It's the bottom of the 9th for longtime Cards organist
Era's end

It's the bottom of the 9th for longtime Cards organist

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The stands had emptied, but Ernie Hays didn't mind.

The organist glanced at the field from his perch above home plate. The grounds crew was raking the infield and watering the grass. A janitor was picking up trash in the aisles.

Hays kept playing the Latin classic "Besame Mucho" on his electric organ.

His gray head bobbed to the smooth beat. His shoulders slightly bounced.

For 40 years, Hays has been the organist for Busch Stadium, providing the soundtrack for thousands of games.

On Sunday, the 75-year-old will call it quits.

"4-0," he said, signing out the numbers with his hands. "That's enough for anyone."

The Cardinals are planning to hold an on-field ceremony for one of the organization's most beloved characters, and when they do, they won't just be saying goodbye to a man, but an era. While many stadiums have switched to more recorded music and Top 40 hits to entertain fans, Hays has stubbornly championed the big band and baseball classics, such as "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," "St. Louis Blues" and the "William Tell Overture." His signature is the Budweiser advertising jingle "Here Comes the King," which he plays in the seventh inning.

"His music is from another generation," said John Ulett, the Cardinals' public address announcer, who has sat next to Hays since 1983. "When he's gone, I'm sure people will notice the difference."

Hays doesn't anticipate the farewell will be particularly difficult.

"I'm ready," he said. "This is it."

He is already pretty busy. He gives organ and piano lessons to about 20 students, and dreams of writing a movie score. He has three children and six grandchildren.

The word people use to describe Hays is "colorful." A more apt phrase might be "off-color."

Hays can't let half an hour pass without telling a dirty joke or using foul language.

"Let's put it this way," Ulett said. "He doesn't act his age."

He got the job after auditioning in 1971. The most challenging part was keeping fans interested in the game when the Redbirds started to lose. He often visited the locker room to talk to players about the songs they wanted him to play during their introductions.

Hays said it was his idea to play tunes from "The Wizard of Oz" to introduce the Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, and he got the player to agree to it.

It was about the mid-1980s when stadiums began using recorded music, and Hays saw his role slowly began to diminish. "I do less than one-fifth of what I did for the first 12 years here," he said. "In the first 12 years, I was the only music in the stadium."

Then came tape recordings, followed by compact discs.

Now Hays can't remember the last time he visited the locker room to talk to a player about his musical preferences. He only knows it must have been years ago.

In the old Busch Stadium, Hays and Ulett occupied a small box by themselves. In the current setup, they are in the scoreboard control room, surrounded by about a dozen other employees, along with flat-screen TVs and computer monitors.

Hays' spot in the booth is small, about 5 feet wide. His organ faces the wall. To his right is a window that he likes to keep open so he can hear the crowd.

It's the only window in the booth that opens, and Hays said the Cardinals installed it at his request.

Looking back over his career, Hays seemed proudest of a couple of moments. The first is when a few of his friends dared him to play the theme song to a well-known 1970s adult movie. Hays happily obliged.

"The Cardinals," he said, "never knew."

The second was more recent. In February 2006, Hays had open heart surgery to replace a valve.

A little more than a month later, the stadium held an event just before opening day. Hays was asked to perform, but the stadium's elevator broke. With Ulett and his wife Loreta's help, Hays climbed three flights of stairs.

"I never missed an opening day in 40 years," he said. "That has to do with stamina."

Hays' replacement, Dwayne Hilton, began playing for the Cardinals about four years ago. Hilton, a partner at Lacefield Music, was selling the organization an organ.

"They said, 'We'll take the organ, and how would you like to play, too?'" Hilton said.

Hilton already plays at about 80 percent of the games. When Hays retires, he'll play at all of them.

As operator of the stadium's video boards, Jared Haukap started working in the control room with Hays last year. He said the difference between the organists' styles is obvious. Hilton will often play Van Halen on a keyboard and even some Lady Gaga, Haukap said. He can't picture Hays doing the same.

"I just don't think he wants to play Lady Gaga," Haukap said.

Hays couldn't agree more.

"Hell, no," he said. "I want to play real music. … Can you hear Duke Ellington playing Lady Gaga?"

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