CITY OF HOPE CELEBRITY SOFTBALL GAME
Saturday’s CMA Music Fest had it all: sports antics, extreme eating, a two-ton trophy, a Gold Record, you name it.
To begin the day, there were two good reasons to attend the annual City of Hope Celebrity Softball Game this year. It was the 25th anniversary of this fun-filled, fan-favorite charity event. Plus, it was being held at the new First Tennessee Park, the just-completed home of our Nashville Sounds baseball team.
Ideal reasons, right? Then Cindy Hunt told me that the call time for the event was 7:15 a.m. What? But a promise is a promise, so I dragged myself out of bed on a Saturday morning (June 13) at the crack of dawn.
“It’s a great day for baseball,” as the late Ernie Banks used to say. The temperature was balmy. A breeze was blowing. The sun was shining. More fans than ever filled the stands.
“We have a great day for a great cause; we’ve sold more tickets than ever: I think it’s a wonderful thing,” said smiling Bucky Covington. “I feel like a winner: Team Opry, come on,” crowed J.T. Hodges. Team Opry, coached by Pete Fisher, is the usual winner of the contest. The opposing squad was Team iHeart, headed by Bobby Bones. “They always win because they always cheat,” groused Bones. “I played baseball in college, and I’m super competitive,” he added.
Vince Gill, who was pitching for Team Opry, had the opposite attitude. “I’m not competitive like I used to be,” he said. “I’m a new man. When I pitch, I want the player to get a hit.”
Also playing ball on Team Opry were Covington, Hodges, Aaron Watson, Charles Esten, Deana Carter, Phil Vassar and former Miss America Rachel Smith. In addition to Bones, Team iHeart’s roster included Eddie & Lunchbox, Lauren Alaina, Doug McCormick and Lindsay Ell, sporting full makeup and false eyelashes, no less.
Personable player SaraBeth was the StageIt winner this year. “You do a home-based concert online,” she explained. “And people click to contribute [to City of Hope]. I raised $4,000, and it was easy.” A lot of her fan base has been built via social media, she added.
I thought it was cute that the Love & Theft members were placed on opposing teams. Stephen Barker Liles played for Team iHeart, while Eric Gunderson was on Team Opry. The same was supposed to be true for the married Karen Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook, but Little Big Town cancelled. I suspect it’s because they were too busy with their hosting duties for the ABC-TV special that’s being made about the fest.
Team iHeart member Angie Johnson, the artist who is a former Voice competitor and a U.S. Air Force vet, sang the national anthem. Which is no easy task at that hour in the a.m.
Another pre-game event involved her fellow player, Nashville native Stephen Bess. He spoke to the crowd about his leukemia and the lifesaving treatment he received at City of Hope. He said, “I think I cried myself to sleep every night,” waiting for a stem-cell donor who was a genetic match. The donor, Jonas Baade, was found in Germany. The two men met for the first time at the game. They enfolded one another in a bear hug on the pitcher’s mound while the crowd cheered.
“This is why we’re all here today,” said co-host Cody Alan. By the way, Bess is the step-grandson of Hattie Louise “Tootsie” Bess, the founder of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.
Alan’s play-by-play with co-host Lorianne Crook didn’t have much excitement for the first three scoreless innings. After that, the underdog iHeart team took a commanding lead. Then slugger Chuck Wicks batted Team Opry into the lead. Team iHeart rallied and made it a 5-5 tie game. Then Bret Michaels of Poison drove in the winning run for Team iHeart. Crossing home plate as the winning runner was, appropriately, Jonas Baade.
As usual, there were plenty of hi-jinks. Many of them were provided by Booster the Rooster, the Sounds mascot, or by Gnash, the Predators mascot.
The game raised $200,000 for City of Hope. Another plus: Some of the fans signed up to become bone-marrow donors.
Founded in 1913, City of Hope is a pioneer in bone-marrow transplantation and genetic research to combat cancer and other diseases. Its main hospital is northeast of L.A. in Duarte, CA.
After we did our duties on the red carpet, we made our way to the park’s boxes on the upper deck. Hallelujah: scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits, sausage and life-saving coffee awaited.
First Tennessee Park has flawless turf, spacious dugouts, comfortable spectator seats and excellent sight lines, as well as a groovy V.I.P. area. Instead of routine junk food, it offers Pepperfire Hot Chicken, Smokehouse Barbecue and soft-serve ice cream. There is even a real restaurant beyond the right-field wall.
