Music » Interview

Vital Organ

Sam Beckett uses music to make the K special for suffering Royals fans.


Sam Beckett plays the organ at Kauffman Stadium. Nine innings a game. Eighty (or so) games a year. "Charge" and the Mexican hat dance and a little bit of Usher.

When pitching coach John Cumberland is talking Brian Anderson down, maybe Beckett will play "With a Little Help From My Friends" with two-handed jazz chords. When first baseman Mike Sweeney hulks into the box, maybe a crazy nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-Batman! Its stadium-shaking rhythm track is sampled -- get this -- from a cassette copy of Prince's Batman soundtrack, but the nuh-nuh-nuh-nuhs are played live, as are those grace notes after a crisp double play and the percussive tap-tap-taptaptaps that make you clap without thinking, along with the thousands of people around you. Fact is, everything organ at the K is live, uncanned, improvised, not beamed in from some Clear Channel satellite.

This is notable as proof, yet again, of how little adults expect of our national pastime. But if you're a 10-year-old, of course you know somebody real is playing the organ. What kind of world would this be if there wasn't?

"It's the fabric of the ballgame," Beckett says from behind his keyboard. "It's the froth on the cappuccino. It's like ice cream and apple pie. Breyer's vanilla ice cream, with homemade apple pie."

He's exaggerating, of course. But only kind of. He believes in what he does, but he'd never oversell it.

Beckett's home away from home is the Royals' press box, a series of terraced desks behind home plate packed with laptops and video monitors and guys in polo shirts paying studious attention. It looks like NASA run by gym teachers. Between innings, some grab at the popcorn -- legal-pad-yellow and too salty -- heaped by the stairs. When good things happen on the field, there's a muted appreciation but nothing electric, like the "happy birthday" exchanges at an office party.

Beckett's perch is just past this, a club-level view between home and the visiting dugout. Here, the feeling is different.

At the bottom of the second, shortstop Angel Berroa steps in, and Beckett -- composer, father of four, Royals employee since '99 -- actually claps. Like a fan. Like his team hadn't been shelled by the Tigers 17-7 just the afternoon before. And then he's gliding over the keys: "Centerfold" by the J. Geils Band (My angel is a centerfold), his version less cheesy than the original.

"I play that for Angel," Beckett says.

His Triton Pro X and Roland VK-7 sit directly in the unscreened window. His excitement at snagging a foul is no less than that of the drunkest yahoo with a view-level ticket from Hy-Vee. He makes faces at announcer Mike McCartney, just one glass pane away. He has his own monitor, well above his head, which he checks only for replays of contestable calls. When designated hitter Matt Stairs, hustling mightily, is thrown out at first just a breath too late, Beckett is up, staring, serious. Then he's back down, punching out some hand claps.

And every time he hits his keys, there's a gush from the crowd. It's like watching someone coax waves from a lake.

Beckett is Kansas City to the bone. Born at Lakeside Hospital. Attended Southwest High School. Still lives in Waldo. He caught a foul from Royals great Amos Otis -- always his guy -- at Municipal Stadium. In 1985, during game seven of the World Series, lacking a ticket, he stood in the crowd outside the soon-to-be-K with his soon-to-be-wife, cheering the soon-to-be-champs.

Beckett is a musician grounded in jazz and classical, but he has served bill-paying time in advertising, even singing the jingle in a McDonald's commercial once. He's a devoted churchgoer who has written, with his wife, a Christmas musical that's been performed for three congregations. These days, his interests and work are bound together. He's a lifelong fan cashing checks from his team.

Sometimes, even church and baseball mix. It was, after all, Beckett's experience providing keyboard accompaniment to 24 years' worth of sermons that prepped him for this gig. When he was invited to play at a service a couple of months back, he was asked to throw in "Charge."

He's played the Wedding March at both jobs and estimates that 10 percent to 20 percent of JumboTron marriage proposals are declined. He also admits he has yet to perfect the song selection for such awkward circumstances.

"Normally I'm playing 'Love American Style' or something, watching for a yes, and then I go into the Wedding March," Beckett says. "But if I don't get it -- they get the camera off them pretty quick, and we're on to something else."

When prompted, he clears up some Royals myths: The Pick-Your-Hits isn't rigged to favor the third tune. K employees know beforehand who will win the hot dog race. That's not a woman dressed up as Sluggerrr. And that's not a man dressed up as the Watson's Pool Girl.

There's a lot of audible clutter between innings, he agrees. He won't say that the sponsor-driven entertainment is too noisy or distracting, but he does consider silence a part of the game.

"Dead air in radio is bad, but in baseball it's fine," Beckett says. "There's a rhythm to it some find boring, but I don't need to fill every hole. There's enough jock-jam music and advertising already. I want to do something tasteful that gets people tapping their toes, enjoying it."

There's a discussion on the mound, so Beckett swings with the "Bandstand Boogie." A few minutes later, he's playing "Tequila," which the kids somehow all seem to know. Sometimes he plays the theme from Inspector Gadget. Once, he riffed Dvorak's "Humoresque."

"There's not a lot of jobs like this," Beckett says.

An old friend of his family used to provide musical accompaniment for silent films. That comes close, but it's dark, anonymous work. Here, Beckett is sometimes on the JumboTron leading the crowd in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." But he prefers that fame stay with the players on the field.

"My wife and kids can attest that I'm goofy, but I also love to be low-key, nonfantastic," Beckett says. "I put as much energy into my music as anything else."

Sam Beckett uses music to make the K special for suffering Royals fans.

Add a comment