Minnesota Twins organist Sue Nelson a game-day mainstay
It was already starting to drizzle when I got to Target Field. With the recent announcement that Harmon Killebrew was on his last legs in his battle against cancer and the Twins still trying to crawl out of their bottom-of-the-barrel ranking, the rain seemed an appropriate accompaniment to the fans filing into the gates of the stadium.
After grabbing a beer I went to my section, only to be greeted by a row of Blue Jays fans who had already had a few and were relentlessly taunting the hometown crowd.
"At least you're not behind 12-0 again tonight. That's a good sign," one of them smirked, and I decided to seek shelter from the rain and ridicule somewhere else.
Making my way around the terrace I found refuge from the weather in the crowded "Twins Pub," where there seemed to be some sort of party going on. Hordes of college kids with tall beers and a few hockey moms were crowded around the TV screens to watch the game. There was a family of out-of-towners wringing out their wet clothes and trying to warm up, and somewhere in the middle of it all I could hear the warm sound of an organ.
With each familiar passage and phrase coming out of the vintage electric keyboard, everyone in the room lit up and cheered. It was almost as if the lousy game out on the field wasn't even happening. Another strikeout with another at-bat, and "Inna Gadda Da Vida" punctuated the devastating drama on the field. I crawled over to see where it was all coming from, and that's when I met Minnesota Twins organist Sue Nelson—who at this point was the real MVP of the game.
"I don't take credit for when the team is doing well because then I'd have to take the blame for when they're not," she told me, her eyes and smile beaming as bright as the scoreboards she has faced every night for 13 years now behind home plate.
Nelson has a dream gig for any local musician: She plays a sold-out show every night the Twins are in town. Since the debut of Target Field she is as much an attraction as the team itself, with her new setup out in the open as opposed to the more obscured setting in the old Metrodome.
On a night like that rainy one in May she filled the room and stadium with the spirit that only a great musician can deliver. "When I keep pushing up and up the scale, faster and faster, and the crowd keeps up, cheering along, I really get a charge from that," she says. "We're talking 40,000 people every night."
Though she was brought up on church and classical music on a farm in Nicollet, Minnesota, Nelson would eventually find a job selling organs and teaching. "Pop music then was horrible, nothing but waltzes," she says. "A man named Phil Lutzi took me aside and said, 'You need to learn to improvise.'" That encouragement sparked a fire under her and got her to start playing whatever struck her fancy, something she demonstrates amazingly as she sits on her perch at Target Field while working the crowd.
"Are you really playing that thing?" a women in a pink Twins hat asks as Nelson takes a break to take some pictures with some fans.
"Of course!" she responds, busting into the chorus of "She Works Hard for the Money." "When I was growing up, rock 'n' roll wasn't considered nice. I could play polkas all night, but that's all kind of grandma music."
It was during visits to her grandparents when she was a young girl that Nelson was eventually introduced to watching baseball. While she is a musician through and through, like any nurturing mother she considers herself there to support her favorite team.
"I don't really call myself a musician; I started out as a cheerleader," she says. "At the Dome I had a couple TV sets in the room with me so I could watch my favorite hockey teams." Out in the open now, with only cards and letters from children and a picture of her and Harmon Killebrew taped to her organ, Nelson has her own show and is always glad to talk to fans.
"I had a woman come in and tell me that I used to teach her 40 years ago. I always say, 'If you're taking lessons, never quit!'" Nelson says, radiating in her crisp new Twins sweatshirt. "Here, my job has only gotten better!"
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