This has been the summer of anticipation for Braves fans. Who will step up to pull out the next victory: the big rookie, the utilityman, the closer or someone new?
Another buzz, both loud and subtle, hovers high above Turner Field, even into the wireless cloud of Twitter messages.
“Can’t wait to see what @bravesorganist has in store for tonight!” types @drmellow, a fan headed to a home game in late July.
Organist Matthew Kaminski (aka @bravesorganist on Twitter) conducts a musical game of quick-witted pranks on the visiting batters, making his fans anticipate his next serenade.
As diminutive Padres batter David Eckstein walked to the plate, Kaminski tapped out the theme from “Mighty Mouse” (a more polite choice than earlier riffs from “Short People” and “It’s a Small World”).
“That is brilliant,” tweeted @wezen_ball.
Outfielder Matt Stairs entered the lineup as Kaminski rolled out “Stairway to Heaven.” On went the song puns for the 30,621 fans watching another Braves comeback win in late July.
Speaking from his press-box console between batters, a relaxed Kaminski loves the attention as a cult figure across the National League. His only wish now is to entertain even closer to the main action.
“I would love to be in the middle of the crowd,” he said. “Like the guy at the Thrashers is.”
Kaminski, 33, would have never said that a few years ago, or even taken a gig like this. Performance anxiety made him sweaty and nerve-wracked. His own wistful soundtrack was straight out of the Beach Boys:
Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true/Baby then there wouldn’t be a single thing we couldn’t do.
Family of musicians
Kaminski grew up near the flight path of Chicago’s O’Hare airport, the first American son in a family of Polish musicians.
His dad, Chester, grandfather, Wladyslaw, and great-grandfather, Franciszek, learned to play accordion and other instruments by ear in the old country. Matthew would be the first trained one. He wasn’t given a choice.
Parties for 70-some relatives would always include Dad bringing out the accordion or organ and summoning his son. When Kaminski resisted, relatives bribed him with dollars. “I liked music, but I didn’t always like being showed off,” he said.
At parties elsewhere, Dad always brought a keyboard along for Matthew to perform. He steered the family on vacations to theme parks ... to see the musical performances. “We cried and whined to go on the rides,” Kaminski said. “My dad loves Elvis.”
By middle school, Kaminski quit music lessons, but the absence made him realize he loved music. He entered college wanting to become a professional musician, and his family supported that dream despite the odds for someone so shy.
“He was nervous, oh my gosh,” his father said. “When he came on stage, he forgot what to play. He would start, and in the music you could tell the difference, how nervous he was.”
The pursuit of perfection showed in Kaminski’s tears when he got a “B” as a child, and even in his neat-freak bedroom as he grew up. “He could wake up at 3 a.m. and know exactly where everything was at,” his dad said.
Kaminski enrolled at Georgia State, taking jazz piano from Kevin Bales.
“Musicians tend to be shy, that’s why they pour themselves in the music ... but Matthew always seemed a little shy [even] for a musician,” Bales said. “Part of my teaching was to push him to take more risks, not just play what he knows. He has good music in him.”
Had Kaminski been a ballplayer, scouts would have said he had the skills, but lacked the confidence. He needed to feel the music for himself, the way his forefathers had.
So after graduating in 2000, he jumped into the minor leagues of professional music to stretch his comfort zone. He took any and every gig he could.
He played accordion for an Edith Piaf impersonator in Birmingham. He played for a burlesque group, The Dames Aflame. He played polka with a band called Lawrentz Un Die Katzen.
Many times he had no chance to read the music, or there just wasn’t any. Like Kaminskis before him, he had to rely on his ear.
Similar to this year’s Braves, Kaminski began to find ways to always make do. He learned to forgive his own imperfections, relax and trust himself.
“One note off here and there, I’m now like, ‘I meant to play that!’” he said.
Kaminski regularly moonlights with Orquesta MaCuba, a salsa band that has backed up a dozen Latin Grammy winners.
“Matthew reads it, plays it and feels it,” said band owner and director Eddie J. Lopez, before MaCuba played recently at Loca Luna in Midtown.
Lopez sees Kaminski’s journey from stage fright as parallel to that of baseball prospects in Cuba, where his lead singer/wife, Mayi, was born.
“They strive to be better than anybody else because they have nothing to lose,” Lopez said.
The Braves gig
Last season, Kaminski was juggling grad school, a family and other gigs when one of his 30 piano students mentioned the Braves needed an organist. Kaminski had spent almost a decade saying yes and sweating less. Performance anxiety was so last season.
“Getting the Braves gig didn’t make him a better musician, but it validated his musicianship,” Bales said.
“He’s another reason for people to come to the ballpark [because] he took the risk of not playing the typical ballpark music. Having that affirmed from that many people brought out the very confident musician that was hidden inside Matthew.”
His father is beyond proud: “Now 40,000 people don’t bother him,” Chester Kaminski said. “He never gave up.”
Today if this Wizard of Ahah!s had to play his own walk-up song, he would choose another Beach Boys favorite:
I’m pickin’ up good vibrations ...