Sue Nelson is in her 13th season as the Organ Lady for the Minnesota Twins, to which we can only say, "Here we go, Sue, here we go!"
We are putty in Sue Nelson's hands.
She plays ba-ba-ba-BAH-pa-BAH, and we are compelled to yell, "Charge!"
She plays BUM-pum-pum-pum, BUM-pum-pum-pum, ever rising, ever accelerating, and we start clapping louder and faster.
When Nelson plays the opening notes of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in this, her 13th season as organist for the Minnesota Twins, the emerald bowl of Target Field reverberates with a sound as warm and hokey as she is.
Sitting in an enclosed terrace high above home plate, Nelson keeps a window slid open to hear the action, despite the loudspeaker blaring play-by-play at her shoulder. She's not a musician who accompanies sporting events, but an ardent fan who happens to play the organ. Her chin follows each pop-up, and her shoulders sag with every third strike. And when it's not baseball season, she's the rink organist for high school hockey teams.
Nelson is such a sports fan that she links her daughter's birth to when she played organ for the Minnesota North Stars. "Joelle was born the day after we beat Winnipeg 15-2," she said. "I had to work the goal siren 16 times that game." Sixteen? "One goal was called back."
Nelson won't reveal her age -- a third base coach would have better luck stealing a sign -- but she's been playing the organ for various teams since 1981, when the organist for the North Stars proved to be more performer than fan. He bowed out, she stepped up, and played them into the Stanley Cup finals.
The Twins' organist at the time was Ronnie Newman, who'd been playing since 1977. One day in 1984, Nelson got a call from Newman, immediately recognizing his aged, gravelly voice. "He wasn't really that old, but let's say he'd had a musician's life," she said. Newman was grumbling about this new game where they kick the ball and bounce it off their heads, "and he didn't want any part of it," she said. "So that's how I started playing organ for the Minnesota Strikers."
The fledging soccer team never drew well, "but they were the most rabid fans I've ever seen."
More innings, more notes
Along the way, a friend got season tickets for the Twins -- $82 for 82 games, Nelson recalled -- "and when he couldn't use a ticket, I would go and sit next to Ronnie, who was a fabulous musician and great fan of baseball." When Newman fell ill, he asked Nelson if she would essentially be his designated organist.
"There was no question," Nelson said. "It's a musicians union job and I don't know if anyone in the union wanted it. You have to be there day or night, and you never know if there'll be extra innings or a rain delay. My husband still asks me what time I'll be home -- drives me crazy!"
Nelson laughed. She laughs a lot, especially during a game with fans who amble by, and with those who seek her out to chat. "What I'm there for is the fans," she said. "I'm a cheerleader, just like I was in high school. When I can push the crowd, I love it."
The work has changed over the years, as games have become productions scripted down to the second. The organ's dulcet tones have given way to more canned music, usually in a volume that all but screams, "Duuuudde!"
There are more rules, such as no cheerleading tunes until a Twin is on second base. Music must stop when a player steps into the batter's box. And never, ever, play "Three Blind Mice" after a questionable call; organist Wilbur Snapp gained national fame in 1985 after being ejected for playing the tune after what Snapp considered a bad call against the Clearwater Phillies. Trivia fans, you're welcome.
Nelson, who lives in a Roseville home festooned with sports memorabilia, plays everything from memory. She hits the occasional wrong note "and while I never really do it accidentally on purpose, I do want people to know there's a real person up there."
Organists on the comeback
Nelson is one of perhaps a dozen regular organists in Major League Baseball, and increasingly among the veterans. When AT&T Park opened in 2000 in San Francisco, an organ was never installed. But the trend may be changing. The Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros brought back live organists last season after years of using canned music.
"I would never not have an organist, plain and simple," said Andy Price, senior director of broadcasting and game presentation for the Twins. "Some ballparks are canning their organists, but she brings so much goodwill to the team. Plus in the new ballpark, up there in the Twins Pub, she's so much more visible. She's a huge ambassador for the team."
Started on the piano
Nelson learned to play piano while growing up in tiny Nicollet, Minn., west of Mankato. While working at a music store in Fairmont, the boss told her -- against his better judgment, she said -- that the piano bar in town was hiring. "And that was that," she said. She loved the one-on-one with people, and the spontaneity of requests.
No wonder that the scene on Level 5 resembles a piano bar, with Nelson schmoozing and posing for photos. In the off-season, she works at the Minnesota Wild's Hockey Lodge store, enforcing the rule against bringing in food or drink. "They want a good sport doing that because people won't swear at me," she said. The same not-in-front-of-the-grandmother vibe exists around her at Target Field.
She's missed only a few games over the 13 years, once when their daughter scheduled her wedding for a Twins game day. "She was not in favor for a while, but she's gone on to have four children, so she's in my good graces again."
Nelson never has been formally introduced as part of the game experience, but she says she doesn't mind.
"I'm the Organ Lady," she said. "That's all anyone needs to remember."