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Yankees' fans Jay-Z and Alicia Keys — whose "Empire State of Mind" was a popular at-bat song for Derek Jeter — are shown before performing that song at Game 2 of the 2009 World Series.
"Yes I do feel a lot of pressure, man,” says Philadelphia closer Jonathan Papelbon, who played six seasons with the Boston Red Sox before the Phillies signed him as a free agent in November, making him the highest paid reliever in baseball. “It’s like, holy cow.”
Papelbon isn't talking about delivering on his four-year, $50 million contract, staring down an All-Star slugger, or living up to the expectations of Philadelphia's notoriously demanding fans.
He's talking about his “walk-up song,” the music that will play over the speakers at Citizens Bank Park every time he exits the bullpen gates to take the long walk to the pitching mound.
When he pitched for the Red Sox, Papelbon trotted out at Fenway Park to the local Irish-punk band, Dropkick Murphys. But that song — "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" — won’t work in Philadelphia.
Music has been stitched into baseball games ever since “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played at the start of the 1918 World Series. But in recent years the old-timey organs and singalongs about peanuts and crackerjacks that inspire nostalgia like an old, broken-in glove have been sidelined by players' walk-up songs, which span every musical genre from heavy metal to hip-hop, Latin to country, Metallica to Miley Cyrus.
Whether it's Yankees captain Derek Jeter coming out to Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind," or Rockies shortshop Troy Tulowitzki dropping Katy Perry's "Firework" for Justin Bieber's "Baby," walk-up songs help mold players' identities on and off the field. A stadium blasting AC/DC gave former Padres closer Trevor Hoffman just the mental boost he needed to get the final out. And what Braves fan hears Ozzy Osbourne's “Crazy Train” without thinking of Chipper Jones?
Twenty years ago, only a few major league players had walk-up songs. These days nearly all of them do, thanks in part to a spunky young organist, a salesman's CD collection and a transvestite prostitute named Lucille. But more on Lucille later.
The choice of walk-up song might seem a minor detail, a bit of filler shtick like kiss cams and wiener races, but for many players their music is anything but an afterthought.
"You'd be surprised—a lot of thought goes into it," says Kevin Camiscioli, video manager for the Phillies. "When they hear a song, they're like, 'Yeah, that's it. That's what I want to walk to the plate to."
The music selection is especially critical for closers, who show up at the most intense, make-or-break moments of the game. His appearance calls for something theatrical, something aggressive and fearless that matches the attack mode he must bring into the game. High-energy heavy metal and hard rock are favorites. “It pumps them up, plain and simple," says Papelbon.
These days hitters also select songs that get them fired up or in a certain groove. Some songs identify pride or beliefs, like "I'm Latin" or "I'm a Christian" or, heck, even "I'm pure back-home country Alabama." Some guys use the same song their whole career; others want a different song each at-bat. And if they haven't been hitting, well, a new song might just prove a slumpbuster.
One of the unlikely individuals largely responsible for baseball walk-up music as we know it today is 65-year-old Nancy Faust, who was the White Sox organist for 41 years before she retired in 2010.
When Faust was hired in 1970 she got a list of each player and his hometown. Since she knew all the state songs, she’d play the appropriate one as the player walked up to the plate or mound.
During her second year, Faust says Harry Caray was hired as an announcer. "At that time the organ was located in the center field bleachers and I remember him making a statement that this game is so slow they're going to have to carry me back home. When he said 'carry me back home' I played ‘Carry Me Back to Old Virginny’ just like that.”
Caray noticed and pointed out the young organist's ingenuity on the air. Without missing a beat, Faust says she broke into "I'm Just Wild About Harry." A new era of baseball organ music was born.
Faust got more creative and cheeky with her organ over the years. If fans told her a certain player was dating Madonna, she'd play the Material Girl. If a rookie player stepped up to the plate, he might hear "Who Are You?" by The Who.
In 1985, Texas Rangers and former Dodgers pitcher Dave Stewart was arrested on allegations that he engaged in a lewd public act with a transvestite prostitute named Lucille. (Stewart pleaded no contest and received a $150 fine and 45-day suspended jail sentence.) When Stewart came out, Faust started in on a Kenny Rogers tune.
