How MLB walk-up music became a designated hit

August 31, 2015, 2:34 PM

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Then, one day, Dykstra called Brazer out to the outfield during batting practice to talk about something very important.

"The Dude looks at me and says, 'Dude, we have to change some things up,'" Brazer recalls. "I said, 'OK.' But I still didn't know what he was talking about. He said, 'When I come up to bat for the first time, I want you to play Hootie and the Blowfish's 'Hold My Hand.'"

Brazer nodded and asked if that was all Dykstra wanted.

"No, dude," Dykstra replied. "The second time I come up to bat, I want you to play Tom Petty's 'Won't Back Down.'"

Brazer said OK, and asked what Dykstra wanted played before his third at-bat. Dykstra thought about it for a while and then replied, "I liked that song you played a couple days ago -- 'Philadelphia Freedom' by Elton John."

And when Dykstra batted a fourth time? The Dude thought about it some more and decided that Brazer could play whichever previous song had led up to a hit.

Dykstra, however, did not get a hit to any of those songs. Instead, Brazer remembers, The Dude went 0-for-8 over the next two games, thus ending his walk-up music experiment, at least temporarily.

So if Dykstra doesn't get credit for turning the batter's box into a jukebox, who does? In 1993, the Seattle Mariners might have been the first club to start playing songs for every player. But, unlike nowadays, the team selected the music, not the player. And the M's usually chose songs that fans could easily associate with their players, says marketing director Kevin Martinez.

For instance, since Jay Buhner's nickname was Bone, the Mariners played "Bad to the Bone" when he batted. Catcher Dan Wilson was known to Seattle fans as "Dan the Man," so the team played "What a Man" before his plate appearances. Reliever Mike Jackson strode in from the bullpen to the ominous strains of Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Raul Ibanez got "Werewolves of London" because of the chorus that sounds like "Ra-oooollllll!!!"

"It was great if there was a piece of music that matched their personality or their name," Martinez says. "If it had some meaning or had some connection for the fan between the music and the player, it had a little more impact than just a cool song that was popular at the time."

Few song-player pairings are more memorable than erratic (and, alas, fictional) Indians closer Ricky Vaughn's theatrical entrance to games accompanied by "Wild Thing" in the 1989 movie "Major League." Vaughn, played by actor Charlie Sheen, helped make entrance songs popular for pitchers, especially closers. 

In the 1970s, Pittsburgh's organist played snake-charmer music whenever Dave (Cobra) Parker batted. And former Cardinals organist Ernie Hays, who retired after 40 years on the job in 2010, told a St. Louis radio station that Lou Brock requested that the theme to the movie "Shaft" be played when he batted.

Who knows? Perhaps walk-up music goes back even further. Maybe Babe Ruth had a banjo player strum "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" when he batted in the 1920s.

While the origins of walk-up music are obscure, what is certain is that it is now as intrinsic a part of baseball's fabric as $150 replica jerseys. Every player now strides to the plate (or mound) accompanied by his own personal anthem, with tunes ranging from rap, pop and heavy metal to country and even Frank Sinatra (more on that later). Well, not quite every player. Earlier this season, Oakland second baseman Tyler Ladendorf specifically requested that the Athletics not play music for his at-bats. 

But for most everyone else, walk-up music is as crucial and identifiable as the names and numbers on their jerseys.

"Your walk-up music has to mean something," says Minnesota Twins outfielder Torii Hunter, whose most-played walk-up song over his 17-year career is the 2013 hip-hop ditty "Immortal" by Kid Cudi. "When you hear the song's lyrics, you want it to kind of lock you in before you go to the plate. So I have to hear those words: 'I've got my lion heart ... flowing through my brain.' And when I step to the plate and I hear, 'Tonight I feel immortal,' I just feel unstoppable.

"When you choose a walk-up song, you've got to choose wisely."

Just ask Cody Decker. Decker, a catcher in the Padres' system, picked Foreigner's "Jukebox Hero" as his walk-up music last season because he liked the chorus.

"But hearing that four times a night, for a month ...?" he says. "I used to like Foreigner but now I hate that song. It nauseates me."

Drake has topped both the Billboard and MLB walk-up music charts over the past two years and that his hit "Trophies" was chosen by the most players last season. So far this year, "Trap Queen" by Fetty Wap and "Blessings" by Big Sean (and featuring Drake) have been the most popular. Hip-hop/rap is the most common genre, followed closely by rock, then pop and country.

"Male artists dominate pretty uniformly but some of these guys will have a Taylor Swift song, someone will have Katy Perry," Hutchison says. "I'm always curious why they chose a particular song -- was it something they picked, or did they lose a bet?"

Logan Morrison used Katy Perry's "Firework" for his walk-up music, and no, he did not lose a bet. He was apparently  looking for a date. San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford has walked out to music by Lady Gaga, as well as to songs by Bay Area rapper Andre Nickatina partly because he thinks local fans enjoy it. Pittsburgh infielder Josh Harrison is accompanied by music created by his brother, Shaun, a hip-hop artist. Ben Zobrist walks up to songs by his wife, Julianna, a Christian alternative recording artist.

