Briny Breezes resident Martin Poock, a professional opera singer, belts out The Star-Spangled Banner during a Houston Astros-Washington Nationals spring training game at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Rachel O’Hara/The Coastal Star
SEE HIM SING: Watch video
By Ron Hayes
In 1993, Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis was roundly booed when he sang The Star-Spangled Banner off-key at a New Jersey Nets game.
In 2001, pop star Macy Gray sang it off-beat at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game.
In 2003, Michael Bolton came to Boston’s Fenway Park with the words written on his hand, then forgot them anyway.
And the less said about Roseanne Barr’s obscene assault at a 1990 San Diego Padres game the better.
Clearly, The Star-Spangled Banner can be a challenge.
Where can a professional ballpark find someone who will bless our national pastime with a national anthem that’s on key, on beat and sung with a touch of class?
On March 10, the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches found that someone in Briny Breezes.
Martin Poock — it’s German, pronounced “poke” — is a professional opera singer who performs regularly with Chicago’s Lyric Opera and Grant Park Music Festival.
He’s also a son of the late Lowen Poock, a longtime Briny resident who served as chairman of the town’s audit committee. After his father’s death in 2012, Martin began visiting regularly, sharing his father’s former home with his aunt, Doris Studer, and performing in the chorus of Palm Beach Opera, where he’s been heard in such classics as The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Die Fledermaus.
On Feb. 9, Poock came to the ballpark at Haverhill Road and 45th Street in West Palm Beach hoping to add major league baseball to his résumé.
“I had sung it for the Iowa Cubs, a minor league team in Des Moines, and the Sugar Land Skeeters in suburban Houston, but never for any major league teams, so I thought it would be fun,” he recalls.
He wasn’t alone.
“I had a rehearsal for Don Giovanni that morning, so I got there a little late [for the audition]. This was for the entire spring training season, so there were about 30 people there waiting to audition. They give you a number, like at the Publix deli, so I was probably No. 30.”
The 30 hopefuls were asked to list four or five game days they’d be available if chosen. Numbers were called, and one by one the singers came to a microphone behind home plate to face a panel of four judges.
When No. 30 was called, Poock stepped up to the plate and sang.
“You have to sing it a cappella and in under one minute, 30 seconds. But they were appreciative,” he remembers, “and then they asked if I could sing God Bless America.”
Poock had not come prepared to sing God Bless America, but he did his best.
Driving home to Briny Breezes, he was not especially hopeful.
“Palm Beach Opera has a young artists program, and I know some of them automatically get scheduled to sing in Jupiter, so I was kind of thinking maybe that would preclude me,” he thought.
Two weeks later, he got the call saying he’d been chosen to sing at the March 10 spring training game between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals.
The game was scheduled for 1:05 p.m. that Sunday. Poock was told be there at 10 a.m.
Three hours early to sing for 90 seconds.
“They did a sound run-through that lasted just a couple of minutes, and then I walked around and explored the stadium.”
In the team shop, he bought a refrigerator magnet of the Florida Grapefruit League for his sister and a Ballpark shot glass for a friend in Texas.
Finally, it was 1:05 p.m. In the stands he had a Briny Breezes fan club waiting, consisting of his Aunt Doris Studer and her friends Lorraine Lavoie and Judy Winkowski.
Dressed in white shorts, sandals and a Palm Beach Opera T-shirt, Poock stepped up to home plate, raised the microphone and sang it his way.
“I do have a theory about the anthem,” he explains. “I try to sing it as straightforwardly and unornamented as possible. I don’t try to jack it up or slow it down. I don’t add swoops and swirls.
“The whole point of the national anthem at a sporting event is so the other people can sing along. It’s not ‘I’m singing the national anthem.’ It’s ‘We’re singing the national anthem.’
“You’re not celebrating yourself, you’re celebrating America.”
So that’s how he sang it — on key and on the beat, in less than 90 seconds.
And when he was done, the announcer asked all the fans to “Thank Mr. Pook.”
“They mispronounced my name,” he said, more amused than annoyed.
He was back again during the seventh-inning stretch to sing God Bless America, and he was done.
The Nationals beat the Astros, 6-4, and Poock was paid with one complimentary ticket and a parking pass.
“I thought that was kind of cheap,” he said. “They could give two tickets so you can bring a friend. But it was a great experience. I got all the right words in the right order, and no one booed.”