Benjamin Hochman: No peanuts, no Cracker Jack, no home opener

Tribune Content Agency

ST. LOUIS — He’s the guy who plays “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” at the ballgame, and Thursday was supposed to be the first ballgame at Busch. But no one is supposed to go out.

So, Dwayne Hilton, the Busch Stadium organist, played the song during his live Facebook concert on Tuesday night. The video still is available on the Lacefield Music page. Hearing the song was a surprisingly emotional experience. It sounded both poppy and poignant because, seemingly simultaneously, the song elicited joy and sadness. Guess that’s why organ music works at a carnival and a funeral.

“You know, it’s kind of weird,” Hilton said by phone. “It’s not in front of 46,000 fans on opening day. It was at an empty store, but there’s still an audience out there and I think it helps remind people that baseball is about the most normal thing in America, and just hearing that sound and me play the organ, I think people got a kick out of it. There were a lot of ‘likes,’ a lot of people viewing it. A little taste of the sound of the ballpark, right there in your living room.”

Naturally, “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” provides a natural high, because it’s a reminder of baseball — and baseball means happy. The song, so to speak (or sing), takes you to the ballgame. When you hear the first bars of the song, you have this Pavlovian response to start singing like Pavarotti.

St. Louisans just belt out that song, fueled by passion and maybe some Busch at Busch. Even people who don’t like to sing still sing this song — and in public, for that matter.

But hearing Hilton play the famous tune — and having not heard it since last October, during the playoffs — was, really, just the saddest reminder that we can’t go out to the ballgame, that we can’t go out with the crowd. COVID-19 closed the home opener. The only Cardinals and Orioles in action Thursday will be at the zoo’s bird cage.

“I’m going to miss opening day,” said Hilton on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, which should’ve been the getaway day for the Cards in Milwaukee. “Today is such a beautiful day, and I think (Thursday) is supposed to be. Of course, I’ll miss the hoopla of the pep rallies and the Clydesdales and the parade of cars, just like everybody else in St. Louis.”

And everybody else in St. Louis will miss Hilton playing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” And “Here Comes The King.” The old Budweiser jingle, played at Busch and the Busch before that, was the soundtrack to St. Louis childhoods.

But “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” with its singalong qualities, is a rare, shared moment in real time. It unites us. And the void of the song reminds us we’re supposed to avoid each other. We cannot wait for the day that the distance of six feet means nothing and the distance of 60 feet, six inches means everything. Everyone just wants to play again. Play outside, play with friends. The Cardinals want to play baseball and the Cardinals’ organist wants to play for St. Louis.

In the meantime, Hilton still is working at Lacefield Music, trying to sell instruments to customers who can’t come in the store’s doors, because of ordinance. Like so many others in local business, he’s trying to survive in the stalled economy. He and his coworkers do “virtual demonstrations” of pianos and organs via Zoom or Facebook or FaceTime. They still teach online lessons to students.

But some good news for the South County shop: “Believe it or not, a lot of people are buying pianos right now,” Hilton said. “We’re still shipping out pianos. I think it’s because it’s a coronavirus-free hobby. People are sitting at home, they’re sick of watching the news, so they’re playing pianos … . Music, it’s just such a great escape. You can just sit down, focus on something else. Listening to yourself play, listen to music, just get away from the TV, get away from video games, get away from the crazy.

“It’s just a great way to lift the spirit and lift the soul.”

He’s right, music is a great escape, a lot like baseball. And Hilton is in the center of that Venn Diagram. He’s the music-maker at the old ballgame.

“We know our fans miss baseball, and we miss it too,” said Bill DeWitt III, the Cardinals’ team president, in a statement Wednesday. “We would love to be celebrating our home opener (Thursday), but the current situation demands that we all help slow the spread of COVID-19 by staying at home and practicing social distancing.”

So on Thursday, perhaps shop local and buy some peanuts and Cracker Jack and treat yourself to a makeshift escape into baseball. Go down a rabbit hole of YouTubes, watching your favorite Cardinals’ back flips and bat flips. And if you’re up for it, listen to “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.”

It’ll be unlike any other experience of hearing the song.

“I can’t wait to be playing hopefully somewhat soon, whenever it calms down,” Hilton said. “I don’t know when baseball is going to happen, but it can’t happen soon enough.”


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