Saturday, May 16, 2009

The art of the walk-up song

Jayhawks discuss tune’s importance


Audio clips

KU Baseball Pitchers' Entrance Songs

Nick Faunce’s introduction to matters involving the walk-up song — that is, the song played throughout a stadium as a particular player walks to the plate — came four years ago, during his red-shirt freshman season with the Kansas University baseball team.

Figuring he wouldn’t see much game action in his first year on the team’s active roster, Faunce, now a senior, didn’t bother to select an entrance song, leaving the team’s support staff to use a track it already had on file. As a result, each time he emerged from the dugout that season — which turned out to be several times — he did so to Lil’ John’s “Yeah!” a boisterous and overtly sensual rap song that, as one teammate was happy to point out, “doesn’t really fit an outfielder from Oregon.”

Says Faunce, who has since changed songs but still endures regular chiding from teammates for his rookie blunder, “It was entirely embarrassing every time I came to the plate that year.”

While it’s easy to view the walk-up song as a purely cosmetic component to the game of baseball, it is, as Faunce’s experience would indicate, a matter paid no lack of mind by the sport’s participants. According to Chuck Morgan, vice president of in-park entertainment for the Texas Rangers, the birth of the walk-up song can be traced back to the 1940s or ’50s, when press-box organists would pound out semi-personalized riffs that played off a batter’s name or hometown. As technology evolved, so too did the walk-up song, and by the time Ricky Vaughn — the Harley-riding, accuracy-challenged closer from the 1989 film “Major League” — famously made his trek from the bullpen to a version of “Wild Thing,” the idea of song as identifier officially had developed into what it is today: a bona fide phenomenon within the confines of America’s Pastime.

On any given afternoon at KU’s Hoglund Ballpark, for instance, a cacophony of musical scores can be heard spilling from the stadium’s loudspeakers, signaling the entrance of this player or that. Reggae. Hip-hop. Country. It’s all there, a heterogeneous soundtrack carefully crafted by members of the home team.

Throughout the offseason, as players immerse themselves in the business of self-improvement — weight-training and fielding exercises and batting cage sessions — they are also scouring radio waves, CDs and iTunes for promising anthems. An official “walk-up song” sign-up sheet hangs like a de facto lineup card in the team’s clubhouse, and, as inspiration hits, players slowly stake claim to various musical works.

There are a number of basic selection requirements, of course. Is the song family-friendly (one player’s initial choice had to be overturned this season because of questionable language)? Can a 20-second excerpt be easily extracted? Does it provide the batter with a quick dose of adrenaline?

But the process is rife with just as many unwritten rules.

In the Jayhawks’ clubhouse, there is a widespread understanding that a song will be given a one-year break between users — an edict older players are often required to enforce upon overzealous youngsters looking for a quick fix. Especially memorable songs, such as that of former infielder Jared Schweitzer, are indefinitely shelved as a show of respect, while it is integral that a walk-up song be fundamentally aligned with its user’s abilities.

Under no circumstance, for example, should a player emerge to a song that — through its title or lyrics or general reputation — suggests upcoming feats not likely to be carried out.

“It’s kind of like a pitcher walking out to (MC Hammer’s) ‘Can’t Touch This,’” says Kansas closer Paul Smyth. “If you do that, you better be a pretty daunting force on the mound.”

The widespread popularity of the walk-up song is not necessarily difficult to fathom. It provides players with a rare opportunity for individualization. It infuses the game with a bit of zeal. And perhaps most importantly, in a sport in which players go to great lengths to establish routine, a familiar tune can provide a calming effect during a player’s lonely journey to the batter’s box.

As second baseman Robby Price puts it, “Hearing your song just kind of puts you into the right mind-set.”

At the same time, a song that weeks ago offered comfort or a burst of adrenaline can, in the throes of a viscous slump, become cold and unbearable. Former KU outfielder John Allman asked the team’s support staff to keep two songs for him, to be used interchangeably depending on his level of success at the plate. And on multiple occasions this season, struggling players have discussed the possibility of a switch (although only one official change has taken place thus far).

“Baseball players are some of the most superstitious guys you’ll find,” says Matt Baty, a former Jayhawks outfielder and KU Athletics marketing coordinator in charge of in-game entertainment. “When they’re struggling … they don’t look at video and say, ‘Oh, I’m doing this wrong’ or ‘My footing’s off here.’ They look at their song.”

In most cases, players say, they are searching not for perfection but for a song that in some way cuts to their core — the greatest criteria being a song’s link, however slim, to the individual it represents. The general consensus among Kansas players, for example, is that, musically speaking, junior infielder Brett Lisher possesses the team’s single worst walk-up song — Charlie Robison’s “Good Times.” The complaints range from its unappealing genre (“It’s under the classification of red-dirt country, I believe is how he described it to me,” says Smyth) to its generally intolerable beat.

However, because the song seems to mesh especially well with Lisher’s personality and background — he was raised in Lawrence and, according to teammates, fashions himself “country” — the same players reluctantly admit that it passes as a viable choice.

“That’s the thing,” says Price. “If it doesn’t fit you and it’s a bad song, then it’s just brutal. But if it fits you, like Lisher’s does, then it’s actually kind of cool.”

On the rare occasions, meanwhile, when perfection does occur, when a certain player stumbles upon the consummate mix of originality, fit and flair, the effects can linger long after the conclusion of an at-bat.

“I still remember when I was a freshman and (former Texas standout) Drew Stubbs walked out to the song from Requiem for a Dream,” says Smyth of Clint Mansell’s “Lux Aeterna,” which since has become a pregame staple in countless stadiums and arenas across the country. “It was, like, the most intimidating thing I’d ever heard.”

Unfortunately for some players, this line of thinking works the other way, as well.

During a road series against one Big 12 opponent last season, Kansas players quickly picked up on a particularly woeful song selected by one of the team’s prominent players.

“It was some woman’s voice,” says Faunce, “that was just incredibly embarrassing.”

Initially, Kansas’ players reacted with a combination of shock and confusion: Is this guy serious? By the time the series had neared its end, however, and the song had made regular cycles throughout the stadium, they began to look forward to it, piquing their ears to listen and basking in its vast terribleness.

As Faunce recounted the story before a recent home game — 12 months after the fact, it still warrants occasional discussion in the Kansas clubhouse — he did so with the disposition of a disappointed father: a slow shake of the head and a few pained words for the offender — a nameless, faceless mope forever (or at least temporarily) linked to an ill-chosen walk-up song.

“The guy,” said Faunce, in a voice that conveyed sincere pity, “just didn’t put two-and-two together.”

— Sports reporter Dugan Arnett can be reached at 832-7152.


jayhawktownie 10 years, 8 months ago

i think we can conclusively say that baseball players have the worst collective musical taste of any group of people ever.

rockchalk_dpu 10 years, 8 months ago

townie, i hope that you were joking about the 'worst collective musical taste' of the baseball team. i for one find a lot of the songs funny and cool, especially boyer listening to 'electric avenue' and heere with 'danger zone'. why can't you let the team listen to what they want? it's designed to pump them up, not you, so if someone wants to listen to some bossa nova or anything else that you may consider terrible, who's to stop them as long as it gets the job done?


sevenyearhawk 10 years, 8 months ago

There's a great documentary on the Major League "Wild Thing" edition that shows real baseball players talking about how Rick Vaughn's entrance music had an impact on them.

Speaking of, did you know Charlie Sheen was once offered a baseball scholarship to Kansas?

If I were a closer ... I'd either want to enter to either Toxic by Britney Spears or Slipknot before I forget.

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