From ''Sharp Dressed Man' to 'Charge!' how baseball and Dome tunes mesh
'Tis the season for baseball frenzy, but no one can rattle off sports statistics like Sue Nelson, the Metrodome's organist.
This cheerleading artisan has to watch the game as closely as the players do. "I can't ever play at the wrong time -- that's the worst," says Nelson; imagine a rousing "Charge" being solicited from the crowd when the visiting team is up at bat.
Nelson has no problem keeping teams and players straight; she's in love with America's favorite pastime.
While many stadiums today use automated organs instead of employing an organist, it's obvious when you go to the Metrodome that there's a real live human up in the booth, gently whipping the crowd into a frenzy with well-timed cheers/ditties.
Nelson says she would love to pound the keys and rouse a 40,000-person crowd at every opportunity, but her bosses have reined her in a bit. "They really try to hold me down to not play at every single instance. I can't cheerlead, I cannot do any cheers, until we have someone on first base. But, you know, most of the time now, we do." (At press time, the Twins were in first place.)
Nelson won't disclose her age -- "No one knows how old I am," she says with a laugh -- but admits to belonging to a generation that didn't believe girls should play sports.
"When I was in high school, [the girls] played only on the half-court of the basketball court," she says. "It was so stupid! They
had such a tiny budget for girls' sports back then because we weren't worth much, don'tcha know."
Nelson learned to play something more in tune with the tastes of the time, the piano. She worked in music stores and performed in piano bars to make a living. She also worked trade shows at the State Fair, demonstrating to passersby how easy it was for the "average person" to play the organ. "Because of that [experience], I got to be able to talk and play at the same time and not be dependent on reading music" -- and spontaneous playing is key in her current work.
In 1981, Nelson was hired to play the North Star hockey games, and from there, Minnesota Strikers soccer games. "When the Minnesota Strikers came to town and started playing at the Dome, [longtime Metrodome organist] Ronnie Newman called me up and says, 'I just don't understand this game. They can't touch the ball with their hands, and they hit it with their heads. I don't want anything to do with this game. Will you come and help me?' And then we got to be friends."
Newman handled the Twins games and Nelson took care of the Strikers until 1998 when Newman retired (after 21 seasons).
At that point, the Twins could've replaced Newman with an automated organ that plays at the push of a button and/or at preprogrammed times, but they choose to promote Nelson instead.
"You can't possibly be with the fans if it's an automated organist because you can't slow it down or speed it up. . . . it's exactly the same tempo," Newman explained. "You can't do what the fans want. I can stay right with them, because I'm right there in the middle of the crowd."
Literally in the middle of the crowd -- her booth is located in the stands between right and center field (if it were an actual section, it'd be "Section 109").
However, in addition to staying with the fans, Nelson says she also has to "push the crowd with the music . . . You have to be just that little bit ahead of them."
'Back in Black'?
While the familiar strains of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and the tension-building notes leading up to the traditional group chant of "Charge!" are recognizable to even the most casual of fans, this is only a part of the music used in baseball games.
Since the '80s, contemporary music has found its way into our national pastime, most obviously as players walk up to bat, or to the mound.
At the Metrodome, the man responsible for matching players with their signature songs is Twins' Musical Director Kevin Dutcher. Dutcher spent years working in theatrical sound design in theater companies around the Twin Cities before being hired by the Twins to play the Metrodome shows.
"I think my background in theater is one of the reasons I got this job," says Dutcher. "A theatrical sound designer enhances the performance, it enhances the drama."
At the Dome, Dutcher is closely tuned in to players' performances and the vibe of the crowd. In addition to picking moments to "to work everybody into a frenzy," Dutcher also helps establish Twins traditions.
"Part of the idea of the walk-up music is that it's fun to know. If you're in line getting a hot dog, you hear Cristian Guzman's music, you know he's coming up to bat," Dutcher says. "I try to make it so that people can associate the music with the person."
Of course, some players, such as Jacque Jones, prefer to mix up "their" music. "Every few weeks, I'll get a new song from Jacque, and I enter that into the rotation, and it's generally some fairly current hip-hop or rap music. And then the challenge is to try to find a couple seconds of the song that's appropriate to broadcast in a public forum. It can't have any cursing in it, obviously," adds Dutcher, himself a new father, laughing.
However, Dutcher says he picks walk-up songs almost randomly much of the time; trusting that players will let him know later if they object, which they rarely do.
"When A.J. Pierzynski was a Twin, I just started playing 'Sharp Dressed Man' by ZZ Top one time, because I thought it was kind of funny, and then we didn't change it for four years. He never asked me to, and it kind of became his tune."
While some song choices seem to make sense -- Corey Koskie is from Canada, and his walk-up song is "Tom Sawyer," by Rush, a Canadian band -- other song selections seem to come from out of left field. For example, Canadian Justin Morneau's theme is "Back in Black" by ACDC, who hail from Australia.
"You know, don't try to think about it," says Dutcher, laughing. "'Back in Black' is the song he asked me to play. That's all there is to it."