Nearly 30 years later, 'O Canada' still hits the right notes at Howser
This was not like the Canada Day celebrations back home in Sarnia. Actually, it was unlike anything Mitch Bigras ever experienced.
Boston College came to Tallahassee for a three-game series against the Florida State baseball team in 2015. Bigras, a freshman at the time, was on the bench when he began hearing an extremely familiar song in the bottom of the fifth inning.
The tune? "O Canada," otherwise known as the Canadian National Anthem.
"My eyes kinda shot open and I was like, 'Oh, wow!'" said Bigras, a Sarnia, Ontario, native who is now a junior at BC. "I thought, 'I hadn't heard this for a while.' You don't hear the Canadian National Anthem too often."
Baseball is known for its oddities, traditions and superstitions. Signing "O Canada" whenever FSU is up to bat in the fifth inning checks the box for all three.
The anthem is sung primarily by The Animals of Section B, the assorted collection of die-hard Seminole baseball fans, whose sole mission is to make Dick Howser Stadium one of college baseball's most intimidating venues.
Shannon Thomas, who is the "zookeper" of the Animals of Section B, said the group began signing "O Canada" in 1988 when the Winter Olympics were being held in Calgary.
"It was just watching the Olympics every day and hearing the anthem every day," said Thomas, a 1999 FSU graduate who joined the group in 2000. "It was in their minds. [FSU] was losing and they thought, 'Hey. Let's hum the Canadian National Anthem.' And the won, and it's been a tradition ever since."
It's become more than a tradition. Signing "O Canada" has become a full-on performance like no other.
The Animals sit in a section of Howser more than 20 rows behind the FSU dugout. Before they start signing, they unfurl a massive Canadian flag which is held by two people while the rest of the group waves smaller Canadian flags attached to sticks.
So, what's it like to be an opposing Canadian player hearing your national anthem in Florida of all places?
"Every time we come up to FSU, it's something I think about," said Stetson junior Ben Onyshko, who is from Winnipeg. "I tell guys to wait for the fifth inning and they'll see. It's definitely unique."
Onyshko said he first heard the Animals sing "O Canada" when he was a freshman. He didn't realize it was a tradition but initially thought FSU's fans were playing mind games because he's Canadian.
FSU was up 1-0 when Onyshko, who was a relief pitcher at the time, took the mound in the bottom of the fifth. Minutes after the anthem was sung, he surrendered a walk, a balk and a double and only faced two batters. He was shortly pulled in favor of another pitcher.
"I was on the mound and had no clue what was going on. I was totally rattled," Onyshko recalled. "I thought they knew I was Canadian and their fans were messing with me."
But that's not to say he didn't appreciate hearing the anthem.
"It was cool to be surprised by it," he said. "I had no idea the first time it was going to happen. Afterward, I had a few of the older guys tell me. I think they were keeping it a secret because they knew it was coming."
While the song might surprise Canadian visitors, it's become one of the more familiar aspects of a game at Howser -- nearly 30 years after the tradition began.
Thomas said the Animals have received several Canadian-centric gifts from people over time. The family of one of FSU's bullpen catchers sent the group a bag of the small Canadian flags they currently use. A married couple, who are FSU alums living in South Carolina, gave the group the big flag they frequently display.
And then there's the latest twist: Now the group has someone who dresses as a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police -- otherwise known as a "Mountie" -- while they sing.
The Mountie is actually John Viele, who graduated from FSU in 1988. Viele wears a Mountie T-shirt, much like a tuxedo T-shirt, a pair of black pants and a brown ranger hat to complete the look.
Viele, during the anthem, holds a salute while signing "O Canada" with the rest of the Animals.
"Well, there's a lot of yuks, but I've heard some pretty positive feedback," Viele said of the costume. "I heard [FSU baseball coach Mike Martin's wife, Carol] was pretty happy with it. I actually had someone come up and thank me for doing it."