Monday, July 2, 2012

Hit Singles

The history of players choosing at-bat music is pretty hazy. The practice developed in a gradual, organic kind of way – and information on the subject is scarce – so it's tough to pin down when it started exactly. An article on aNBC affiliate website claims that walk-up songs came into popularity after the '98 Padres started (on a whim, apparently) playing "Hell's Bells" to announce Trevor Hoffman's entrance into games. The fan reaction was so positive, the article claims, that other clubs quickly moved to copy them. Thus: at-bat music.

Thing is, Trevor Hoffman wasn't the first pitcher to have a theme song. Previous examples abound.  The Yankee Stadium organist was playing "Pomp and Circumstance" to introduce Sparky Lyle as early as 1973. Nolan Ryan requested (weirdly) that the Rangers play “Don't Go Breaking My Heart” every time he pitched when he came to the team in 1989. Charlie Sheen came out to "Wild Thing," and so did Mitch Williams. The list goes on.

To get more clarification, and because I'm unemployed, I e-mailed all 30 teams asking for information about the history of their walk-up music policies.

The first response I received was from longtime Rangers P.A. announcer Chuck Morgan.* He explained to me that the Rangers have accommodated player music requests since his first year with the team (in 1983), but that, technology being what it was in the '80s and '90s, the privilege was at first mostly reserved for pitcher introductions. As he summed it up:
" long as I have been with the Rangers, doing the same thing that other ballparks do for their players, we have allowed players to pick their music....but again, the technology has changed."
*I sent out these e-mails Friday night (umm...) and received Mr. Morgan's very informative response at 11:24 Saturday morning. It would be a day or two before any other team replied, and most ignored me entirely. It was very nice of Mr. Morgan to get back to me so quickly, and he has my thanks.

Over the course of the next two weeks, I received responses from nine other teams.

Response from the Yankees, (6/30/12):
"Please contact our scoreboard department at 718-293-4300 as they would be able to answer your below questions. Thank you."*
*I left a message that was not returned.

Response from the Giants, (6/30/12)
"Thank you for writing. This is a great question and I don’t have the answer! I will ask a few folks if they know the history, but I think that this is something that you might have to research on your own."
Response from the Royals, (7/3/12):
"In the early 1990’s player walk up songs were introduced.  Prior to that,  it was just their name announced as they approached home plate."
Response from the Padres, (7/3/12):
"This practice started for the Padres in 1998 with our magical run to the World Series.  ‘Hells Bells’ became the greatest entrance song when it rang out for Trevor Hoffman that year.  Many of the players began requesting music for when they walked to the plate.  Prior to that, there would be organ chants, music or just the crowd noise."  
Response from the Reds (this is former P.A. announcer Jon Braude writing), (7/3/12):
"From what I can recall of my days doing the PA (1986-94), there was no player-related music as batters came to the plate...The organist would play between innings, in addition to get-the-fans-excited type music, but it was all pretty generic." 
Response from the White Sox, (7/5/12):
"Major League Baseball started allowing players to choose their walk-up song in the early 1990s. Prior to the current set-up, organ music and other random songs were played."
Response from the Orioles, (7/5/12):
"Players have selected their music for many years now. I cannot tell you the specific year. As years went on the more players started asking for specific songs. If a player did not have a song we would pick one or just have various songs at our disposable for walk up music."
Response from the Pirates (this is Manager of In-Game Entertainment Matt Walker writing), (7/6/12):
"I started with the Pirates in 2005, and by that time all of the players were selecting their own music to come to bat to.  I cannot tell you when this started.  If I had to guess, I would say maybe sometime in the ‘90’s?  Again, that is just a guess by me.  I would think it would have either been organ music or silence that accompanied them, but again, I wasn’t around for those days.
I wish I could be of more help."
Response from the Diamondbacks, (7/8/12):
"Thanks for your interest in the DBacks player music. To answer your questions, the players have always chosen their own music, with very rare exceptions. So there was never a time when they walked up to organ music or silence. Some players, most recently Ryan Roberts and Micah Owings, have requested silence when they went up to bat. Others have had as many as five songs per game." 
So, as you can see, even among baseball insiders, the timeline is pretty foggy. 

In a league-wide, general sense, the evolution of player intro music seems to go as follows:

Silence -->
Organ music -->
Player-specific organ music (either something they requested or something -- as Mr. Morgan explained to me in his e-mail -- related to the player's name, hometown, or playing style) -->
Generic records -->
Player-requested records

Different teams made these transitions at different speeds,* but, judging by the above e-mails, as well as the "how about this wacky new phenomenon" tone of the few articles I could find on the subject (one was written this year), it seems like most teams took the final step at some point in the last fifteen years. (That lends credence to the NBC article's claim about the popularity of 'Trevor Time' possibly playing a role.) Pitcher intros, from what I can gather, went through the same progression, but at a more accelerated pace.

*The nostalgia-obsessed Cubbies -- after a one year experiment with walk-up songs in 2010 -- continue to use organ music. (I knew this going in, and so omitted them from the list of teams I e-mailed.)