Decker says many players default to a song that is currently popular, which he considers boring.

"I don't care what Carly Rae Jepsen has released this week," he says. "I would rather do something along the lines of maybe shaving down to a mustache and walking out to the theme song from 'Magnum, P.I.' I would wear short shorts, and a proper Hawaiian shirt, unbuttoned to just below the nipple. But I can't wear a Detroit Tigers cap."

Some players stick with a song for years -- Oakland infielder Eric Sogard says he's used Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" since he played it on a boom box by the dugout in high school -- while others change frequently. Crawford says that if he likes a song he hears while driving to the ballpark, he will ask to have it played for his walk-up music when he gets there.

"If I like it I will keep it 'round," Crawford says. "If not, I'll pick another one."

And then there is Oakland's Josh Reddick. Says Adam Loberstein, who oversees the Athletics' walk-up music: "I joke with him that if I download 100 songs, 50 will be Josh's."

Reddick recently received considerable attention when he used the opening saxophone section to George Michael's "Careless Whisper" ballad.

"That was just random," Reddick says. "It just came up on the radio in the clubhouse one day when I wasn't doing so well, so I said, 'What if?' And it ended up being a way bigger sensation than I thought it would be. The first time I used the song I hit a home run so I couldn't change it for a while. But I did average overall with it. Then I switched back to WWE music and did a lot better."

That begs an interesting question: Does walk-up music actually affect the batter's performance? Hutchison says that it's difficult to track -- or prove definitively -- if music makes an impact in the box score, since many players have a mix of songs or change tracks regularly.

Athletics outfielder Sam Fuld believes that walk-up music has as much effect on performance "as any other superstition would. I guess you could pin anybody's hot streak on a new pair of socks or a new pair of underwear. Obviously, this game has a huge mental component so I'm not ruling out that walk-up music can help us."

It's not a crazy thought. As Hunter says, music pumps you up. Don't a lot of people listen to music when they're running or cycling? And doesn't just the right jam make you go just a little faster, feel just a bit stronger?

"It's like any other baseball superstition," Loberstein says. "If you're hitting well or pitching well, why change things up? But if you're not, it's the song's fault. So you should change it as soon as possible."

And perhaps forgoing walk-up music is why Oakland's Ladendorf was sent back to the minors after getting just two hits in 10 at-bats.

Players get pumped up by their music, which is one reason teams don't play walk-up songs for their visiting opponents. Or at least not invigorating music. Atlanta organist Matthew Kaminski picks songs for visiting teams based on player names. For instance, when the Mets were in town earlier this season, he played "Grand Old Flag" for Curtis Granderson, "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" for Michael Cuddyer and the theme song to the "Andy Griffith Show" for John Mayberry Jr. (Mayberry must have loved that.)

What is some of the most unusual walk-up music? Other than "Careless Whisper," that is?

Home Run Derby champion Todd Frazier struts up to the plate in Cincinnati accompanied by Sinatra classics such as "Fly Me to the Moon" and "Come Fly With Me." He does so because his grandparents listened to Sinatra a lot. "As a youngster, I hated it. 'This music is so slow!'" he says. "But as you get older, you begin to appreciate it. It takes you back. It relaxes me up there."

Decker once used Queen's "Flash Gordon" ("FLASH!!!!") as well as the theme music to "Dr. Who" for his at-bats. "That got me a little cult status throughout the stadium because there were a bunch of Who-vians all over the place," he says. "Classic nerds. It made us feel closer."

Prince Fielder, meanwhile, chose classical music when he was in Detroit -- but he decided that Mozart no longer moved him and has had an air raid siren blare before at-bats this season in Texas.

Ballplayers aren't the only ones with walk-up music, of course. Celebrities often stroll onto talk-show sets to specific tunes (Bob Hope always walked onto the "Tonight Show" to "Thanks for the Memories"). And some stadium grounds crews have walk-out music as well (the Mariners' squad even performs elaborate dances).

So if all those folks can have walk-out music, shouldn't managers have their own melody when they go to the mound?

"I was thinking about that today!" Cubs manager Joe Maddon says. "When I go out to the mound to talk to the pitcher, why couldn't I have walk-out music? It would either be Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen."

What about when managers go out to argue with an umpire?

"'A Whole Lotta Love' by Zeppelin would be outstanding for that," Maddon says. "'Under My Thumb'? That's nice too. There would be three different songs: One for yelling at the umpire, one for changing the pitcher and for getting ejected. I might actually ask for suggestions on Twitter."

Don't be surprised if that happens. Or if base coaches get music when they head onto the field too. And umpires as well. And maybe even reporters walking into the clubhouse. After all, we are living in the age of walk-up music.

Twins manager Paul Molitor -- a huge Springsteen fan who walked up to "Better Days" when he was in Toronto -- says that when he was instructing minor leaguers a few years ago, the players rarely asked the Hall of Famer and 3,000 Hit Club member many questions about his career. But once, during a rain delay in Beloit, a couple of players starting quizzing him about his playing days. And naturally, one asked Molitor what his walk-up music was.

"Of all the things he could have asked me, that's what he needed to know?" Molitor says with a smile. "It's all about the walk-up music."