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The Music of Baseball

Gary Ellenbolt

Kids who love baseball are known to pick a favorite player and emulate his batting style. Maybe they'll hitch up their pants before they go to the plate--or hold the bat high off the shoulder with the front foot behind the back foot. In the past few years, kids have copied another part of the at-bat; the walk-up song that plays when a player comes to the plate or to the mound to enter the game.  

The bases are loaded with the visiting team in the top of the 9th inning—they’re down by a run, with no one out, when the home team manager makes the sign to the bullpen. A door opens in the outfield fence, and a confident left-hander makes his walk to the mound. He’s been in the situation before, and the partisan crowd breathes a sigh of relief. He makes it to the mound, takes the ball from the manager—and he’s got this. When the fans hear the opening strains of Molly Hatchett, they know the win is as good as theirs.

Music is a large part of almost any sport—from pep bands at high school games to popular songs of a day. It’s all part of the modern term, “the Fan Experience.”

It wasn’t always that way. Music was introduced to major league baseball in April of 19-41, when the Chicago Cubs hired an organist for the team’s home opener as a one-day promotion. Fans enjoyed the music so much, the organ remained as part of the atmosphere at Wrigley Field.

On this evening in Sioux Falls, the pitcher for the Canaries is taking his warm-up tosses to a Jimi Hendrix song, ‘Purple Haze.” The first hitter for the opposing Winnipeg Goldeyes is Tyler Kuhn. The Kentucky native and former member of the Chicago White Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks organizations, is 600 miles from the Goldeyes’ home base at Shaw Park, so he won’t be hearing his walk-up selection this evening.

Kuhn says, “I come out to ‘Meant to Live’ by Switchfoot. I change it every year—I don’t particularly have any rhyme or reason behind it, but I like the beat to it, and I’ve seen Switchfoot live, and they’re awesome live—and I know a lot of people know the beat to it, and hopefully people enjoy it in the crowd.”

The Goldeyes—named for a fish native to Lake Winnipeg in Canada--score once in the first inning. Then it’s the Canaries’ turn to hit, with Steve Tinoco leading off. He’s from one of the most exclusive communities in the U-S, the gated community of Coto de Caza, California.

“My walk up song," says Tinoco, "is ‘California Dreaming’ by Kid Inc.  It has a rhythm to it, it has a beat—and that’s what I look for in music. You know, going up to bat, I like feeling that rhythm, and taking it into the batter’s box, so that works for me. But a lot of guys like hard rock to get pumped up or get amped up—a lot of guys like techno or Latin music. It just kinda depends on what they feel and how they can move that into the batter’s box.”

Tinoco says he won’t hesitate to change his music if he feels the need.

He adds, “A lot of superstition, honestly—a couple bad games in a row, or that feeling of time to change. Just a thought that something needs to change—I’d say mostly superstition, though.”

One member of the Sioux Falls team is happy with the song that accompanies him to the plate. Canaries radio broadcaster J-J Hartigan explains.

Hartigan says of catcher Kevin Dultz, “He goes up there to the same song, Little John’s ‘Turn Down for What.’ It’s kind of a popular, high-energy song, and it gets the crowd pretty excited—but I’ve heard it enough times where I’m like ‘Wow, there it is again.”

Kevin Dultz enjoys the music—and he says he plans to use it for at least a while longer.

Dultz explains, “You know, the first time I heard that song, I was in Vegas—and it just went out to me. I’m a live person, I always hustle, and that song is about ‘Why would you turn it down? Why would you shut off your motivation. Keep going hard, all the time.”

It's up to the players to choose their music--for the most part--but JJ Hartigan says they need to keep it in line with the family atmosphere at the stadium known as "The Birdcage."

According to Hartigan, “They try to keep it as friendly as they can, knowing there are a lot of kids out there, and they’re the heroes for these kids. If they see a batter walk up with that song, they want to go out and emulate them. And so these guys come up with the mindset that 'Well, if these kids are watching us, and listening to what we listen to, we’d better make sure we set a good example, too.'”

As the hitters have their favorite songs to perform to, some pitchers use their own songs as well. Charlie Sheen’s character in the Movie “Major League,” Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, had an obvious choice to enter the game to. But Hartigan says the American Association doesn’t have a lot of specific songs for pitchers.

Hartigan says, “Walk-up songs are primarily used for hitters, but if there’s a closer who wants that little pump-up when they come in in the ninth or whatever—but for the most part, I’ve noticed it more with the hitters than with the pitchers.”

Whether it’s superstition, a boost at the plate or on the mound, or a song that celebrates a player’s heritage, those short snippets of song have become an important part of the soundtrack of a night at the ball park.

Before we go—in case you wonder how it went for the reliever who came in in the 9th inning at the beginning of our story? The guy who entered the game with the bases loaded and no one out?

Two strikeouts and a fly ball later, the game is over and the home team wins. The victors shake hands all around—and the relief pitcher who saved the day does what he always does after a tight ball game.

He—OK—I—wake up from the dream and go to work.