muscular dystrophy and often has come to the children’s hospital in Cincinnati for treatment.
The trips have made the boy a huge Reds and Bengals fan. Wilkinson couldn’t wait to deliver some signed mementos from the Reds team.
Before Wilkinson walked off the field toward the tunnel next to the visiting dugout, Rosie Red walked toward him.
She blew him a kiss.
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At 6:15 p.m. Monday, Sandra Wilkinson kissed Neal for good luck as he left their seats and went to wait for Ersel in the concourse area known as Gapper’s Alley.
Wilkinson bought a $4.50 bottle of water at a concession stand, then took some long strolls. He had run through the national anthem quietly a couple of times back at his hotel, but he still wanted to find a place where he could warm up and actually sing it.
He carried a pitch pipe.
Ersel met him at 6:25 p.m. and got the on-field passes squared away for Wilkinson’s friends. She reminded everyone to turn off their cell phones, and Neal asked if he could be excused for a run to the men’s room.
When he returned, Ersel led the group into the belly of the stadium, down long, concrete corridors that eventually put them next to the umpires’ room and a small “star” dressing room.
Wilkinson asked if he could practice the anthem one time, out loud in the dressing room. That would be fine, Ersel told him, if he didn’t mind singing to the ROTC unit sitting inside.
So with the ROTC high schoolers and Earnhardt and Heffern as his audience, Wilkinson sang the national anthem in the dressing room.
The Reds staff could hear him in the hallway, and everybody complimented him as he emerged to head for the field.
He would be a hit, they assured him.
Later, on the field, Ersel asked the nervous tenor, “Are you ready to go?”
“Yep, I guess,” Wilkinson said.
“You’ll do great,” she said.
And he did.
After his performance was over, Wilkinson said he felt good about it.
“This stadium sings well,” he said. A delay between when he was singing and when the words came out over the public address system threw him a little bit, he said, but he had confronted that before. He always worries about his phrasing of the tough song.
“My breathing is never exactly where I want it, but it worked,” he said.
The Reds willl send him a video of his performance, and Wilkinson will study it.
“I’ll analyze it to death,” he said.
Heffern and Earnhardt congratulated him again before they all made their way back to their seats.
“Where are we going next?” Heffern asked the singer.
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During the third inning of Monday night’s game, Wilkinson and Earnhardt walked up to the press box to meet with Marty Brennaman, the Hall of Fame broadcaster and longtime voice of the Cincinnati Reds.
Brennaman had arranged for Wilkinson to sing at Great American Ball Park, and Wilkinson had received the great news just after surgery this spring for prostate cancer, from which he is fully recovering.
In a small way, Brennaman owes part of his success as a baseball announcer to Salisbury and the American Legion games he covered for WSTP radio in the late 1960s. It was the first time Brennaman, just out of the University of North Carolina, had ever called baseball games and he learned about the game those summers from one of the best, American Legion Coach Joe Ferebee.
In 1970, Brennaman left Salisbury to be the broadcaster for Triple A baseball games in Virginia. By 1974, just as “The Big Red Machine” was poised to win its two straight world championships, Brennaman was hired as the voice of the Reds.
In the 36 years since, he has become a Cincinnati institution.
“I have found people here think the world of you,” Wilkinson said.
Earnhardt played shortstop for the Salisbury American Legion team from 1966-68.
“My claim to fame is that you did all our ballgames,” Earnhardt told Brennaman.
Brennaman shrugged off the praise and talked about what those Legion games had taught him, and he asked about several of the players, who like Earnhardt, are now approaching 60.
The men talked about the great weather in Cincinnati, the Reds’ recent road trip and just baseball in general.
Wilkinson took a photograph of Earnhardt and Brennaman together and thanked the famous sportscaster for his help in making another dream come true Monday night.
“I hope I didn’t embarrass you,” Wilkinson said.
“You did a good job, son,” Brennaman told him.
Wilkinson left early this morning for home, thrilled with his visit to Cincinnati.
Things will be back to normal quickly.
On Thursday, he will sing the national anthem twice ó in the morning for the United Way’s Day of Caring, and in the evening for a Girl Scout function.
He’ll still be carrying that blown kiss from Rosie Red.