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It's a Tuesday night in downtown Denver, and Chuck Shockney, music instructor, organ salesman and part-time musician, is preparing for another gig. He sits down at his keyboard, turns on his rig and slides into a tune for the usual audience of...50,000 people.
Shockney, the 51-year-old organist for Coors Field and the Colorado Rockies, has a job like no other musician in town. And although his profile remains fairly low, there are definitely compensations. "I've already played to over a million people this year," he says with a laugh.
In fact, since the Rockies took their first at-bats during the spring of 1993, Shockney has entertained over 16 million fans with joyous doses of baseball (and musical) tradition. He's also won a considerable following. When some ticket buyers complained about the rock-and-roll songs played over the stadium's public-address system, Rockies management responded by increasing the amount of Shockney's playing time. Now a significant number of attendees show up early--and stay late--for no other reason than to enjoy what Chuck does with his magic fingers.
Over the course of five hours or so per game, Shockney lays down selections from his mountainous repertoire. His song list is as enormous as the throngs for which he performs. "With crowds this large, you've got to play a wide range of music to keep people happy," he points out. As such, he moves easily from Thirties swing and jump blues to a dizzying mix of pop, country, blues and more conventional ballpark musical fare. In a typical thirty-minute stretch during the evening's contest between the Rockies and the Pittsburgh Pirates, he covers Gene Autry's "Back in the Saddle," the Platters' "Twilight Time" and Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame" in addition to a Dixieland stroller and surprisingly hip versions of numerous obscure American pop standards. Falling into the last category is a stomping version of "Peg o' My Heart," replete with a hard, swinging beat and a big, walking bass line. After noting that "not all my stuff is bouncy," he follows with a Latin-flavored rendition of Anita Bryant's "My Little Corner of the World," complete with percussion, horns and a happy, roller-rink organ tone.
The holder of a master's degree in music, Shockney landed on the big-league roster in April 1993 after auditioning at Mile High Stadium for the newly formed Rockies' marketing department. "I played 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' and a few rounds of 'Charge!'" he recalls. Two days before the players were scheduled to hit the field for the first time, he got the call to join the team. In spite of a severe staph infection in his right leg, Shockney made it through opening day (estimated attendance: 74,000) with the help of his wife, Cheri, and antibiotic shots between innings. He hasn't missed a game since.
While Shockney recognizes that pregame entertainment is a major part of his role at Coors Field, he knows he's also a key factor in maintaining patrons' interest in the game. "You've got to keep pumping them if the crowd's a little quiet," he remarks. The tools he relies upon to do so--"Charge!" fanfares and what Shockney calls "variations on dum-dum-dum-dum"--are well-known, but he believes there's an art to knowing when to use them. "It's a feel kind of thing," he confides. "You have to sense the mood of the crowd to determine when to do it."
Where he does it from is a mystery to all but a few ballpark regulars: Shockney is very much the Coors Field equivalent of the Wizard of Oz. "When they find out what I do, most people's first question is 'Where are you in the stadium?'" he notes. However, the location of his lair (just below the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field) may not remain a secret for much longer, thanks to another of Shockney's skills: disco dancing. During a recent "disco break" between innings, cameras caught him shaking his tail-feather to a version of Chic's "Le Freak." When his image was aired on the Jumbotron (the venue's massive video screen), he says, "The crowd loved it. I got more applause than Eric Young's home run."
Still, Shockney's signature number remains "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," which is played during each game's seventh-inning stretch. As he gets the chestnut started, baseball enthusiasts can be seen embracing, swaying, holding their beer cups aloft and singing along. Shockney is singing, too. Though he's played the song live nearly 300 times, he insists that it's a thrill each night. "Every time," he enthuses, "the adrenaline's there."
A few innings later, a Rockies relief pitcher tries to close out the Pirates--never a sure thing in Coors Field. To assist him, Shockney reaches into his bag of musical tricks and comes out with a segment from Phantom of the Opera. As if on cue, the batter strikes out, prompting a roar from the fans. They begin filing to the exits to Shockney's rendition of John Philip Sousa's "Washington Post March."
Not everyone rushes to leave, though. Bob and Sharon Sullivan stay in their seats until the stadium is practically empty. "The organ belongs at the park," Sharon asserts, the strains of Shockney's usual closing number, "Good Night Ladies," echoing in the background. "And it's the perfect finish to a win like tonight."
Shockney feels like a winner as well. "When you come to the stadium, you walk into a different world," he says. "Playing here is almost like fantasy land.