UNTIL RECENTLY, the most frightening thing I ever heard in a ballpark came from a bunch of drunken Yankees fans at Camden Yards, who staggered up to an usher after a game one summer day and asked: "Which way to 95 North?"
Then I tuned into baseball's All-Star Game the other night from Turner Field in Atlanta.
And within seconds, a voice over the stadium's public address system uttered this chilling phase: "Ladies and gentlemen, here to sing our national anthem, recording artist Brandy."
At this point, of course, I did what any rational person would do.
Springing from the couch, I dove head-first over the coffee table to get the remote, hoping to hit the mute button before Brandy could get cranked up.
But it was too late. One of the first things to go in middle age is the reflexes, and by the time I pointed the remote at the TV, Brandy was already into it.
Oh, was she into it.
For what seemed like the next 10 minutes, she delivered a breathy, feathery rendition of the anthem, full of annoying verbal tics ("... by the dawn's early li-yi-yight") and overly theatrical hand gestures not seen since the Supremes were in their heyday.
As far as being painful, it was not in the class of Roseanne's hideous screeching of the anthem at a San Diego Padres game some years ago, or as irritating as a Kenny G sax version, or any version sung by Michael Bolton.
But somewhere, Francis Scott Key was not just turning over in his grave, he was spinning like a top.
Anyway, this was merely the first - but, unfortunately, not the last - annoying event connected with this All-Star Game.
There was also, for example, American League starting pitcher David Wells, who appeared to take the mound with the thick, dark fur of a wolverine Scotch-taped around his mouth.
If there is no edict regarding facial hair on the Toronto Blue Jays ball club at the present time, one should certainly be instituted immediately.
And this edict should read, simply: If any player should ever - ever - wear a goatee like David Wells', he will soon find himself taking 15-hour bus rides with the Saskatoon Rough Riders of the Double A Sub-Arctic Circle League.
Still, Wells, the Toronto ace, certainly looked fierce on the mound. And massive.
NBC announcer Bob Costas mentioned that "Boomer" Wells, the colorful ex-Oriole, was listed in the Blue Jays media guide at 235 pounds.
But this must be with only one foot on the scale. If he puts both feet on that baby, Boomer goes 260, easy. This is not a guy sitting down to a salad and yogurt after the game, I can tell you that.
Still, the thing I found most annoying was the ever-increasing hoopla that surrounds the All-Star Game these days.
The game itself - baseball as played by its biggest stars - is no longer enough; now everything in sports has to be an event.
And so we were treated to the bizarre sight of players and coaches being introduced in the pre-game festivities with their children in tow.
Yes! Their children!
The only thing missing was Mickey and Minnie Mouse leading everyone in a rousing chorus of "It's a Small World After All."
Things were so kid-friendly, it's a wonder they didn't all sit down in a giant circle and have commissioner Bud Selig read from the new Harry Potter book.
I felt bad for the handful of players and coaches who didn't have kids, and half expected NBC to put a small graphic under each name that read: "This man is unable to find a fertile partner, or is himself sterile."
In another move that smacked of desperation, NBC also felt compelled to put a microphone on the two opposing managers.
Miking players and coaches is an old, tired gimmick that hasn't worked in years.
It's supposed to give us a "behind-the-scenes" flavor. But all it does is make the mike-wearers self-conscious and wooden, lending to their pronouncements all the color of an Al Gore press conference.
After Atlanta's Chipper Jones hit a home run, for instance, National League manager Bobby Cox was heard lapsing into this weird, vaguely beatnik-ish exultation: "That ball is gone, man! Alright!"
As someone who has interviewed the salty Cox a few times, I can assure you that this is not quite what the man would have said if a microphone had not been clipped to his jersey.
American League manager Joe Torre also was overheard engaging in exceedingly polite banter with his players; at any moment, I expected him to look at his watch and exclaim: "What say we take a little break for tea?"
This much I can tell you: If they had put a microphone on Earl Weaver 25 years ago, there would have been little old ladies passing out from the language from Essex to the Eastern Shore.
This was back in the pre-Brandy era of baseball, of course.
God, it seems like a long time ago.