Originally created 10/13/03

35 years after anthem dispute, Feliciano returns to postseason



MIAMI -- Jose Feliciano sat on the Florida Marlins' bench during batting practice Sunday at the NL championship series and gave the seat a pat.

"I'm in the dugout," he said happily.

Feliciano returned to baseball's October spotlight after a 35-year absence, singing the national anthem before the Marlins' game against the Chicago Cubs.

It was his first postseason performance since Game 5 of the 1968 World Series, when his stylized, gospel-tinged rendition caused a dispute that derailed his career for several years.

"The reason I created a stir was because I did it with feeling," said Feliciano, who was then 23. "I sang it with soul. I thought, 'Jose, you've got a great opportunity to express what you feel for America.' I never thought in my wildest dreams I was going to cause such a stir."

Feliciano's two-minute rendition Sunday drew only cheers at Pro Player Stadium. But 35 years ago, the crowd of 50,000 at Tiger Stadium had a mixed reaction to what he termed the first nontraditional version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a major sports event.

TV viewers bombarded network phone lines with complaints, and there were calls to have the native of Puerto Rico deported. Feliciano said he was told angry war veterans threw their shoes at the television.

"Don't forgot - '68 was a turbulent year," Feliciano said.

Also upset was Mickey Lolich, the Tigers' starting pitcher that day. He complained that his pregame preparations were thrown off because Feliciano sang too long.

Radio stations boycotted the singer's records, including "Light My Fire," which had become a hit earlier that year. But Feliciano said he hadn't been that thrilled with celebrity anyway.

"In some ways I was the Ricky Martin of my time," he said. "I had the screaming girls. I had to stay in a hotel room all the time. It was not fun."

So, despite the controversy, Feliciano said he's glad he performed a version of the anthem he considers groundbreaking.

"Because of me," he said, "everybody now does the anthem in the way they want - some not so good, but ..."

On Sunday, Feliciano had the crowd cheering before he reached the final line of the lyrics. He accompanied himself on guitar and delivered a folksy, flawless performance even though he said singing in front of 65,000 people gave him butterflies.

"I always get nervous," he said. "It's like baseball. I'm sure every player who's playing today is nervous. The same goes for musicians."

Blind since birth, Feliciano moved to the United States at 5 and lives in Connecticut. He roots for the Marlins because they have several prominent Latin players, and baseball is his favorite sport.

"With football, it's not that I can't see it, because if you can hear it, you can understand it," Feliciano said. "But I'm not really much into football."