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Technical change at the ballpark

From today's WSJ ($):

Nancy Bea Hefley, the organist at Dodger Stadium for the past 17 seasons, says she can play 2,000 songs from memory. But these days, the Los Angeles Dodgers really need her for only one: "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

Mrs. Hefley remains a presence at every Dodgers game, seated behind her Roland organ in a far corner of the press box. From high above home plate, she catches pieces of the game while chatting up sportswriters, stadium employees, former players and luminaries. Mostly, though, she spends her time knitting.

In late May, the Dodgers sharply cut Mrs. Hefley's role as principal stadium entertainer. While she used to play before and after nearly every batter and inning, her organ is now largely silent.

Instead, the Dodgers added louder music and electronic gimmicks to match the audio pyrotechnics at other sporting venues. The move is also intended to appease players who want their personal theme songs played during the game. And while it may seem as if another venerable baseball tradition is fading, organists were added to ballparks only in the 1940s, and aren't universally loved.

Mrs. Hefley's duties were first reduced in 1998 by News Corp.'s Fox Entertainment Group after it bought the team from the O'Malley family, which had owned it since 1950. But they have been more significantly curtailed by Frank McCourt, a Boston real-estate developer who bought the Dodgers in January.

Dodgers management is quick to stress Mrs. Hefley's solid future with the team. "Nancy Bea is not going anywhere; the throngs love her," says Gary Miereanu, vice president of communications. Indeed, her contract, the terms of which she wouldn't disclose, has already been renewed for next season.

But with the likes of Metallica and Dr. Dre replacing Mrs. Hefley's chirpy organ stylings, Dodger Stadium is a much different place from the days when Mrs. Hefley had free musical rein. Since joining the team in 1988, Mrs. Hefley has mastered the art of the well-timed musical snippet. When pitchers from the rival San Francisco Giants were taken out of the game, she often tapped out "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" After a Cincinnati Reds pitcher was hammered in the first inning, she ushered him out with a song from the musical "Wonderful Town" whose refrain goes: "Why oh why did I leave Ohio?"

"That's the only one I thought was mean," Mrs. Hefley recalls.

On a recent July afternoon, Mrs. Hefley's role was limited to the national anthem and short bits before and after the game. Perhaps most important, she still owned the three minutes or so it took her to play "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" twice through the seventh-inning stretch.

Her role has been usurped by a deejay who sits directly below her. He plays a selection of hip-hop and rock, interspersed with devices designed to pump up the crowd and the stadium's volume -- all with the a click of a button on his laptop. Now, even the familiar "Charge!" refrains have been prerecorded by Mrs. Hefley and uploaded onto the deejay's computer.

I suppose tunes from a clever organist probably go over most customers' heads, but the "theme music" blasted in every stadium before each batter's plate appearance bores me to death. Maybe the digital brigade can one day match the whimsy and spontaneity of the ballpark organist, but I'm not betting on it.