(MCT) CHICAGO _ What began in 1998 as a sentimental tribute to the late Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray has evolved into a tradition whose merits are not without debate.
Harry's widow, Dutchie, and grandson, Chip, then a Cubs broadcaster, were the first guest conductors to lead the Wrigley Field faithful in an emotional rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" on opening day in 1998, just two months after Caray died.
"The day that Dutchie did it, they released the balloons and the bagpipes played 'Amazing Grace,'" said Bob Vorwald, executive producer of WGN Sports. "I just tear up thinking about it.
"It was sort of an open-ended tribute to Harry (at the beginning) and let's see where it goes. It caught on so quickly. It was kind of a no-brainer. At least in the first three or four years, everyone wanted to do it."
But many long have argued that the ritual had devolved into a parade of B-list celebrities with little or no ties to Chicago or to sports. Who can forget auto racing driver Jeff Gordon calling out to the fans at "Wrigley Stadium?"
Also, because the singers spend a half inning getting interviewed on radio and then TV, the broadcasters were struggling to find topics to discuss with those who knew little about baseball, or Chicago.
In February, the Cubs announced they would make a more concerted effort to invite celebrity guests who have local ties or at least have a greater appreciation of the Cubs and baseball.
So, at the midway point of the season, how has it gone?
"We have kind of kept it to the A-list Chicago celebrities and the big stars coming through (Chicago)," Cubs TV play-by-play man Len Kasper said. "The actual singing doesn't take anything away from the game. For me, the debate that we have every single year is more about the interview itself.
"It took me several years to really feel comfortable with that balance between making the guest feel comfortable and having a good interview, while maintaining that focus on the field. (Especially) during '07 and '08 when the Cubs were playoff teams and the seventh inning is usually pretty pivotal."
This year's guest singers have included such celebs as actor/comedian Nick Cannon and Jeff Mauro, "The Sandwich King." But at least Mauro is from Chicago and Cannon can talk sports. Gone from the roster are the likes of Gloria Estefan, Jon Lovitz, Mr. T, Denise Richards and Ozzy Osbourne.
Most of the singers this year have been local sports figures or local actors.
"When you talk to the (guest) in the bottom of the seventh, the Cubs are batting," Vorwald said. "You just had a lot of people who don't know much about baseball. But they want their time in the sun and everything.
"So this year we just thought it would be better for our viewers to get (the guests in earlier) let them talk about what they need to talk about and then sing."
"There are certain guys who are fans or they know baseball or whatever, and you keep them longer. Like Jeff Garlin on Wednesday night. We're down 11-1 and Jeff knows (baseball) and is passionate about the team. Somebody like that is always welcome.
"An Andre Dawson or another ex-player like Jody Davis or Randy Hundley, those guys ...nobody is going to usher them out of the booth.
"I would give Len and BB (Bob Brenly) and now JD (Jim Deshaies) a ton of credit because you're trying to call the game, you're trying to be traffic cops with (a guest). ... These guys are doing their job while making (the guests) feel comfortable. It's kind of a hidden skill that you have to have."
Nonetheless, the most memorable singers have been the ones whose renditions were, shall we say, flawed.
"At this point I don't think there is a lot that could shock us," Vorwald said. "We've seen it all. The (Mike) Ditka one might be the most memorable from our end, only because he didn't show up (on time). Then on two artificial hips, he sprinted up those ramps (to the press box).
"Stoney (Steve Stone) and Chip (Caray) were waiting and (organist) Gary Pressy is holding that one note. I timed (Ditka singing) and it took him 22 seconds. That, by far, is the record for brevity."
Then there was Gordon's major gaffe.
"Jeff Gordon is a wonderful person, but he wasn't prepared and he didn't listen to the advice he got," Vorwald said. "Then he went out with 'Wrigley Stadium' and it didn't work."