For Matthew Van Hoose, the Washington Nationals' playoff run will start on a low note. In the way that only a music professor can be, Van Hoose is psyched about the ultra-deep, bleacher-shaking registers of the team's brand-new stadium organ.
"This thing has a ton of extra bass," said Van Hoose, the Nats' official organist, as he twiddled a few foghorn notes from the bright red, W-emblazoned, three-keyboard instrument that was installed last week at Nationals Park. "It's good to have a little time to get used to it before the playoffs."
Van Hoose was running the Viscount Sonus 60 through some test riffs during the Nats' low-stakes final game of the regular season Sunday. This was basic baseball organ-izing: a little of Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" to goose a placid crowd during a visit to the mound.
But come Friday, he knows the mood will shift from the carnival calliope of regular games to the "Phantom of the Opera" drama of a postseason sellout against the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs. When 41,000 fans stand to shout "Charge!" at that classic stadium prompt, Van Hoose will be playing an organ of 41,000 pipes.
And just in time, the front office has equipped him with an instrument boasting considerably more musical muscle than the Hammond keyboard he was tickling before. This is an organ a guy can be proud of.
The Viscount was made to order in Mondaino, Italy; shipped to New York; tuned up in Harrisburg, Pa.; and, during the Nats' final road trip, fitted in a former radio booth on the second floor of the press box high above home plate. Above the three tiers of keys are rows of tonal couplers ("tremolo," "piccolo," "vox humana," etc.). Below are crescendo and swell pedals and, just off the floor, a fan of skinny pedal boards spreading out from Van Hoose's busy feet. It is an instrument fit for an octopus.
"I'm thrilled," said Van Hoose, 46, who was dinking away at a kiddie keyboard when he got into baseball at age 3 in Norfolk. "It's kind of like going from a plastic bat to a wooden bat."
The upgrade included a room of his own. Before, his portable keyboard was tucked into a corner of the control room with the crew that pumps sound effects and recorded music through the stadium speakers.
Now Van Hoose sits alone, following the prompts of DJ Daniel Zacharias through a video monitor and a headset. They take turns mixing sounds into the action, a sample of "The Price Is Right" uh-oh music when the Pirates' first baseman drops a foul ball, a little polka ditty by Van Hoose for the crowd to clap to as Anthony Rendon steps out of the batter's box.
"Rendon steps out a lot," Van Hoose said, looking down at the field, his hands on the keys. "He gives you a lot of opportunities for prompts."
Van Hoose's bench is within leaning distance of the open window at his shoulder. If he were to start rockin' it Ray Charles-style, you could imagine him pitching himself down to the club seats.
"I really feel like I'm in the park now," he said as fan noise and fall air wafted in.
The team wouldn't say what the instrument cost, only that the desire for a true stadium organ came from "the highest levels of the organization" and that they acquired it through a partnership with keyboard dealer Jordan Kitt's Music, now "the official provider of pianos and organs for the Washington Nationals." The same model is advertised for about $20,000 on European websites.
Nats owner Mark Lerner said his family has long wanted to pump up the pipes as part of the game-day soundtrack.
"My family has always valued the role of music in the overall experience of attending a baseball game," Lerner said. "We have always wanted to upgrade our organ, and we are all so thrilled about this amazing instrument and how it will contribute to our fan experience."
Lerner's 91-year-old father, principle owner Ted Lerner, was a Washington Senators fan back when Merv Conn played his electric accordion over the loudspeakers between innings.
"Ted is old enough to remember when they had marching bands at ballparks," said Phil Wood, a Washington baseball historian and commentator who has a picture of Conn on his office wall. "This is an ownership that cares about the traditions of the game."
It can be hard to gauge whether younger fans, raised on walk-up music and video clips, feel the same thrill of an instrument so redolent of Cracker Jack and 50-cent beer. A brief survey of ticket holders Sunday suggests that many assume those quick organ takes on the "Mexican Hat Dance" and "Zorba the Greek" are just buttons on a synthesizer.
"I had no idea it was a real organ," said Sadie Cohen, a fan from Fairfax at the game with her brother. "They should show him on the scoreboard."
Wood said he settled a bet recently when a couple stopped him in the stadium. She thought the organ music was live; he thought it was canned.
"Matthew is a superb musician," Wood said of the team's keyboardist for the past eight seasons. "It's great they got an instrument worthy of him."
The Oberlin Conservatory of Music graduate who wrote his doctoral essay on Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 9 doesn't depend on his renditions of "Here We Go, Nationals" to satisfy his musical yearnings. He has concerts and his students at American University for that. But for a lifelong baseball fan, having the stadium's best view and its deepest voice for 81 home games a year makes for a pretty good gig.
The new organ makes it better, and so does a chance at the Cubs.
"I think we're going to win," he said. "I think this is the year."
Van Hoose and his Viscount plan to play their part.