Monday, July 2, 2012

Chin Music

The history of players choosing personalized at-bat music is a little foggy. The practice developed in a gradual, organic kind of way – and information on the subject is scarce – so it's tough to pin down an exact start date. An article on an NBC affiliate website claims that intro songs came into popularity soon after the 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.

This problem with this explanation is that Trevor Hoffman was not the first pitcher to have a theme song. Look here: the Yankee Stadium organist was playing "Pomp and Circumstance" every time Sparky Lyle came in to pitch way back in 1973.* Nolan Ryan requested (weirdly) that the Rangers play “Don't Go Breaking My Heart” for all of his appearances when he came to the team in 1989. And remember Sheen coming out to "Wild Thing" in Major League** (also in 1989)?

*Pre-dating the Macho Man's use of the song for the same purpose by a good few years.

**A movie, I know, but I don't get the impression from the scene that you'e supposed to think the team is doing anything groundbreaking by playing him to the mound.

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 policy.

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 mostly reserved for pitcher introductions. As he summed it up:

"As 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 (yeah, so what?), and received Mr. Morgan's very informative and thoughtful response at 11:24 Saturday morning. It's Monday now, and I've gotten replies from three other teams. One was friendly and short, one said, essentially, "good question" and one gave me a phone number to call (I left a message). Chuck Morgan is a very nice man, and he has my genuine thanks.

Generally, the evolution of at-bat 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 -- related to the player's name or hometown) -->
Player-requested records

Different teams made these transitions at different speeds,* but, based on the "how about this wacky new phenomenon!" tone of the few articles I could find on the subject (one was written this year), it does appear that most teams made the final jump at some point in the last fifteen years. This lends credence to the idea that the popularity of "Trevor Time" may have played a role.

*The nostalgia-obsessed Cubbies -- after a one year experiment with walk-up songs in 2010 -- continue to use organ music.'s now-defunct Page 3 had a feature in 2008 called 'Diamond Trax' in which they made an index of every player's intro music for that season (complete with iTunes links for each track). They did the same thing back 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 most 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 that the Internet is on a weird, World Cup-style 4-year cycle of surges in at-bat music interest.

Some observations:

  • I learned something while researching this subject that will probably not surprise you. And that something is that baseball players have bad taste in music. If this collection of music exists in the world in any other form, it is on a 9 year old's iPod shuffle, and that iPod shuffle is lost in a McDonald's, and that 9 year old does not care. This missing iPod will also have most of its memory still available, because baseball players make their selections from a pool of about 60 songs.

  • Nah, just kidding about that last part. Though there are definitely a ton of repeats – Usher's "Yeah!" was used by 13 different players in 2004 – most of the songs that are played are played by only one person. In fact, I was shocked by the obscurity of some of the choices. Are you aware of a band called Violent Work of Art? Well, Jorge Campillo is.

  • Damn, baseball players really liked their Godsmack back in the day. Eight different players chose songs from the 'smack that year, including Hunter Pence (who chose two!). The number was six in 2004, and is zero this year.

  • Generally speaking, the selections from 2008 aren't surprising. There's metal, nu metal, top 40 hip hop, country, classic rock, (and Godsmack) and that's more or less it. 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.

  • Okay, exaggerating again: "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 allowed inside Barcade. And the rest aren't necessarily bad (though many are) 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 with 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, guys!" 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 you all 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 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 would magically transform into a jukebox by 2008, one that liked to play "New Disease" by Disturbed. Nomar, too, would eventually cave, walking out to "Low Rider" in 2008. (The other five either retired prior to 2008 or were not included in the ESPN feature – which I guess means that they held strong.)

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

Anyway, that is all of the interesting stuff I learned after reading a lot about at-bat music. Thank you to ESPN and the At-Bat Music Project and Sports Illustrated and Mr. Chuck Morgan for your help with writing this. Enjoy the games, people.

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