TJ Connelly and Josh Kantor have invented a word to describe the sweet spot they try to hit when choosing the songs to play for the Fenway faithful. Boston’s ballpark DJ and organ player both inject a sense of humor into their selections without making fun of what’s actually going on in the game.
“The guideline is whether your joke is cruel or whimsical,” says Connelly, who has been the full-time Red Sox DJ since 2008. “The middle ground, of course, is crimsical.”
As Connelly speaks, he’s cuing up music for the Sox to take batting practice to. The selections run the gamut from classic rock to country to hip-hop, as he watches the reactions of the players. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner” prompts catcher David Ross to turn the bat he’s holding into a guitar.
Ross will later do the Roger Rabbit dance to Ice Cube’s “We Be Clubbin’.”
When Connelly crossfades from one song to another, it’s hard not to notice that he has written the name Pedroia on his wrist.
He needs to remind himself that the second baseman for the Sox has requested to change his walk-up song again.
Many of the players take their song selections seriously, but Dustin Pedroia and designated hitter David Ortiz even more so.
“The man is a surgeon of walk-up music,” says Connelly about Big Papi. “My relationship with this man as a co-worker is the strangest I’ve ever had, because I want to maintain that fandom.”
He goes on to share an anecdote about how the players had all gone to see hip-hop act Black Star at the House of Blues one night and ended up at the bar where Connelly, Kantor and crew happened to be drinking.
“I had played the Black Star tune ‘Definition’ like, two days before for Ortiz at batting practice and he looked up at me like, ‘Meh.’ And at the bar when I asked him if he liked Black Star he said, ‘Yeah.’ So then I asked why he had given me that reaction. He said, ‘Sometimes I just like to f— with you.’”
Connelly respects all of the Fenway music traditions, such as the obligatory “Sweet Caroline” during the eighth inning and a more recent one which he helped to make happen, which is the crowd sing-along to “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley & The Wailers when Shane Victorino gets up to the plate.
“If you turn down the sound at the right moment, people notice themselves and each other singing,” he says. To watch Connelly do this, he has difficulty disguising his joy.
Throughout the game, Connelly keeps in close contact with Kantor, the organ player who isn’t in the soundbooth with Connelly, but is tucked away in a corner of the State Street Pavilion Club. Most people dining or drinking in that area of the park have no idea that the guy who provides the sound for the entire ballpark is amongst them. Kantor and Connelly discuss musical strategy throughout the game and what would sound best for those in the stands: the original recording of a song, or a reworked version on the organ.
Both take requests via Twitter throughout the game. (Connelly is @SenatorJohn and Kantor is @JTKantor). Kantor, who also plays keys for several bands — including an R.E.M. side project gone wild called The Baseball Project — prides himself on playing Top 40 hits and indie hits that you wouldn’t expect to hear on organ.
“You’ll sort of play yourself into irrelevance if you don’t update your repertoire,” says Kantor. “That’s something I learned from my mentor, Nancy Faust, who did White Sox organ for 41 years.”
Kantor is interrupted by his smartphone buzzing; it’s a request via Twitter for “The Way You Move” by Outkast. He politely excuses himself for a few seconds to make sure he knows how to play it, and as soon as the third out is caught, a flyball to the infield, he goes live with it. His World Series ring catches the light as he plays.
What’s most exciting about watching Kantor and Connelly work is that they both find songs that are appropriate for what’s going on in the game or what’s going on in the city. Recent examples include Connelly playing Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” when the Sox bring in a run to make the score 6-4; Kantor playing Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” when a relief pitcher with the number 0 on his back is called to the mound; Connelly playing DMX’s “X Gonna Give It to Ya” when Xander Bogaerts hits a home run and to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of gay marriage being legal in Massachusetts, Kantor playing David Bowie’s “Modern Love.”
“It’s a large audience and it’s not necessarily a music audience,” says Kantor. “But it’s also fun to throw in one every once in a while that’s a little off the beaten path but is going to be really appreciated by the folks who are playing close attention.”
Connelly agrees. His philosophy when playing a song with hidden meaning: “Most importantly it has to have the right energy for the game. And either the crowd will not know what it is or find it cute.”