EUGENE, Ore. - Watching the Eugene Emeralds baseball game closely from his corner of the press box, John Bilenki sees his home team tag out an opponent and leans back in to belt out a brief glimpse of a tune, one gone too soon to name.
Fingers flying over the double keyboards of his organ and coming to a rest, his signature golden-brown sunglasses glint in the afternoon light as he turns back to watch the game.
Bilenki is a rarity among minor league baseball games.
After recently moving the team from Civic Stadium, Allan Benavides, the Emeralds General Manager, wanted to bring live organ music back into the ballpark and heard that Bilenki, a music teacher, might be a good candidate.
And by May 2012, they had found an organ and the Emeralds finally had a live organist for the first time since the ‘70s.
“I have played keyboard and piano for 20 years or so,” Bilenki says, “I was never really a bonified organist, so I just started cramming and learning all the ballpark music. It’s bringing back old school baseball tradition and just mixing it up a little bit.”
Aside from teaching music and spending his most of his summers at PK Park, Bilenki teaches Spanish and guitar at The Village School, a middle school in south Eugene. He calls this a great summer gig though.
Unlike last year, when he already had some summer plans before being hired by Benavides, this year he planned his entire summer around the EMS schedule, which is not always easy with a family of two young children.
“There were a couple hiccups,” he says with a grin. “But people really appreciate live music and see the intrinsic value of this, national pastime and all.”
He says being an organist is very different from being in a band and playing shows. “You are really playing off of what’s happening in the game, the energy of the game, the mood. So the length of time of what you play varies greatly. It’s fun, it’s challenging.”
He has been learning a lot from the Emeralds staff, as they know all the tunes long associated with baseball, as well as lots of practice on his own.
“Fans can sort of play name that tune,” Bilenki says. “You’re just picking songs that go with the home team doing something awesome. I’m just kind of thinking of things, brainstorming.”
“Michael Jackson’s 'Smooth Criminal' would work really well if somebody was stealing a base, and Dire Straights’ 'Walk a Life' is great if someone is getting walked from batting,” says Bilenki.
Bilenki has bigger goals than just amusing baseball fans, and aspires to organist greatness.
“I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would get to play organ at a baseball game,” he says. “It’s super fun and I feel like it has taken my organ keyboard piano playing chops to a whole new level. So hopefully if not this year, next year or the year after that, I will have played more home games for the Eugene Emeralds than any other player on the team. That’s the goal, consecutive home games. I’m from Baltimore so I’m a big fan of Cal Ripken, who is the ‘Iron Man’ and played more consecutive baseball games in a row than anyone else. I’d like to think of myself as the Cal Ripken of ballpark organ.”