By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Anyone rooting for the underdog on October 27, 1999, was treated to a particularly wretched lesson in public humiliation. The last game of the World Series found the New York Yankees once again making pennant purée out of the Atlanta Braves. The game itself wasn't any more ignoble than the three lose-a-thons that preceded it, except there would be no hope of turning the taunting around after tonight. Compounding Atlanta's anguish was chorus after cruel chorus of Queen's "We Are the Champions," looped in a perpetual mock. In actual minutes, it was probably more like nine or 10, but a prime-time eternity for those trying to maintain a Braves face every time the TV cameras zoomed in for another "no time for losers" reaction shot.
Scorning an opponent with music is hardly a new innovation to sports. The Romans probably had some suitably smug horn fugues at the ready just before a gladiator got his head handed to him in the ring. Who knows, maybe a misplaced mouthpiece at one of these exhibitions inadvertently led to the invention of the air horn.
This much we do know -- credit for merging rock music and sports should go to the Chicago White Sox, whose stadium organist began playing Steam's 1969 hit "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)" to work the crowd at appropriately intimidating intervals.
Mark Iralson, games operation manager for the Phoenix Coyotes, originally hails from the Windy City. Mention the old Chicago Stadium, which had the reputation in NHL circles as being "the loudest rink in the world," and he'll regale you with reminiscences about the Barton organ and its massive roar. While the organ was moved to the new home of the Chicago Blackhawks and Bulls, the impersonal United Center, the organ pipes embedded in Chicago Stadium were lost to the wrecking ball.
"The center of the ceiling had these shutters which would move," he enthuses. "They would play that organ and the sound would shoot right through you. None of the new stadiums do that anymore. And it's too bad."
While one can mourn the move from historic sports palaces to new sterile sports complexes, there is one bright spot for music lovers: never having to hear organists' ironic and sorry attempts at playing stadium rock. If you've ever heard Yankee Stadium organist Eddie Layton rallying the Bronx Bombers fans with his Phantom of the Operarendition of "Beat It," you know that's more cheese than you'd ever want on your nachos.
Consequently, the job of a stadium kaiser of the keys has diversified. In addition to playing all the familiar crowd-pumping prompts on digital keyboards, there is the procurement and programming of all prerecorded rock music at each event. What the stadiums lost in chest-rumbling organ notes, they more than made up for in jukebox versatility. When players are banished to the penalty boxes, the maestro can decide in a split second whether to play the ska version of "Why Can't We Be Friends" or the punk version of "I Fought the Law."
Where once rock music was once an afterthought at sporting events, it's now an integral part of the entire package.
"It's all part of the game," remarks Iralson before a recent Pittsburgh Penguins-Coyotes game. "People pay so much money now that it's not just a hockey game. It's entertainment."
With tickets in the $80 to $200 price range for premium seating, people demand a distraction-packed show. The floating Coke bottle and Dodge Durango balloons, the Bud Ice beer blimps, Zambonis, fireworks, TelePrompTers and movie clips are all formidable eye spackle, to be sure.
It's Iralson's job to coordinate all the above diversions through his headset, mediating between the sound engineer, the folks in the video room, the matrix room, the interns around the ice and the woman who, according to his estimation, is "the key to this whole thing. She makes everything happen. People dance around, the kids dance around, everyone's having a good time."
Throughout the summers, she's a full-time hairdresser, but for 42 home games plus preseason and playoffs, Erin Ruiz serves as "music director and keyboard operator" for the Phoenix Coyotes. As for the second half of her job handle, let's get one thing straight -- the lady doesn't operate the keyboard, she plays it. In 12-second bursts, usually, with one hand on a drum machine and one foot stomping a kick drum pedal that triggers a mechanical Neanderthal thud.
No life experience quite prepares one for this exclusive job. Ruiz paid her dues in a classic rock band when she was still in high school, an experience that gave her considerably more jitters than playing for 16,000 people.
"I had to sing, too," Ruiz says, blushing. "That ups the potential for embarrassment. I don't mind being heard, obviously," she says, gesturing to the panorama of a still-empty arena, "but more than anything I prefer not to be seen in front of everybody."
Although her work station is located in a seating area, there are no spotlights on Ruiz, no obligation to perform for the crowd, which frees her up to keep a watchful eye on the game. Until it's snack 'n' pee time, the other spectators are focused on the ice, unaware that the greatest concentration of power in America West Arena isn't the 10 guys with unpronounceable names bashing each other against Plexiglas, it's this quiet but steadfast woman with the headset, digital recorder and 88 keys.