St. Paul Saints fans have their favorite players, the ones they enjoy seeing the most. Many of them no doubt have a non-playing favorite, and it's not the pig bringing baseball to the umpires or the nun providing massages.
It's Johnny Holliday, a U.S. Air Force technical sergeant who has launched nearly a dozen Saints games over the past three seasons, playing the National Anthem on his trumpet.
"He's incredible," Saints music director Andrew Crowley said. "He opened our season this year. It's amazing he's not in the Air Force Band. He's just a great musician."
And exactly the kind of musician sports teams seek out to perform Francis Scott Key's challenging "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the outset of every game. While most artists are vocalists, sometimes famous ones, the Saints and Minnesota Twins try to include instrumentalists in the mix as much as possible.
Sam Henschen, the Twins' game-day experience director, said the team has brought in a trumpet quartet, three sisters playing the violin, and a flutist at various times. The team had a trumpet soloist last year for a Sept. 11 home game. For the 2012 home opener, Minnesota Brass provided the honors, complete with a B-52 bomber flyover.
The Saints have utilized string quartets, brass ensembles and even a 60-piece marching band. (The team is trying to figure out how to fit 425 marching-band players on the field for a game next year, Crowley said.)
Given the franchise's penchant for irreverence, it's no surprise that a ukulele virtuoso, former Vikings star Esera Tualo, has strummed and sung the anthem.
"And he was amazing," Crowley said.
Or that in 2015, comedian Joe Piscopo, like Saints co-owner Bill Murray a Saturday Night Live alum, was tabbed on the night of "the world's largest pillow fight" or that he brought in an accompaniment that Crowley said sounded "like a [Frank] Sinatra big band on CD," given that Piscopo often channeled the singer on SNL.
On a more serious note, the team has engaged several Minnesota Opera singers for anthem performances, and when it moved into CHS Field in 2010, Crowley avidly sought out Twin Cities gospel icon Robert Robinson and a choir to inaugurate the stadium.
"He is a super talent," Crowley said, "and he obliged."
The Twins also tap into the local talent pool frequently for traditional or unexpected themes. Henschen said Lorie Line did a pregame show during the team's final season at the Metrodome.
"They just rolled her piano out onto the turf; I'm not sure our grounds crew would let us do that at Target Field," he said with a chuckle.
The team also is "looking at a DJ kind of spin for later this season" and has booked Sounds of Blackness for its third annual Prince Night on June 14.
An especially memorable performance for Henschen came in June 2011, when the team enlisted Riley Meester of Ellsworth, Minn., who is autistic and has cerebral palsy, to sing.
"Going in, we were nervous," Henschen said, "but we decided it was a really cool opportunity to show that anyone can do the anthem.
"He went through with it, and when it got done, the crowd went nuts. And the home-plate ump, I remember it was Jerry Lane, turned around and stared at the kid and then went to the pitcher and said, 'Give me the baseball,' so he could give it to the kid."
While Henschen and Crowley spend significant time and energy setting up these gigs, it's not all about recruiting. Many would-be performers seek out the team rather than vice versa. Every winter, the Twins get 100 or more submissions from musicians and listen to all of them before making final choices. The team also makes the anthem part of a group sales opportunity, often resulting in a school choir doing the honors.
On these occasions, Henschen said, "You'll hear a giant cheer in the upper deck. That's the parents and grandparents."
The Twins also pursue professional talent, "maybe a local prodigy we heard about through the news, or sometimes touring musicians." Some of the aspirants end up singing "God Bless America" or "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch, which gives the team a chance for more timely ensembles. When the Gophers softball team reached the College World Series, the Twins brought the players in for a "stretch" production.
The teams also prepare for occasional hiccups. The Saints' Crowley and the Twins' Sue Nelson stand, or rather sit, ready at the organ in case someone gets stuck on the lyrics, or the mic cuts out or to do the entire anthem if the scheduled singer "gets stuck in traffic or can't find a parking spot," Henschen said.
The length of the recital can vary wildly. Kids' choirs come closest to what many consider the ideal duration of about 1 minute.
"They truck right through it," Henschen said.
Crowley believes he might have set a record at a game in which a 4-hour rain delay resulted in an 11 p.m. start time.
"The singer left," he said, "and I remember being asked to sing it as quickly as possible. I probably finished in under 30 seconds."
Henschen, on the other hand, recalled some especially lengthy renditions.
"We have had anthems that have been 3 minutes, with almost every syllable being said," he said. "At the Metrodome one year, someone sang the [usual] first stanza and we got ready to start, and the next thing you know they broke into the second stanza. We try to tell people [not to channel] Whitney Houston."
Trumpeter Holliday prefers to err on the side of brevity.
"If I feel the staff are tense and ready to get going, I sometimes speed it up a little," he said. "I try to do what's necessary at the time and not, 'Look what I can do!'
Being a team player, which comes naturally for a 20-year veteran stationed in Minneapolis, might help Holliday get asked back. But it's his talent that gets him in front of these crowds in the first place.
And he has played in front of audiences much larger than the 7,210 who pack CHF Field for Saints games. He has done the anthem at NASCAR races with 130,000 in the stands, and he was chosen for the same role, but with a different instrument the saxophone at the recent NCAA Final Four at U.S. Bank Stadium.
"The coolest thing was that I was able to bring the guys from my unit to join me on stage," he said. "I didn't even know what the Final Four was. The guys gave me a really hard time. I thought at first that it was the hockey Final Four."
But even with the ribbing, plus crowds of 70,000-plus at the event and tens of millions watching on television, Holliday was anything but nervous.
"I already know who's giving me this gift," he said. "God gave me the talent. And I know that he is watching, so in my mind how much bigger a crowd do you want than that?"