April 3, 2017
Take Me Out to the Ballgame
Sue Nelson is hard at work playing for the Minnesota Twins—playing organ, that is.
The stakes are high: it’s Game 163 of the 2009 baseball season, we’re in extra innings and the score is tied. We need the runner now on second base to score the winning run—a trip to the playoffs is on the line! It’s the most important game of the season, and I’m hard at work playing for the Minnesota Twins—playing organ, that is.
My fabulous job as the ballpark organist is full of moments like this, as thrilling as the game itself, because the job requires me to be in the game. Unlike a symphony musician who follows a score and a conductor, I have to decide what’s appropriate to play minute by minute, as the action unfolds on the ball field.
Not that there aren’t rules: they’re very specific, for me and the other 10 or 12 major league baseball organists around the country. I can (and do) play when the umpires, ground rules and opposing team are announced. I play chords in rising-key sequences for the other team’s outs and any time the catcher walks out to talk to the pitcher. I play at the top of the sixth inning, when the kids come out to change the bases. But rarely for situations other than these—and never, ever when a batter steps up to the box: that’s a universal rule in baseball.
What’s most fun is using my organ to rev up the fans when we have someone in scoring position, on second or third base. The better the Twins do, the more I get to play, and the more I love it. When a game is close, I don’t get nervous: I get excited. Yet despite the fact that my hands are on the keyboard, somehow my fingernails get shorter.
As for what I play—I get to choose from just about the entire world of music. I play different cheers with lyrics in my head like “Here you go, Mike” and “Let’s go, Joe.” Right up there with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” I love Sousa marches and music with lively rhythm like Billy Joel’s Root Beer Rag. Though I don’t often see an opening for my all-time favorite composer, Mozart, there are plenty of classical pieces that work well, like the Suppé overture Poet and Peasant, Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld and the Thunder and Lightning and Tritsch-Tratsch polkas, by Johann Strauss Senior and Junior, respectively. But there are a few limits. All ballpark organists know about a certain occasion when an umpire made a really bad call, you might say a blind call. The organist played “Three Blind Mice"—and got fired for it. One time, after the Twins had played a very slow 14-inning game, which seemed all the longer because they played badly, I used “Show Me the Way to Go Home”—people had a good laugh, and I still have my job!
People ask how I got where I am, and I answer: by loving music and sports, and being open to whatever life brings. I was hooked on baseball at the age of five, when I saw my first Twins game on Grandma’s TV. Being a basketball cheerleader in high school showed me how much I love whipping the fans into a frenzy. A job in an organ store that involved performing as well as selling, stints as church organist and piano bar player, a friend’s insistence that I close the music books and trust myself to improvise, and teaching piano to thousands of kids—all these played a role. They prepared me for hockey gigs with the North Stars, then Gophers and Strikers games, and now my current job. They made me what I am—someone who loves cheerleading with music.
I aim to keep going with the flow, seeing where things take me. And whether I’m visiting grade school classrooms and encouraging kids to practice, or heading for Northwoods League games in Mankato with my pal Wally the Beer Man, my keyboard will be right there.