In August 2009, with the Atlanta Braves hosting Philadelphia, their much-loathed division rivals, Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard approached the plate. At that moment, from high in the press box, where he’s crammed alongside sportswriters and broadcasters, Matthew Kaminski started playing a seemingly random melody on his electric Hammond organ—the theme song from The Office.
Kaminski had never actually seen the sitcom. But a few days earlier, a fan had tweeted the request to his @BravesOrganist account. “Get it?” she wrote. Kaminski, who had just started the job, didn’t get it. But a quick online search revealed that a character on the show was named after Howard. The cleverness of the selection delighted Braves fans, who still request the theme song whenever Howard returns to the Ted.
For four years before Kaminski came on board, the Braves relied on canned music, reflecting major league baseball’s pivot toward Jumbotrons and fan cams to pump up audiences. By the time the Braves’ longtime organist Carolyn King Jones retired in 2004, the instrument that once provided the soundtrack to America’s pastime could be heard at just eight big league ballparks.
But when Scott Cunningham arrived in 2005 to oversee in-game entertainment at the Ted, the former Florida Panthers exec made it his mission to revive a tradition. “Baseball is Americana,” he says. “The organ is an essential part of a baseball fan’s experience.”
Cunningham held only two auditions before hiring Kaminski, a music teacher who’d learned about the opening from a friend who worked at the stadium. But the job came with a challenge: find a way to make walk-up music clever. Cunningham had once heard an organist play the Titanic theme song for Florida Marlins infielder Dave Berg. That was the kind of playfulness he was looking for.
“A live organist can react to the game,” Cunningham says. “I gave Matt creative license to go that route.”
Kaminski, 39, is a third-generation musician but the first member of his family to be formally trained. He started organ lessons at age five in his hometown of Park Ridge, Illinois, which is coincidentally just a dozen miles or so from Wrigley Field, birthplace of the baseball organist in the early 1940s. He studied jazz and classical piano at Georgia State University, where he eventually got a master’s degree in music. Kaminski still earns most of his living from teaching and playing gigs at restaurants and jazz clubs; he even plays polka accordion at Oktoberfest events.
Kaminski’s jazz background didn’t serve him particularly well out of the gate. In his early days at the Ted, he says, “I wasn’t quite at that point where I was coming up with one song per player.” But he used YouTube to teach himself snippets of songs—sometimes between innings.
That’s where crowd sourcing came in. From fan suggestions on social media, Kaminski has incorporated a jukebox of tunes into his repertoire, from pop hits like Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” (for center fielder Michael Bourn) to the theme from Family Guy (for outfielder Seth Smith). As his Twitter account grew to more than 10,000 followers, his work became easier. Most of the songs he plays now are suggested by fans.
Kaminski’s setup in the Ted looks better suited to Booker T. than J.S. Bach. The control room was remodeled in 2004, with the old organ removed to make way for video equipment. At the start of every season, Kaminski lugs his tabletop Hammond up several flights of stairs to the cramped press box, where he hooks up a row of foot pedals and plugs it all into the stadium sound system.
In the years since the Braves’ record 14-year division title streak ended, Kaminski’s organ has provided a welcome distraction from on-the-field mediocrity. Rather than simply watch a game, fans can interact with the music, trying to figure out how the tunes relate to the action and tweeting suggestions.
Every so often, the music gets into the heads of opposing players. When Kaminski played “Camptown Races” for Lucas Duda, the New York Mets first baseman scowled. “It stopped being funny like the 300th time I heard it,” he complained to reporters after the game. Jayson Werth, a Phillies outfielder with a full beard and a mane of hair, chuckled when he heard the Doobie Brothers’ “Jesus Is Just Alright.” “I can’t believe they’re playing that song for me,” Werth reportedly said to then Braves catcher Brian McCann.
When the team relocates to SunTrust Park in Cobb County for the 2017 season, Kaminski will move into a more spacious production office. The Braves also have indicated that a permanent organ could be installed in the new space, and Kaminski is politely lobbying for a top-of-the-line Hammond B-3mk2, a stately instrument in a red walnut cabinet that costs north of $25,000. If that happens, at least one guy’s field of dreams will have come true.
Braves organist Matthew Kaminski matches opposing players with a witty walk-up tune.
(ranked on an obscurity scale from obvious to esoteric)
Music Rice-A-Roni theme
Connection The San Francisco treat.
Music “Barbie Girl” by Aqua
Connection Barbie, Ken—you get the idea.
Music The SOS distress signal
Connection It’s Morse code. Duh.
Music “Material Girl” by Madonna
Connection A-Rod had a rumored fling with Ms. Ciccone.
Music “Creep” by Radiohead
Connection The former Tech star and ex-Braves slugger is disliked by Atlanta fans.
Music “Holiday Road” by Lindsey Buckingham
Connection Shares a name with the star of National Lampoon’s Vacation, which used the song.
Music An extended G note
Connection For musicians, a no-brainer reference.
Music “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck
Connection The jazz classic was actually written by one Paul Desmond.
Music Mighty Mouse theme
Connection The shortstop is 5 foot 7. (The original choice was Randy Newman’s “Short People.”)
Music “Autumn Leaves”
Connection Composer Joseph Kosma wrote the easy-listening standard.
This article originally appeared in our April 2016 issue under the headline “Pitch man.”