Organist’s touch tickles Braves fans

For the past four years, the Atlanta Braves had used recorded organ music for games at Turner Field, but it wasn’t the same. Fans heard the familiar, traditional sound of an organ, but without a living, breathing, musician making decisions at the keys, who was going to make them laugh?

And who has organ recordings of Radiohead?

That’s just one creative touch that has come from the fingertips of Braves organist Matthew Kaminski, who is in his first season with the team. From his perch at the electronic keyboard in the Turner Field press box, Kaminski usually has something worthy of a chuckle up his sleeve.

He serenades opposing players as they walk to the plate and amuses fans along the way.

The 32-year-old Chicago transplant and piano teacher wasn’t sure how Braves fans would react when their former first baseman Mark Teixeira stepped to the plate as a member of the New York Yankees last month. Kaminski had planned to play the Georgia Tech fight song because Teixeira played for the Yellow Jackets, but after hearing boos from the crowd, Kaminski greeted Teixeira with Radiohead’s “Creep.”

“I was at every game of the Yankees series and got a great laugh each time ‘Tex’ came to bat,” said Braves fan Ryan Martz, a recent Georgia Tech graduate from Woodbine who calls or texts friends when he hears a funny song at a game.

“It gives me a lot of pride as a Braves fan when our organist can cleverly throw a little jab at the opposing team without it being so obvious. Since we are Southerners at heart, we know how to be hospitable to visiting fans, but at the same time it’s fun to poke fun at their players.”

It’s not always a jab, just a subtle play on their names. Fans might need a minute to recognize that he’s playing the theme to “National Lampoon’s Vacation” for Chase Utley of the Philadelphia Phillies because of Chevy Chase, the “One Day at a Time” theme for New York Mets catcher Brian Schneider because of superintendent Schneider on the TV show or a Bach minuet for Phillies catcher Paul Bako.

With some brainstorming help from his wife, Kathleen, or maybe a co-worker in the Braves audio room, Kaminski comes up with a song. If he doesn’t have the sheet music, he’ll find it on and learn it by ear, sometimes within minutes of testing it out on the fans.

“I like coming up with songs and seeing if people respond to them,” said Kaminski, who gets his feedback from friends in the stands, from reading Twitter or from watching fans do, say, the “Chicken Dance” on the big video screen.

“It seems like people are really responding to the ‘Chicken Dance.’ I thought that might be a little too corny.”

But fans are getting the obscure references, too, such as when Kaminski played the Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein” on Tuesday night when Giants’ shortstop Edgar Renteria came to the plate.

Braves fan Randy Starr, 27, of Atlanta, got it and loved it.

“My little brother and I are music nuts and baseball nuts, and we have games to see who can guess the reference first,” Starr said. “... It’s been the coolest thing they’ve added to Turner Field in years. It’s kind of a throwback. And it’s not a commercial.”

Kaminski is subtle. He’s clever. He’s exactly what the Braves were looking for when they hired him before the start of the season.

“I feel like a genius for finding him,” said Scott Cunningham, the Braves’ director of game entertainment. “I’m very pleased with how it’s turned out.”

Cunningham joined the Braves in 2005, the year after former organist Carolyn King Jones retired after playing at Braves games for 17 years. That was the year the Braves got a high-definition video board that measures 71 feet by 79 feet and gutted the control room — organ included — to make room for the necessary equipment.

So the Braves used canned organ music and compact discs to entertain the fans, but something was missing, and Cunningham knew it.

“It just gives you that old-timey feel,” Cunningham said. “An organist can give you thousands of songs and can play in any situation.”

One of his employees in the Braves control room had a friend taking organ lessons from Kaminski, who is a jazz musician at heart and can play the piano, organ and accordion. After Kaminski’s tryout and a trial run during two exhibition games, the Braves were sold. Now they are among only 16 of 30 major league teams that use a live organist.

It’s old-school, and that’s perfect for Kaminski, who grew up a Chicago Cubs fan, going to games at Wrigley Field and listening to the organist accompany Harry Caray, the team’s TV broadcaster, as he famously led the crowd in singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” “This is a dream job,” Kaminski said. “I just sit and have fun and watch the game and play some songs.”