Saturday, September 18, 2010

Ballpark Farewell, Played Adagio

New York Times
September 17, 2020

CHICAGO — On a gray, damp morning this week, the home of Nancy Faust, White Sox organist, was alive with the sound of ring tones.

A young man who met Faust at a game when he was a teenager called to say he had bought tickets to Saturday’s game and was bringing his girlfriend. A woman who met Faust years ago when she and her husband had season tickets phoned to firm up plans to attend the same game as one of Faust’s 50 guests.

A series sweep by the Minnesota Twins had dropped the White Sox out of the playoff race faster than the setting sun. But for fans of the 63-year-old Faust, the team’s remaining day games at U.S. Cellular Field are steeped in meaning, starting with Saturday’s against the Detroit Tigers, which has been designated “Faust Fest.”

After providing the home soundtrack for the White Sox for 41 years, Faust is retiring at the end of the season. Her music has been the grace note bridging memorable eras in the team’s history, from the baseball barker Bill Veeck to the showman Ozzie Guillen.

Faust was an innovator, choosing songs that played off names like a musical Chris Berman. She has a knack for matching songs to on-field situations, perhaps the most famous example being her inspired choice of Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” when an opposing pitcher was pulled in the heat of the 1977 pennant race. For White Sox fans, the song became a part of the everyday rotation, right up there with “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

In the encyclopedia “Total White Sox,” it is written of Faust, “At times she was the best thing the ball club had going.”

Her role in recent years has been reduced, and her swan song has the feel of a requiem for baseball purists. The organ is being phased out of ballparks, with teams opting for keyboardists or canned music and video entertainment to pump up the fans’ experience.

What results is the sporting equivalent of FM radio, with the music virtually the same from one city to the next. In the effort to create a more interactive fan experience, is an intimate connection being lost?

Eric Carlson, who is 29 and a lifelong White Sox fan, believes so. He met Faust as a teenager when he approached her booth behind home plate during a game to suggest she play “Around the World” by the group ATC.

When he returned to his seat and heard the strains of the song fill U.S. Cellular Field, Carlson said: “I felt special. I was thinking, of all the people in the stadium, she was playing that song for me.” Speaking by telephone, he added: “Most of the players, they don’t even want to give you the time of day anymore. But Nancy’s very down to earth and approachable.”

Carlson, though part of the generation that is the target of baseball teams’ entertainment upgrades, remains an unabashed fan of Faust. “Some of the songs she plays, I feel they actually sound better than the originals,” he said, adding: “I’m a Sox fan, so I’ll still go to games after this year. But it won’t be the same.”

Society has changed, Faust said, and the differences are reflected in ballpark entertainment. Whereas she used to play a song in its entirety, she is now limited to 20- or 30-second snippets. “What I’m doing is sound bites,” she said, adding, “I don’t want that to be my legacy.”

Since 2005, she has worked only day games. The team is interviewing organists for her position.

The people who say organ music gives a ballpark the feel of a cathedral are being supplanted by the likes of Guillen, the White Sox manager who grew up in Venezuela, where he said organ music was not part of the game-day experience.

Guillen compared Faust’s music to the vuvuzela, the South African horn. “At the beginning of the season, it’s fun,” he said. “Now in June or July, it gets old.”

Faust was 23, with a striking resemblance to Joyce Bulifant, the actress who played Murray Slaughter’s wife on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” when she was hired in 1970 to play the organ at White Sox home games.

From her perch in center field — where Veeck had placed the organ booth in 1960 to foster fan interaction — Faust could see a petition being passed around the crowd during her first few months on the job. It decried the presence of a pretty young woman on the team’s payroll.

“The petition said it was not appropriate,” Faust recalled. “I remember feeling so embarrassed.”

In the beginning, Faust wore headphones during the games so she could listen to the radio commentary of Harry Caray. One day, she said she heard him say, “This game is going so slow they are going to have to carry me out of here,” and a song popped into her head. She played a few bars of “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.”

Caray picked up on it and made sure his audience did, too, and Faust’s signature style was born.

“What kept me going was I got such positive reinforcement from Harry and from the fans,” she said, adding, “I loved having the ability to reflect every aspect of the ballgame for the fans.”

Faust and her husband, Joe Jenkins, live on five acres in Lake County. It is a 45-mile commute from the ballpark that can take 90 minutes in traffic, but the White Sox are never far from Faust’s thoughts. If she leafs through a family album, her eyes invariably come to rest on the photograph of her only child, Eric, 27, taking his first steps on the field at the old Comiskey Park.

If she looks outside, she can see the donkey, Mandy, whose predecessor, Rosie, was unclaimed by a ticket-holder in one of the ballpark promotions organized by Veeck. Faust brought her home, and she remained with the family until her death in 1986.

In the music room, next to her Hammond organ, Faust can look at a framed 45 gold single, a gift from Mercury Records, which produced the Steam song that experienced a spike in sales when Faust started playing it.

She is constantly updating her playlist. She checks the most popular ring tones for inspiration. Before the Yankees came to town last month, Faust learned Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” Another recent addition is Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” Last weekend, when theKansas City Royals were in town, a fan stopped by Faust’s booth and suggested she play a John Mayer song before the next at-bat of the Royals outfielder Mitch Maier, and she obliged him.

Paul Konerko, the White Sox first baseman, said he noticed when Faust played off someone’s name during her musical introductions of the opposing batters (the White Sox players choose their own music).

“I think when you hear the organ, that’s kind of a connection to old-time baseball,” Konerko said.

Faust, whose tenure with the White Sox has spanned 13 managers, said she had settled on a song by Madonna for her sendoff: “This Used to Be My Playground.”

September 17, 2010

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