A key player

Josh Kantor, one of the few organists left in baseball, sees the Red Sox for a song

By Bella English
Globe Staff / July 23, 2005
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It's a glorious night at Fenway Park, and Josh Kantor is thrilled to be playing for the Red Sox. No, he wasn't acquired in the trade for Jay Payton. He gets more playing time than Payton ever got, though he'd like more.

Kantor is the organist at Fenway Park, and on this balmy night with the Toronto Blue Jays in town, he's serenading the arriving fans with ''When You're Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You)," segueing into ''I Second That Emotion," his fingers moving as deftly over the keys as Johnny Damon's glove catching those center-field fly balls.

He's the guy who plays ''Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch, the one who warms up the fans as they head into the ballpark and who celebrates -- or commiserates -- with them as they head out. On a recent night, after a horrendous drubbing by the Blue Jays, Kantor sent Sox fans home to the tune of ''Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" Once, when some players were on the verge of a fight, Kantor broke into ''Why Can't We Be Friends?" And when they played a video of former Sox slugger Jim Rice on the huge screen, Kantor offered, ''You Don't Mess Around With Jim."

Tucked away on a small platform, ensconced in the lofty luxury of the .406 Club, Kantor, 32, sits at his Yamaha electric organ, waiting for the chance to chime in. There's a lot of waiting. Much of the music fans hear at Fenway is recorded and played by Megan Kaiser, the ballpark's music programmer, who has hundreds of CDs loaded onto a computer, only the push of a button away.

Together, Kaiser says, she and Kantor create ''a soundtrack for your day at Fenway." She believes fans appreciate both the traditional and the trendy. ''I can hear them singing to the organ and to their favorite radio songs," says Kaiser, who is 28.

Unlike Payton, who asked to be traded because he didn't get enough playing time, Kantor has no such choice. Ballpark organists are going the way of the $5 bleacher seat. Only half a dozen parks still have them; the Los Angeles Angels recently gave theirs the old heave-ho.

But Fenway is different, as every Red Sox fan knows. Fenway is nothing if not a shrine to tradition: the Green Monster, the Fenway Frank, the Pesky Pole. Red Sox vice president Charles Steinberg, who hired Kantor, acknowledges the sentimental value of organ music while tipping his hat to the recorded stuff. ''We try to do either of two things at every game: make a child fall in love with baseball, or remind an adult where, when, and why they fell in love with baseball," he says. ''That's why it's essential to use the organ and pop music at Fenway."

Delivering the hits
The organ first appeared at the park in 1953, when Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey decided to add music to the Fenway experience. He hired John Kiley, who over the next 36 years became a Boston legend. Kiley was known for stirring up the crowd with antics that included playing ''The Hallelujah Chorus" when Carl Yastrzemski hit one out of the park or pumping out ''White Christmas" on a scorching day. By the time he retired in 1989, recorded music had begun to elbow its way into the repertoire.

Today, professional baseball is an audio-visual wonder. Kantor is connected via headphones to 14 people -- some in the control room, some scattered around the park -- who coordinate the video screen, the public address announcing, and the music. He gets to play for half an hour before the game starts, 10 to 15 minutes after the game ends, and during the seventh-inning stretch. Throughout the game, he is cued, via headphones, to play something, anything. With ''hundreds of songs" in his head, he plays entirely from memory, eschewing sheet music.

''They tell me when to play, and leave it to me as to what to play," says Kantor, who lives in Cambridge and walks all the way to each of the home games. His day job is reference librarian at Harvard, but thanks to cooperative co-workers, he says, he has yet to miss a single game in nearly three years.

He's coy about how much money he makes, allowing only that ''Manny makes more in an inning than I make in a year." But he's quick to note that he, in effect, has a season ticket with a spectacular seat that he would never be able to afford.

At the Blue Jays game, Kantor plays tunes from 6 to 6:30 p.m., before the game at 7:05. As game time approaches, he dons the headphones and listens for a cue, while following along with an 11-page script of pregame announcements. Special guests are introduced and after each one, Kantor executes a little flourish on the organ, a sort of ''ta-da!" He repeats it as each player is introduced. After the ceremonial pitch is tossed out, he goes into ''Bad, Bad Leroy Brown."

He'd love to have more air time, but he's a realist. ''It is what it is," says Kantor. ''Some fans prefer organ music; some fans prefer CDs. Fortunately at Fenway we have both." Still, he believes that live organ music enhances the action. ''I also think there are certain sounds and sights and smells at ballparks that remind people of happy times in their lives, and I think the organ is part of that."

Someone's talking in his ear. He squints, listening intently. ''Sure," he says, turning back to his keyboard. (''Josh, quick, play something," was the message.) He complies with ''Happy Together."

Sox appeal
As a boy, Kantor watched the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park, thinking how much fun it would be to play there -- the organ, not baseball. ''When I got the job here, I called the woman who has played for the White Sox for 36 years. She invited me to her home and gave me lots of good tips. It was the thrill of a lifetime."

That would be Nancy Faust, who began playing for the White Sox in 1970. Recently the team held a ''Nothing But Nancy Day," in which she got to play all of the music, with no competition from recorded pop. She also got to throw out the first pitch. But she knows she's a dinosaur; when she retires, she won't be replaced.

''The instrument has totally fallen out of favor with the young," she says, ''so where are you going to find someone to play today's music on an instrument that nobody plays?" She attributes her longevity to her adaptability: ''I never got stuck in the 'Alley Cat' mode." She also has a sense of humor. When a naked man streaked onto the field on opening day in the late 1970s, Faust countered with ''I Got Plenty O' Nuttin.' " (When Boston comes to town, she always plays the theme from ''Cheers.")

Though she says she felt threatened when recorded music arrived several years ago, Faust says she has learned to live with it. In fact, it gives her more time to talk to the fans, take in the game, and pose for pictures. Kantor can relate. When he's not playing, he turns slightly to the right on his bench, sips from a water bottle, and watches the game intently, keeping track of the action on a score sheet. Fans stop by and make a request or snap his picture. Every once in a while, en route to or from the adjacent bar, someone will ask if they can play something. ''I'm sorry, I wish I could let you," he replies diplomatically.

Kantor, who majored in Spanish at Brandeis, became a Red Sox fan in college. His first season as organist ended in disaster, with the infamous Aaron Boone walk-off homer that gave the Yankees the pennant. But his second season brought the World Series championship. ''There just aren't even words for it," he says. ''It was incredible."

This particular night is growing ever more grim. Toronto is leading, 15-2. Red Sox pitchers are being yanked like bad teeth. ''This is one of the worst games I've seen," says Kantor. ''I think people just want to go home now." Indeed, dejected fans stream out of the park, but Kantor is stuck at the organ.

He plays ''Que Sera, Sera" and segues into ''Some Guys Have All the Luck." And looking out over the empty emerald-green field, home to Johnny and Manny and Jason and Papi, Josh Kantor knows he is one of those lucky guys.

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