You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille …
“Perhaps I crossed the line a little bit," Faust confesses. "I was just in my own world."
It was a world of playing strictly for the fans. But that world was changing. "The focus turned to the players," says Faust. "I didn't even think the players were paying attention. I didn't think they should be. So it morphed into 'What does the player want to hear?'"
And the players — throughout major league baseball — wanted to hear popular songs most ballpark organists couldn't play.
Around the same time in San Diego, during the summer of 1998, Chip Bowers worked in corporate sponsorships for the Padres. One day he overheard outfielder Steve Finley talking about coming up with a way to promote their closer, Trevor Hoffman, and get fans excited about his entrance.
Bowers, a self-professed music fan, flipped through his CD collection that night. "I can't say I'm a diehard AC/DC fan," he says, but he thought "Hell's Bells" might do the trick.
"The idea of the Mission being just behind the outfield walls and our names being the Padres and having a pitcher come in to a song talking about fire and brimstone was quite ironic, and the bells in that song sounded a lot like the Mission bells that played in that area," says Bowers. "Also being a classic rock song it was perfect for the San Diego fan base."
The next day, in a game against the Houston Astros, “Hell’s Bells” played throughout the stadium as Hoffman took the mound. He struck out Moises Alou, ending the game and tying an MLB record with his 41st consecutive save. The crowd went ballistic, says Bowers.
The following night, with the Astros still in town, Hoffman came out again, but a Van Halen song was played instead of “Hell’s Bells.”
“He gave up a home run and gave up the save streak,” says Bowers. “And I think his reaction was he doesn't ever want another song played for his entry."
When other teams saw the success of what became dubbed "Trevor Time," they replicated the stunt in their own stadiums. Yankees executives decided they should give the same treatment to their closer, Mariano Rivera.
Mike Bonner, senior director of scoreboard and broadcasting at the Yankees, says they considered playing Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “Paradise City” for Rivera, but settled on “Enter Sandman” by Metallica.
“For the longest time Mariano couldn’t even tell you the name of the song or who it was by,” says Bonner. “He really could’ve cared less and still doesn’t care. If he came out to Christian music he’d probably be happier.”
Rare is the player today who doesn't care about his theme music.
In a sport where every swing, every statement, every gesture is deconstructed, analyzed and post-analyzed, walk-up music has become an area of growing scrutiny among both players and fans.
Players complain when their song doesn't get played (or doesn’t get played loud enough), or if they wanted a song changed but no one got the memo. Those memos, incidentally, used to come scribbled on slips of paper. Now players might send up an iPod with detailed instructions that state which song should be played, and exactly where in the song it should start.
Players are praised for good choices. Beloved Yankees rightfielder Paul O’Neill will forever be associated with his song, “Baba O’Riley” by The Who. Derek Jeter coming to the plate to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' New York anthem "Empire State of Mind" was another appropriate choice. David "Big Papi" Ortiz used to come to the plate to "Big Poppa" by Notorious B.I.G.
Players are also called out for bad song choices. In Boston, Manny Ramirez caused a stir when his last-minute request for "Good Times (I Get High)” —a song about smoking marijuana — was played before being reviewed. Some fans deemed Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez's choice of "This Is Why I'm Hot" by rapper Mims to be arrogant and superficial.
Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is known for walking up to such bubblegum-pop tunes as Katy Perry's "Firework," Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA," and even Justin Bieber's "Baby" — about as far from Metallica and AC/DC as one can get. “I picked Bieber because I have many young fans," says Tulowitzki. “My walk-up music is not saying anything about me. It's more to keep me focused and ready for the at-bat.”
Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard always request the newest urban music. Shane Victorino, the “Flyin' Hawaiian,” walks up to Bob Marley's "Buffalo Soldier," a nod to his island roots. Chase Utley has used Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" for years.
As Opening Day approached, Papelbon said he was close to deciding what his new song will be.
"I had a couple requests for Elton John which I definitely probably will not be doing," he said. "'Philadelphia Freedom' — I'm not doing that."
5 Classic Baseball Walk-Up Songs
Or click here for a full Spotify playlist of some of the most memorable "Baseball Walk-Up Songs" in MLB history .