Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Jeff Wickstrom sings the national anthem at the top of his lungs from coast to coast at his own expense.
Last night, he completed one of baseball's oddest odysseys. This summer, he's sung the anthem at all 26 major league parks. He's done it 13 times at home plate in a tuxedo before cheering crowds. A dozen times, he's sung along in the stands because teams wouldn't give him a microphone, even for his standard fee -- nothing.
And last night, 3,000 miles from home, when his grand finale was rained out, he stood in the Memorial Stadium parking lot in Baltimore and paid homage to Francis Scott Key and "the home of the brave" one last time.
"An inauspicious ending," he said, laughing, "to what, realistically, is probably the highlight of my life."
Wickstrom, 41, a carpenter, lives with his wife, Ann, in Seattle and sings in the local opera chorus for fun and the odd dollar. In his time, he says he has been a graduate student in history at George Washington University, studied voice for five years, done odd jobs as a knockabout and been an alcoholic. He's not a kook or publicity hound. At least not yet, although you cross your fingers when a man gets a sniff of fame.
This summer, Wickstrom guesses he's spent $15,000, not to mention lost wages, so that he could, just once in his life, do what he'd always dreamed of -- stand in front of thousands of people and make them shiver, maybe even cry, when they hear him sing.
"I'm in debt," he says. "I'm almost at the max on both charge cards. Sold my stocks. I've got a '74 MG that I've kept in good shape that I'll probably sell when I get back home.
"I didn't make one cent. And I have not gotten any singing offers. My dream is to be a professional operatic tenor. But, realistically, I don't think I will be. Robert Merrill's not in danger. Still, I wouldn't trade this summer."
At Shea Stadium, a small group of college boys chanted "Jeff-rey, Jeff-rey" when he returned to his seat after his swift, robust classical rendition of the anthem. "People appreciate not hearing all that pop garbage. I liked Jose Feliciano until I heard him do the anthem at the World Series. So often the anthem is just butchered," Wickstrom said.
At Candlestick Park, Giants star Will Clark introduced himself and shook Wickstrom's hand in congratulation. No other player said a word all summer. But one was enough for Wickstrom, a fanatic Giants fan for 25 years. That day, the crowd stood and cheered as he walked up the aisle to his seat. "My wife was in tears," said Wickstrom. "She'd never experienced anything like that. Well, neither had I . . . She's considered a saint -- by me. We met in the chorus of 'Aida,' right on stage . . . Luckily for me, she understands the singer's crazy desire to perform."
Who doesn't want to step out of the chorus? But how many find a way?
Wickstrom did it out of annoyance, after hearing an especially awful anthem at a minor league hockey game two years ago. "I called the team and said, 'I sing in the Seattle Opera chorus. I know damn well I can do better than that.' I thought they'd want an audition. Instead, they said, 'Can you do it tonight?' I got up my courage. The fans went wild, like, 'Where did this guy come from?' And the general manager said, 'When can you come back?' "
"Life's short," he said. "I was 40. This was a way I could have my moment. You have to push. You can't just wait." He pestered anybody and everybody until he'd sung for the Mariners, Seahawks and SuperSonics. Only the SuperSonics didn't ask him back.)
One night, he sang for the Mariners at 7:30 p.m., drove across town for the second act of "Tosca," ran next door to do the anthem for a minor league hockey game, then finished "Tosca" -- all the time dressed as an 1800s Roman policeman in tri-cornered hat and brass sword. "I was lucky," he said. "In the chorus, sometimes you're dressed as a peasant."
Local TV crews, on the lookout for the offbeat, discovered him. "I found out what can happen when the media notices you," he said, with mixed meaning. This summer's quixotic tour has generated plenty of news stories and TV bites. Celebrity fades quickly; for him, it's just about over.
Wickstrom would love to be "America's designated anthem singer. I'd take that." But there is no such job. So, the gray rain in Baltimore yesterday was a fitting prelude to what has been called the melancholy of all things completed.
"My wife says she's a little concerned that, now that our 'tour' is over, the high point of my life will have been completed," said Wickstrom. "I know what she means. But I think that the reality of my life will descend on me with such suddenness when I get back to Seattle that it will force me to make decisions real fast. I've got to pick up my hammer and pay some bills."
Wickstrom is in debt. But he's proud of himself. For reasons he can't exactly express. On Mother's Day at Comiskey Park in Chicago, an elderly lady stopped him after his anthem. Her family had asked what she wanted for the holiday; she said something fascinated her about going to hear this singing carpenter.
"She told me I was wonderful and asked for my autograph," said Wickstrom. "I was so excited I was trembling."
Wickstrom remembers her name: Connie Adducci. And he remembers that, in the middle of the game, she brought him a homemade hot dog. "You look like you're hungry," she said.
"No question," said Wickstrom, seemingly well-fed and happy. "Connie Adducci was the highlight."