Alright, so let's talk about the songs themselves.'s now-defunct Page 3 had a feature in 2008 called 'Diamond Trax' in which they compiled an index of every player's intro music for that season (complete with iTunes links for each track). They did the same thing in 2004, sans links, but with trivia and commentary related to the selections.

'The At-Bat Music Project' is an independently-run tumblr page launched this April that lists all the walk-up songs for the 2012 season (or attempts to – some teams are still missing). By now some major league clubs also post the track names on their official websites.

There is more information scattered around the Internet on the topic, but those are (by far) the most substantial and organized sources I was able to find. It seems likely now that with teams posting the track names on their websites this information will be easier to come by in the future, although it's possible the Internet is on a World Cup-style 4-year cycle of surges in at-bat music interest.

I read through all of these pages. Some observations:

  • Generally speaking, the selections from 2008 aren't surprising. There's metal, nu metal, top 40 hip hop, country, classic rock, Godsmack, and that's it more or less. And then – suddenly, incredibly – Jeremy Sowers of the Indians went and chose "Pot Kettle Black" by Wilco. With one selection, Sowers singlehandedly raised the total Pitchfork grade of the collection to something like 0.012.

  • Nah, exaggerating: "Cherub Rock" (Jacoby Ellsbury), "Train in Vain" (Michael Barrett), "A Change Is Gonna Come", (Brian Barton), "Walk on By" (Willie Harris), "15 Step" (Barry Zito). Sowers isn't the only player from '08 allowed inside Barcade. And the rest aren't necessarily bad as much as they are boring and obvious (five different players in 2004 used "Enter Sandman" as their at-bat song, and that doesn't even include Rivera using it as his entrance music).

  • Speaking of Zito, read this piece of trivia from ESPN's 2004 feature on at-bat music. You make the call – is the writer making fun of him, or is this an accident:
    "Zito called to complain that the A's were playing the wrong song for him. They were playing a rap song and he wanted Incubus Megalomaniac cued 37 seconds in."
    That's intentional, right?

  • Some Latino players are shockingly non-discriminating when it comes to their walk-up music. Five different players in 2004 chose "salsa music" as their at-bat song. Is that what it's like being a fan of that genre? ANY song comes on and you're down with it? Note to self: Record a salsa album.

  • That's nothing though – those players are downright anal-retentive compared to Jeff Kent, who in '04 selected "anything up-beat." Dude.

  • Theme songs and wrestler intros are popular novelty selections among players. Some of my favorite examples include: "The Bruce Lee Theme" (Kaz Matsui, '04), "The Phantom of the Opera Theme" (Barry Bonds, '04), "Aggressive Expansion" (Jensen Lewis, '12 – from The Dark Knight soundtrack, you'd recognize it), "Round Up" (Michael Barrette, '08 – a famous NFL Films song), "Theme From RBI Baseball" (Chris Getz, '12).

  • My favorite of all the many walk-up song choices I read though comes from Tyler Colvin of the Rockies, who steps out of the on-deck circle this year to "Holdin' on to Black Metal" by My Morning Jacket. Great choice. I had to give Colvin the nod here over the legendary Jeremy Sowers, on the grounds that "Black Metal" is a much cooler and more intimidating song than "Pot Kettle Black" – which even by Wilco standards gives off a serious "move in, everybody!" vibe.

  • I came across two examples of players picking songs that were actively about them. Ichiro in 2004 came out to "Ichiro" by Seattle rapper Xola Malice (I urge all of you to listen to this song as soon as possible) and in 2008 Joe Mauer went with "The Joe Mauer Theme Song" by hip hop artist A&R (you can skip this one).

  • Of course, you are not required to choose your own music, and some people go out of their way to specifically request that no song be played for them. Seven players opted for silence in 2004, and some of them were pretty condescending about it. In that ESPN feature, we find out that Nomar "prefers to focus on the game rather than a song," and that Brad Fullmer "wants to focus, not listen to music," and Hank Blalock reminds us that he is "not a jukebox."

    Blalock transformed into a jukebox in 2008, one that liked to play "New Disease" by Disturbed. Nomar caved too, walking out to "Low Rider" that year. (The other five either retired prior to 2008 or were not included in the ESPN feature – which I guess means they held strong.)

    J.D. Drew – according to an S.I. piece on at-bat music – and this will not shock you – was one of the few players still walking out to silence in 2011.

Anyway, that's everything I learned after reading a lot about stadium music. Thanks to ESPN, The At-Bat Music Project, Sports Illustrated, Chuck Morgan, the Giants, Royals, Padres, Reds, White Sox, Orioles, Pirates, and Diamondbacks for their help with writing this. This is a negligibly small part of the games obviously, but still, I think it's a fun subject to consider. It says something about modern sports culture, and it's one of the ways fans connect with and learn about teams. In some cases, an intro song can even make an important contribution to a player's legacy. But don't take my word for it -- just ask Mr. "Enter Sandman" himself, Mariano Rivera:
“For the longest time Mariano couldn’t even tell you the name of the song or who it was by,” says [Yankees senior director of scoreboard and broadcasting Mike] Bonner. “He really could’ve cared less and still doesn’t care."
Umm. Well, still.

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