He has sung for fans of the Chicago Cubs, the San Francisco 49ers, the San Jose Sharks and the Atlanta Braves. He has lent his voice to the Billy Graham Crusades and the inauguration of a California governor. And, in what he calls his own worldwide singing ministry, David Flagg, a retired traffic-court judge from Orinda, Calif., has unfurled his powerful operatic tenor in Mexico, Central America and Europe, always on behalf of his beloved United States of America.
But Flagg, 76, and his wife, traveling companion and unofficial PR chief, Astrid, say they have enjoyed few stays as much as the time they spent in the Baltimore area this past week.
Decked out in his trademark red, white and blue suspenders and tie, the cheerful Flagg - yes, that is his real surname - brought his endearingly eccentric act to town Wednesday, when his pennant-curling, Pavarottian rendition of the National Anthem before the O's-Oakland A's game at Camden Yards left an enthusiastic crowd applauding.
"It's an inspiring song for an inspiring country," said Flagg. He shares his rendition at as many public venues as he can, in honor of his father, a World War II veteran who was taken prisoner on Wake Island in 1941 and spent years in a Shanghai prison camp. "I look at it this way: If I can leave some Americans feeling more patriotic by the time I've finished, then I've done my job."
Despite a slight case of laryngitis, Flagg seemed to achieve that end Wednesday.
"As he left the field, people in the stands were congratulating him, yelling, `Way to go,' " said Heather Bressler, a member of the O's productions department who helps to select the team's anthem singers. "He was as good as we expected, based on the tape he sent, and he seemed touched."
It wasn't just the ball-yard reception that moved Flagg, a trained operatic singer, and his wife. It was their whole visit to Baltimore, they said, from the way the O's front office treated them to the hospitality of the locals.
The world of anthem singing can be more cutthroat than you'd expect, Astrid said. "We pay our way to these events, and we don't mind because we consider it important, but sometimes, people can be very harsh."
Flagg has sung at the Oakland Coliseum near his home 11 times, for instance, but never for the NFL Raiders, who almost always opt for celebrity vocalists. The San Diego Padres insist that singers lip-sync the anthem. At other venues, those who hire accept only choral groups (more singers means more tickets bought by family members, Astrid says), advertisers' relatives or young hotshots.
"There's actually age discrimination," she said with a sigh.
But neither doubted that the trip to Baltimore had been a good idea. The O's were "the most singer-friendly" organization they'd yet worked with, said Astrid. Visits to Fort McHenry and the Flag House museum gave them extra perspective on the anthem's lyrics. And many locals showed impressive knowledge of the War of 1812.
"The flag takes on so much more meaning here," Astrid said.
Maybe that's why her husband offered such a rousing version of the anthem Wednesday. Or maybe it was the feeling they got that it was all meant to be.
After David's last performance in Chicago, she said, the Cubs were kind enough to drive the Flaggs back to the airport in the same limousine used by a certain slugging superstar.
"It belonged to Sammy Sosa," Astrid said with a laugh. "I hope Sammy doesn't think we're following him, because we're not. These things just seem to happen when you sing `The Star-Spangled Banner.' "