Hacks and flacks were out in abundance. Kay West, Katherine Cook, Terry Bumgarner, Craig Campbell, omnipresent GettyImages photographer Rick Diamond, Susan Niles, Chuck Dauphin, Jaclyn Carter, Allison Auerbach and Jackie Marushka all worked the gig.
By the time the game ended around noon, and everyone headed downtown, the heat was at microwave levels. Nevertheless plucky stars like The Swon Brothers, Mandy Barnett, Tanya Tucker and Chris Janson signed up to perform. Even warmer were the red-clad Rebel Stomp dance troupe, who pranced tirelessly during the J.T. Hodges performance.
By mid Saturday afternoon, downtown was wall-to-wall people. It got more than a little claustrophobic. As the Riverftont Stage crowd swelled beyond capacity, the CMA took the unprecedented step of closing off admission.
Lucky T. Graham Brown, David Ball and Mark Wills were among those scoring air-conditioned indoor gigs at Fan Fair X. Also indoors were Trisha Yearwood and Will Hoge. They signed autographs in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Saturday afternoon also featured the Nathan’s hot dog competive eating contest. The winner swallowed 33 of them in 10 minutes, which qualified him for the national championships on July 4 in—where else?—Coney Island, NY. That does it: No more weenies for me, fest or no fest.
SATURDAY NIGHT AT LP FIELD
As we headed for LP Field that evening (June 13), we caught part of a fine set by pop-country stylist Chris Lane at the BMI Tailgate Party outside the venue. Kellie Pickler sang “The Star Spangled Banner” to christen the nightly stadium concert. The 2013 Dancing with the Stars champion has her own home-furnishings line and will star in a CMT reality-TV series this fall.
The honchos of Operation Troop Aid addressed the crowd. The organization has sent $7 million in CARE packages to overseas troops. It also gives out an annual Patriot Award. Past winners have included The Charlie Daniels Band, Hank Williams Jr., Darryl Worley, Kid Rock, Kiss, Aaron Tippin, Mark Wills, Gary Sinese and Toby Keith. The honor goes to “an entertainer who goes above and beyond in support of our troops.”
The award was renamed this year to honor the late American Sniper Navy Seal Chris Kyle. Parents Wayne and Deby Kyle, who were celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary that day, made the presentation. “Don’t ever, ever forget that we have boots on the ground,” said Wayne. “We have to support them in every way. We try to cover the troops who come home and try to adjust to civilian life.”
In recognition of her eight tours of service overseas and countless visits to veterans’ hospitals, Kellie Pickler became the first woman to win the honor. It is a massive, yard-high metal trophy topped by an eagle. “I should have worked out,” quipped Pickler as she lifted it. “Oh my goodness. God bless you. I’m so honored,” she continued, getting weepy. Remember: “If you don’t stand behind every service man and woman in the military, please feel free to stand in front of them.”
Wynonna & The Big Noise kicked off the concert. “I’m a proud woman in country music, and I’ve been doing this for 30 years, thanks to you,” she told the audience. With bluesy rearrangements of Judds and solo hits, she turned in a highly aggressive set. Husband Cactus Moser sang backup and rocked out on the drum kit.
Chris Young came out guns blazing on “Aw Naw.” “I’ve been coming to CMA Fest since I was a little, bitty kid,” said the Murfreesboro native. “It’s so cool that you’re here.” He added that he’d been given a Gold Album backstage, “which is hard to do these days.” For his finale, he tore into the stone-country ballad “Tomorrow.” The crowd went nuts, rewarding him with a long, loud standing ovation. This was Young’s second appearance on the fest’s mains stage. It will not be his last.
At this point, more and more people were streaming into the stadium. While Thomas Rhett entertained, they headed for their seats in time to catch the headliners, starting with new-to-LP-Field Brett Eldredge. “It’s very surreal…that people know my name,” said the freshly minted star. The sensational Little Big Town was next, followed by superstar Carrie Underwood.
“I feel like I’m in a really good place,” said new mom Underwood, who was celebrating her 10th anniversary at the fest. “I don’t know what to expect for the next 10 years. As long as I enjoy what I’m doing, I consider that winning.”
V.I.P. schmoozers in attendance included Mark Bright, Allen Brown, Michelle Myers, Karen Tollier, Sirius XM’s John Marks, Forrest Sanders, Bob DiPiero & Leslie Tomasina DiPiero, Paul Barnabee and Victoria Shaw. The indefatigable Jeff Walker was again on the scene. He attended his first Fan Fair in Municipal Auditorium in 1977, and is still going strong.