Organist Nelson has become Twins institution

MINNEAPOLIS — This is more than just a musical instrument.

Perched high above the infield at Target Field, just a shade toward third base, Sue Nelson’s organ is tucked among the red- and blue-clad bodies. Yes, it’s the property of the Minnesota Twins, but in name only. The instrument still somehow belongs to Nelson.

It’s covered in Crayola-colored drawings she’s been given and photos of her with Twins greats such as Harmon Killebrew. It’s set to just the right height after its initial position made it hard for Nelson to see home plate. The organ is her seat, her perch overlooking the game.

A casual observer knows Nelson for the tunes she plays from memory during games, but a real Twins fan has a better idea of the real Sue Nelson. Hang around Target Field long enough, and you’ll strike up a conversation with her, perhaps without even trying. Before any given game, she might stop in the press box to chat with the attendants. In the elevator on the way back up to Level 5, she won’t be able to resist a conversation with the operator. At nearly every corner, there’s a relationship, a few quick words in Nelson’s melodic Minnesota voice.

The Twins don’t just have an organist. They have Sue Nelson. They have an institution.

In her 14th season as Twins organist, Nelson has become something of a face for Target Field, as much as she wants to deny it. At her space in 2 Gingers Pub, Nelson is a destination for new ballpark visitors and regulars alike. It’s so different from the Metrodome, where she played in the football press box and received only the visitors who knew where she was hiding.

The move has become something of a dream come true for Nelson, who’s been playing at pro sporting events since 1981. When she first learned the Twins were going to get a new stadium, she never thought she’d have her very own piano bar. Even when her bosses informed her of the plan, she was skeptical, never quite believing her job could become the three-hour mingling session that it is today.

Nelson’s situation is even more unique given the current state of organists in Major League Baseball. Organ music at ballparks is a long-standing tradition, dating back to Wrigley Field in 1941, but in the past decade and a half, organists have found themselves in ever more tenuous positions. Some new ballparks are built without space for organs, and when older organists retire or die, teams can be leery to replace them.

This season, only 17 of 30 MLB stadiums use live organists. However, that’s up from the recent past; teams including the Braves and Brewers have brought back organ music after seasons without it, and the Giants created an organist position in 2010, 10 years after AT&T Park was built without an instrument.

For someone like Nelson, whose life events are intricately tied to the organ, the situation around the league must be unsettling. She’s known from her first day on the job, however, that her position isn’t guaranteed, and she looks at each game behind her organ as a privilege.

In 1981, Nelson got her first gig as an organist for a pro team when the Minnesota North Stars’ organist quit. She’d tried out for the spot earlier in the season, but the team hired the person it determined to be the best musician. A few months later, he was gone, too concerned with his musical freedom to enjoy the cheerleading job of an organist. Nelson stepped in for the end of the regular season and the playoffs, when the team made it to the Stanley Cup Final. She was back again for the 1981-82 season, when she was pregnant with her daughter, Joelle.

Nelson’s pregnancy brought her first job scare. She was worried the team wouldn’t let a pregnant woman play the organ, but her fears were unfounded. Joelle was born Nov. 12, 1981, the day after the North Stars defeated the Jets 15-2. Nelson remembers each of the 16 times (one goal was called back) that she had to reach up and hit the goal siren that night before she gave birth. Afterward, she missed just one home game, on Nov. 14, 1981, and the job was hers off and on until 1992, when the team decided to hire a band to replace her.

Nelson is still incredulous about the decision. Even Palmer Harbison, the Wild’s current organist and a member of that very band, remembers it as a unique choice — and it didn’t last.

“You can say, ‘Oh, there’s a whistle. What are we going to play?’ ” Nelson joked.

From then until 1999, when she took the Twins job, Nelson dabbled in organ music, playing at sporting events around town. She also began to attend Twins games more often when her friends couldn’t attend the day games in their $82 season-ticket plans. She’d sit by then-organist Ronnie Newman, chatting for no reason other than the company.

She had known Newman — whom Nelson’s kids called “that man with the funny voice” — since 1984. They’d become friends over the years, and little did Nelson know that those conversations would win her a job.

“He was a musician,” Nelson said. “He was a drinker and a carouser and a smoker. He had this voice. He was always old, and you just didn’t think he was certainly ever going to get sick. It wasn’t part of what my thinking was.

“I just went because I enjoyed it and I enjoyed visiting with him.”

It’s been more than a decade since Nelson took over for Newman, but for her, it’s easier to mark the time with other events. It’s been a new ballpark. It’s been the growth of a relationship with just one player, Michael Cuddyer, whose Twins jersey Nelson still owns. It’s been bad walk-up music and new rules, playoff series and seasons of struggle.

When the Twins built Target Field, there was no discussion of a stadium without an organist. Andy Price, the Twins’ senior director of broadcasting and game presentation, said that as long as he’s around, the Twins will have an organist and that conversations about cutting the position have never amounted to anything.

“For the dollars we spend, we get . . . far more good than the bottom line shows,” Price said.

They get an ambassador, a cheerleader, a landmark. What’s most remarkable about Nelson isn’t her music. It’s that she’s managed to replace an icon, Newman, and become one herself, something few organists in recent years have achieved. She’s subject to tighter rules than her predecessor, forbidden to play tunes that might insult opposing players, things like “Hit the Road Jack” and “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.” She can’t leave M&M’S in a bowl on the organ and call them pills, like Newman did. She knows her limits, and she remains in them, the consummate cheerleader decades after she wielded her pompoms in high school.

Being an organist is “a lot of the standard same old, same old that gets people clapping their hands and cheering along and chanting,” Harbison said. But that’s the job in its simplest form. Nelson’s job is everything from “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (her favorite song, the only one she gets to finish) to talking with tipsy fans who refuse to stop asking her to take requests that she categorically denies. She handles it all with a smile and a laugh, and it’s people like Sue Nelson who will keep organ music alive.

“We see her as . . . an ambassador toward baseball by playing live music during the game because people gravitate toward her,” Price said of Nelson.

It’s hard to call it a resurgence when a few teams bring back organists, but it’s an encouraging development. Fans don’t want prerecorded tunes. They want personalities, variation, and Nelson said that she’s most pleased when she hears which fans are demanding the return of live organists.

“I’m always amazed that it’s young people . . . that come and tell me that,” Nelson said. “It’s not only the old people (who like organ music). It’s the 40s and 50s that say, ‘We need more Van Halen and we need more rap or hip-hop.’ “

Nelson shudders when she thinks back to the first time she visited Comerica Park in Detroit. The ballpark was lovely, she said, until the inhouse music started blaring out of the speakers. To Nelson, it was “raucous, just awful.” It didn’t fit with the experience of a ballpark on a summer night.

Music like that might be easy, but like Nelson said, it’s out of place. It’s the opposite of what she’s achieved at Target Field, her complete integration into the park and the experience. Occasionally people recognize her outside the stadium, but Nelson doesn’t want to be a celebrity. She wants to be secondary to the game and the players, but sometimes that’s impossible.

On her first day in her new piano bar in 2010, Kent Hrbek and his wife, Jeanie, stopped by to see how Nelson was doing. Did she like her spot, they asked? Was she happy?

She blushes as she tells the story. She was so flattered, she said, so concerned that Hrbek had better things to do than talk to her. After a bit, she shooed him away. It was time to become a part of the game, time to play her organ.

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