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Sunday, May 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Les Carpenter / Times staff columnist
Organists being told to pipe down

By Les Carpenter
Seattle Times staff columnist

ROD MAR / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Nancy Bea Hefley, organist for the Los Angeles Dodgers, is a rarity in major-league baseball.
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LOS ANGELES — Sitting there, she looked like she could play all night. If only they would let her.

For 17 years as the organist at Dodger Stadium, Nancy Bea Hefley has lulled babies to sleep, moved fathers to sing with their sons and tempted mothers to dance in the aisles simply by tapping her fingers.

Yet on this night, as on so many nights these days, she sits ...

And does nothing.

Her kind is dying now. A game that thrived through the last century on the ballpark organ jingle has decided in the new millennium that the melody of baseball is no longer good enough. In order to properly enjoy a $32 box seat and $4 hot dog, today's fan apparently needs the stadium speakers pulsing to the steady thump of any one of about 20 songs that can be found on CDs with names like "Jock Jams" or "Rock 'n Jock."

Not that you can't tell if you're in Cleveland, Tampa or Lincoln, Neb., or at a football game, a hockey game or a soccer match. Everywhere you go it's the same 20 songs; the only thing that changes is the order in which they're played.

And the Nancy Bea Hefleys of baseball are left to their knitting.

I came across her one night a couple of weeks ago. She sat tall and straight at her organ in the far right corner of the Dodger Stadium press box, and wore a black sweater with a flower. She looked as if she was dressed for the symphony.

Only her symphony was quiet. In the stadium behind her, another beat from another CD blared into the night, and nobody seemed to care that one of the last organists left in baseball would barely be playing again.

"We're kind of going through a phase right now," said Hefley, with the patience of a woman who has become accustomed to having her playlist cut only to have it increased again when the letters of outrage pour in.
 
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It used to be that the ballpark was a refuge from the clogged highways and strip malls that stretch from outside its doors. Inside lay a tropical garden of green where smells of hot dogs and warm peanuts wafted through the concourses and the jangling of the organ made you forget the chaos of the streets.

That is gone now. The music inside is no different than the music you heard outside when you were in your car and spent 35 minutes crawling 12 blocks. There is no more escape.

"I think a lot of the clubs have done this, they want to reach a younger crowd," Hefley says. "They think the young (people) like loud, but I've got a lot of young people tell me they wish I were playing right now."

Just a few years ago, Hefley would play all the way through batting practice, for another hour as the groundskeepers prepared the field, at the end of innings, during pitching changes, then for another half hour as the fans filed into the parking lot.

On this night, her assignment is to play for a half hour before lineups are introduced, play the national anthem, play at the end of the first and then whenever the Dodgers pitching coach walks to the mound, which never happens on this evening. She can also play her customary half-hour after the game. Otherwise she chats with sportswriters, old ballplayers and anybody else who happens to walk through the press box. What else is there to do?

"At first it bothered me because it took away some time to be creative," she said. "I finally decided I had two choices — either enjoy it or quit. And I do like my job."

The tragedy is in what baseball loses when the Nancy Bea Hefleys are silenced. The beauty of baseball organists was in their subtlety and wit.

A couple of years ago, the organist in Pittsburgh — Vince Lascheid — serenaded Rafael Palmeiro, then Texas Rangers first baseman and Viagra spokesman, with "Pop Goes the Weasel." In 1985, an organist at a minor-league field in Clearwater, Fla., was fired for playing "Three Blind Mice" after an umpire's bad call. Hefley herself used to chase Giants pitchers off the mound to the tune of "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?"

But those days are gone, replaced by the Metallica or Aerosmith or Jane's Addiction songs that everyone else plays, which is what's supposed to keep kids coming to the games.

The Mariners took their organ out of the Kingdome in the late 1980s in a large part because it seemed they were playing almost nothing but recorded music anyway. They still throw in a tape of an organ every once in a while, but these moments are rare.

"There's a wide variety of people in the park and a whole variety of ages in the park," says Randy Adamack, the Mariners vice president of communications. "Our challenge is to entertain as many people as possible."

Seattle is hardly alone in this thinking. American League cities with organists have dwindled to four — Anaheim, the Chicago White Sox, New York Yankees and Boston. In the National League, only three remain: Arizona, Colorado and the Chicago Cubs. But soon the day will probably come when no one will have an organ and there will be no more Nancy Bea Hefleys left in the game.

"People come to me and say 'I wish you would play more,' " Hefley says. "I play what I'm told to play, that's life, go with the flow. Change is not always good, but change is coming anyway."

And another piece of everything that was once good about baseball is chipped away.

Les Carpenter: 206-464-2280 or lcarpenter@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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