How much of the patriotism and piety in sports is sincere, how much public relations?
It's a question I've often wondered while standing for 5,843 variations of "The Star-Spangled Banner" or listening to 967 recitals of "God Bless America," (the late great Kate Smith still belting it out), and seeing 231 military fly-bys (hoping they don't crash into the stadium).
Sometimes I wonder it while I'm humming the anthem or mouthing the words, watching ballplayers scratch and spit and, occasionally, fall asleep on their feet.
There's a phoniness to all the packaged patriotism that sports deploy, like the flags flapping at car dealerships. Buy a ticket, buy a car, be American. Jingoism sells.
A lot of people really love all that rally-round-the-flag stuff and take it very seriously. I've seen fights break out in the bleachers when some fans thought others who didn't doff their hats were being disrespectful.
There was curiosity, then, in seeing how Yankee Stadium fans would react Wednesday night to Toronto Blue Jays slugger Carlos Delgado, who has been refusing to stand for "God Bless America" to protest the war in Iraq.
In this most patriotic of all ballparks, where Yankees boss George Steinbrenner has cranked up the nationalistic displays since the Sept. 11 attacks, Delgado drew only a few boos when he batted and brief chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" when he lined out in the top of the seventh.
As it turned out, he didn't have to sit in the dugout when announcer Bob Sheppard introduced the song. After his line-out, Delgado headed for the clubhouse and was removed from the game, the Blue Jays trailing 10-3.
During Toronto's 1-0 loss Thursday at Yankee Stadium, Delgado heard more of the same from fans. He wasn't surprised.
"Not at all. One thing about New York is that they are passionate. You know what they like and don't like," he said.
Yet no one went nuts over Delgado. No one threw balls or bottles at him. Civility and polite political discord prevailed. Let's hope it stays that way.
The Blue Jays' franchise leader in home runs and RBIs, Delgado is that rare ballplayer who exhibits a conscience about social issues and has the conviction to express himself in his own small way.
He has chosen, most of this season, to do that by sitting in the dugout or ducking into the clubhouse during the singing of Irving Berlin's prayerful ode, introduced by Kate Smith during her radio broadcast on Armistice Day, 1938.
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said he understood Delgado's position, knew it was a sensitive subject, and wants to talk with him about it.
It was Selig who ordered all teams to play "God Bless America" in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Yankee Stadium is the only park in the majors where the song has been played every game since the attacks.
Some might see that as simply a show of patriotic support. Others might see it as a form of political persuasion, inserting God and America into a ballgame.
Delgado said he was "not trying to get anyone mad."
For him it's a personal matter, a way of expressing what he feels about an issue he believes is important.
That's more than most athletes are willing to do.