Jim Sikorski says the organization has always treated him with the utmost respect.
By Ryan M. Leach
Everyone at Minute Maid Park seems to know Jim Sikorski. From the ticket attendants to Houston Astros president Reid Ryan, they all greet him with excited smiles and warm handshakes.
Sikorski is a rare openly gay fixture in Major League Baseball, having regularly performed the national anthem before Astros games since 1980.
“There have only been two seasons where I sang only once,” Sikorski says. “That was my first season in 1980, and then again in 2000 when they opened the new stadium. Everyone wanted to sing that year.”
Although many Astros fans are familiar with his bright tenor voice, they probably don’t realize that Sikorski is also a longtime LGBTQ activist, as well as a veteran actor who’s performed with the likes of Theatre Under the Stars and Houston Grand Opera.
From the Midwest to Montrose
In the late 1970s, Sikorski moved to Houston from his hometown of Milwaukee to take a job as a teacher at Dulles High School in Sugar Land. Sikorski was in his 20s and recalls coming out in the Bayou City, then one of the nation’s few gay meccas.
“It was around 1982 or ’83, and I went to Numbers that night,” Sikorski recalls. “I noticed this guy wearing a DECA [Distributive Education Clubs of America] jacket, because I was a teacher as well. I started talking to him. His cousin then met us and we became friends, and I just thought, ‘There are people just like me.’ Then we formed this little group of friends.”
It was a tumultuous time for the local queer community. The AIDS epidemic was beginning to emerge, and violence—perpetrated by both criminals and police officers—was common in Montrose.
“I had a friend who was attacked on a side street near JR’s,” Sikorski says. “He was hit in the head with the butt of a rifle, and they stole his wallet and car. That was not an uncommon occurrence in those days. It wasn’t until Kathy Whitmire became mayor that things started to change. When [gay banker] Paul [Broussard] was murdered [in 1991], the media finally started to focus on what was going on.”
Across the nation, young gay men like Sikorski were dealing with the harsh reality of the early days of AIDS.
“Every Friday we would go down to Montrose and pick up the T.W.I.T. [This Week in Texas], which was a gay magazine that told us the latest news in the community,” he says. “By the time the late ’80s and early ’90s rolled around, it was more like a death notice. I remember thinking that I just couldn’t go to another memorial service or funeral. I don’t know exactly how many friends I lost, but it was many, many, many.”
Sikorski wanted to do something to support the community and the organizations that were emerging, so he started throwing a Christmas party that’s become an annual tradition. In its inaugural year, partygoers brought canned goods to support Stone Soup, a food pantry that served the Montrose community and those living with HIV/AIDS until the early 2000s. The party has grown every year since then, and Sikorski now hosts it at Gloria’s Latin Cuisine in Midtown.
“Every year I underwrite the party, and it always supports a cause, but there is no suggested donation,” he says. “Guests just give what they can. I think it is important to provide an opportunity for everyone to give back. I was invited to a black-tie event one year, and the tickets were $75, which was a lot of money back then. I just thought that those ticket costs can be prohibitive for so many people who want to contribute but can’t afford to, so I make sure this party provides an opportunity for everyone.”
A Performer at Heart
You can see Sikorski come alive as he performs in front of thousands of Astros fans in Minute Maid Park. After 30 years, he shows no signs of being nervous, and he has no reason to be. He’s a seasoned professional who was trained in vocal performance at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater near his hometown.
“I was going through a period in my life where I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do,” he recalls, adding that he happened upon the university while driving around, and walked in to check out the academic programming. “This professor came up to me and asked me what I was interested in, and then he asked me if I was interested in auditioning right there, that day,” Sikorski says.
He found some music that he knew and performed it for the professor and a few other faculty members.
“I stepped outside, and then when I went back in they asked me if I would like to enroll, and said that if I did, I would be eligible to receive a scholarship—all that same day,” he says.
When he moved to Houston after graduation, Sikorski led a quartet called The Innsiders that was invited to sing at an Astros game. After the performance, Sikorski casually asked if the Astros were looking for regular national-anthem singers. They were, and the rest is history.
But Sikorski’s performances have hardly been limited to the ballpark. In 1981, Sikorski called TUTS to inquire about a production of The Music Man that was about to open. He asked management if they’d found a barbershop quartet—an integral part of the production. To his surprise, they hadn’t, so he assembled his group.
“We arrived at the rehearsal space, and when we got there, they shouted, ‘The quartet is here!’ I kept thinking, ‘This is so stupid. We could be awful!’”
The quartet was hired, and performed in the production at Miller Outdoor Theatre where they were a big hit. Sikorski performed several more times with TUTS in productions like Brigadoon and My Fair Lady, which led to a connection with the HGO. One of Sikorski’s fondest memories came during a 1984 production of Sweeney Todd, which had just finished a successful Broadway run. Stephen Sondheim himself traveled to Houston to work with the production.
“It was exciting seeing him work with the performers,” he says. “It was like watching a kid in a candy store. He would hear things, and it would just come alive for him. He was also out at the leather bars every night.”
Out on the Field
Sikorski now works as a donor-relations representative for the United Way, where’s he’s made a career out of his ability to motivate people to give. And he still gives of his own time to sing for the Astros.
Although there’s been tension between the Astros and the LGBTQ community at times, Sikorski says he has always been treated with the utmost respect, and he calls former team owner Drayton McLane a friend.
Sikorski receives no compensation for his ballpark performances, outside of free tickets to the games. He says he does it because he genuinely loves to sing. Over the years, he’s met Astros greats Nolan Ryan, Craig Biggio, and Jeff Bagwell. He was there when the team went to the World Series in 2005, and he’s been there when they were nowhere near the World Series. Sikorski has witnessed both the team and the city change.
As Sikorski waited to take the field before a game in August, team president Ryan shook his hand and said, “Hey Jim, I am glad you’re here.”
“He’s a great singer,” Ryan told those standing nearby.
A great singer, and a whole lot more. •
Watch Sikorski perform both the national anthem and the Canadian national anthem below:
This article appears in the September 2017 edition of OutSmart Magazine.