Play me a song: Braves organist charms fans, amuses players
ATLANTA (AP) — Matthew Kaminski had intended to play a Grateful Dead song as the walk-up music for Houston’s starting pitcher at the World Series.
Luis Garcia. Jerry Garcia. Get it?
Then, after getting a glimpse of the rookie pitcher’s unique wind-up against the hometown Atlanta Braves, Kaminski was suddenly stricken with a bit of inspiration.
“Listen to this,” he said, flashing a mischievous grin, his hands stirring eagerly on the keyboard.
As the Astros’ Garcia strolled to the plate in Game 3, Kaminski broke into a playful version of “Rock-A-Bye-Baby” — the perfect musical accompaniment for a rookie right-hander whose extended wind-up has been compared to someone rocking a child.
“I came up with that on the spot,” Kaminski would explain later, providing a quick primer on his quirky process for working out the melody to songs at a moment’s notice. “There are times when I get to play a song for the first time in front of 40,000 people.”
There are plenty of stars at this World Series, from Freddie Freeman to Jose Altuve, but let’s give a shout-out to the bespectacled, 44-year-old jazz lover sitting behind the Hammond SK2 organ at Truist Park.
He has no ambitions of being a star — “when someone goes into jazz, they’re not thinking of becoming famous” — but Kaminski has pulled off an impressive musical feat.
He’s made the organ cool again.
Kaminski’s eclectic taste in music, and his witty selections when opposing players come to the plate, have made him a bit of a cult figure around the suburban Atlanta ballpark.
Even Braves players pay attention to the songs Kaminski is playing for the other guys.
“I do notice it,” outfielder Adam Duvall said. “This guy is unique.”
A devoted band of social media followers eagerly await Kaminski revealing his planned selections on social media when a new team is coming to town, though all picks are subject to change.
Luis Garcia, for instance was initially supposed to get the Jerry Garcia-penned Dead song “Casey Jones,” but that idea was scuttled in favor of the song that every sleepless parent knows by heart.
Guessing why Kaminski picks a song has become a game within the game, with everyone from more than 22,000 Twitter followers ( @bravesorganist ) to the visiting media weighing in on the connection between player and tune.
Given Kaminski’s extensive repertoire — he has a master’s degree in music from Georgia State University and loves everything from 1960s Beach Boys to timeless polka ditties — that is often a tall task.
“I choose songs that I think work best on the instrument,” he explained. “Some songs just don’t work that well on the organ.”
Kaminski can’t to go too deep into his catalogue — the guessing game doesn’t really work if no one has ANY idea what he’s playing — but he clearly enjoys the perplexed looks when someone tries to figure out why, let’s say, he’s playing the “M(asterisk)A(asterisk)SH” theme for Astros slugger Carlos Correa.
“His name is Correa. Which sounds like Korea. ‘M(asterisk)A(asterisk)S(asterisk)H’ was based in Korea,” Kaminski said.
He’s not afraid to push a few buttons, either, though he’s always quick to point out that it’s all in good fun.
When Altuve led off Game 3, Kaminski regaled him with the nursery rhyme, “I’m a little teapot, short and stout.” Altuve is one of baseball’s shortest players at 5-foot-6.
“It’s just a kids’ song,” Kaminski said. “To me, that’s not mean-spirited. That’s about having home-field advantage.”
In fact, most visiting players seem to recognize that’s all in good fun.
Kaminski still remembers the reaction of now-retired outfielder Jayson Werth, who grew out his hair and sported an enormous, Grizzly Adams-like beard.
Or, to Kaminski’s eyes and then to his ears, a more biblical figure.
“He kind of resembled Jesus,” Kaminski recalled. “So I played a lot of ‘Jesus Is Just Alright’ for him.”
Werth was clearly listening.
“He would tell (former Braves catcher) Brian McCann that he couldn’t believe I just played that song for him,” Kaminski related. “He wasn’t really complaining. He thought it was funny.”
And now, a quick musical quiz.
Here are some of the other songs Kaminski played for Houston’s players during the World Series. See if you can figure out the connection. (Answers will be provided later, promise.)
— Michael Brantley. “Takin’ It to the Streets.”
— Yordan Álvarez. “River of Jordan.”
— Kyle Tucker. “Can’t You See” and “Delta Dawn.”
— Yuli Gurriel. “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.”
— Martin Maldonado. “That’s Amore.”
— Another Correa song: “Spain.”
Bonus points for this one:
— Alex Bregman. “I Am The Walrus.”
Kaminski became the Braves’ organist in 2009, landing the job through the friend of a friend. He’s now performed at more than 1,000 games, starting at Turner Field and moving with the team to Truist Park five seasons ago.
Living in suburban Atlanta with his wife, Kathleen, and their two daughters, 11-year-old Allison and 8-year-old Sarah, he performs around town in various groups — though the pandemic has cut into his performing schedule — and gives private lessons.
“Everything that encompasses being a musician — teacher, performer, whatever — that’s me,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s all one thing.”
A native of the Chicago suburbs, Kaminski moved South along with his parents after initially enrolling at the University of Arizona. He always loved music and was drawn to instruments with keyboards, learning to play the organ, piano and accordion.
His musical tastes are sprawling — jazz, classical, salsa, rock, polka, harmonies — but he concedes to one glaring blind spot.
“Popular music of the last 10 years, maybe the last 20 years, is where my music knowledge is lacking,” he said.
That’s where he turns to his wife and kids for guidance.
“They’re teaching me about Dua Lipa and The Weeknd,” Kaminski quipped.
While the organ was once a staple at ballparks and sports venues, it has become increasingly expendable in a world of changing tastes. Only about half of major league stadiums still employ an organist, the others relying exclusively on piped-in music and other off-field shenanigans.
Kaminski takes issue with those who call the organ old-fashioned.
“When I say I’m an organist, a lot of people think I just play in a church,” he said. “But I think the organ is so hip. If you watch any rock band on TV, even country bands, there’s still an organist in a lot of bands.
“It’s not out front all the time,” he added. “But you’d be surprised. If you listen to the radio, listen really closely, the organ is there a lot of times. Perhaps I’m doing my little part of make it more popular in sports.”
So, are you finished taking the quiz?
Here are the answers:
— Brantley. “Takin’ It to the Streets” was the title track of the first Doobie Brothers album sung by Michael McDonald. He shares a first name with Brantley.
— Alvarez. “River of Jordan” was sung by Peter, Paul and Mary, but Kaminski was inspired by its hilarious cameo in the epic movie comedy “Airplane!”
— Tucker. “Can’t You See” was a hit for The Marshall Tucker Band, while Tanya Tucker sung “Delta Dawn.”
— Gurriel. Kaminski went with “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” because of the similarity between the player’s name and the word “girl.”
— Maldonado. “That’s Amore” was a Dean Martin classic. Last name matches the player’s first name.
— Correa. “Spain” was one of jazz legend Chick Correa’s best-known songs.
Now, for the bonus song:
— Bregman. The lyrics to “I Am The Walrus” include the line “I am the egg man,” which rhymes (sort of) with Bregman.
“I do feel like I have an opportunity to kind of present this instrument to a wide variety of people,” Kaminski said. “Hopefully, the exposure I get with the Braves leads to interest in this genre and this instrument.”
The guy at the organ is ready with a song.
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