How do relief pitchers pick their entrance songs?

Songs you've got to hear.
April 14 2006 2:48 PM

Hear My Song, Fear My Fastball

What's the best entrance music for a pitcher coming out of the bullpen?

The Oakland A's Huston Street
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The Oakland A's Huston Street

You may have heard the uproar on sports talk radio: Billy Wagner, the Mets' newly acquired $43-million relief pitcher, races to the mound at Shea Stadium with Metallica's "Enter Sandman" blaring on the PA system. Doesn't he know that Yankees' closer Mariano "The Sandman" Rivera has been using that song in the Bronx for years? Rivera has said that he doesn't mind (he prefers Christian music), but that hasn't stopped Yankees fans from mocking Wagner (even though he's been using the song since 1996, a few years before Rivera). But this cross-town controversy brings up one of baseball's unanswered questions: What's the greatest closer entrance song of all time?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber
Daniel Engber is a regular contributor to Slate. He can be reached at danengber@yahoo.com

Right now, "Enter Sandman" and "Hell's Bells" by AC/DC are two of the most popular and effective closer themes in baseball. With spare, creepy intros that build to screaming I'm-gonna-get-you vocals, both songs fit the jock-rock genre that's supposed to freak out your opponents and psyche up your fans. Church bells augur the opening of the bullpen doors in "Hell's Bells," and guitars and drums fill in as the pitcher begins his jog across the field. I'm rolling thunder, pouring rain/ I'm comin' on like a hurricane. " Enter Sandman" starts from an ominous guitar riff played without accompaniment. Say your prayers little one/ Don't forget, my son, to include everyone.

But a closer theme that's merely scary and exciting hasn't done its job. It should also be obnoxious. Your fans already know how nasty you are, and they want everyone else in the league to hate you for it. The right song will crystallize an ill will that's already there. It's no surprise that the Yankees and the Braves, the two most reviled teams in baseball, have had the most memorable closer themes of the past few years.

Atlanta's bad-boy closer (and immigrant-basher) John Rocker managed to inspire such hatred that Twisted Sister asked him to stop playing one of their songs when he went to the mound. And, while John Smoltz no longer closes games for Atlanta, his entrance to AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" was infuriating. (Oddly, Smoltz once had the nanciest entrance song imaginable: ABBA's "Dancing Queen.") Like "Enter Sandman," "Thunderstruck" starts lean and threatening, with a droning ah ah ah chant. It builds to a cheesy chorus that could make a hater out of anyone: You've been … thunderstruck!

Entrance music for closers has been around since at least the early 1960s, well before stadiums started playing rock. By 1972, pitchers were finishing only about half the games they started, and the bad-ass bullpen ace had become an important member of the team. In the Vietnam era, ballpark organists tapped out personalized ditties when a reliever came into the game: The Twins' Bill Dailey got "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey," and the Mets' Tug McGraw heard an Irish jig. Sparky Lyle and the Yankees took a cue from midcentury pro wrestler Gorgeous George, who pioneered the entrance theme with "Pomp and Circumstance." Most memorable, though, was the theme music for the snarling, Fu-Manchu'd closer Al Hrabosky of the St. Louis Cardinals. Nicknamed "The Mad Hungarian," Hrabosky marched out to Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2." It opens in an ominous minor key, meanders for a bit, then builds to a rousing climax. Hrabosky was himself a meanderer: He'd stomp around the mound between pitches, pounding his glove and muttering to himself.

The rock 'n' roll closer song as we know it today emerged in the aftermath of the 1989 baseball comedy Major League. Charlie Sheen played an erratic pitcher named Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn, whose trips to the mound at Municipal Stadium were scored by an X cover of the Troggs. It didn't take long for a real-life "Wild Thing" to crop up: The Cubs' Mitch Williams took the name—and the song—a few months after the movie came out. From the start, closers tended to pick rock anthems that were at least 10 years out of date, such as the very popular "Bad to the Bone" (1982) by George Thorogood and the Destroyers. Both Dennis Eckersley and Goose Gossage used the song, and each of Cincinnati's notorious Nasty Boys had a "Bad to the Bone" sticker affixed to his locker.

The closer songs of the early '90s tended to mix a cranky bravado with the threat of mental instability—don't mess with me, I'm so mean and crazy. The more recent crop ditches the crankiness in favor of all-out psychopathy. Today's closer isn't just baaaad, he's a cold-blooded murderer. Death threats spill out of the stadium speakers every time there's a save opportunity: Trevor Hoffman's song promises I won't take no prisoners, won't spare no lives. L.A.'s Eric Gagne comes out to "Welcome to the Jungle"—I wanna hear you scream … I wanna watch you bleed. Even Mike Stanton, who eschewed jock metal for country music, chose a Toby Keith song that spews threats of physical violence: You'll be sorry you messed with the U. S. of A./ 'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass, it's the American way. 

Not every closer in the game takes such an aggressive posture with their music, but the ones who go soft come off as pretty lame. Todd Jones, for example, seems determined to put opposing hitters in a cheerful mood. When Jones closed for the Tigers, he used "Mr. Jones" by Counting Crows. Yes, Mr. Jones, we get it—but what about those lyrics: We all want something beautiful/ I wish I was beautiful. After moving to the Marlins, Jones switched over to Christian rock. The prostration rhetoric (I will finally bow at your feet/ I will lift up your name in honor and praise) in his new song ("Glory Defined," by Building 429) doesn't seem any likelier to intimidate opposing hitters. It may, however, save their souls.  

If (most) relief pitchers are looking for mainstream music with an aggressive, confrontational edge, where's the rap? A few closers have experimented with hip-hop themes, without much success. The closer Matt Mantei thought it was a good idea to use "Ice, Ice, Baby" when he pitched for the Marlins. Armando Benitez made two ill-advised choices when he tried Jay-Z's "Big Pimpin' " and Biggie's "Big Poppa." The former should be disqualified as a closer theme on the basis of its prominent flute sample. The latter veers off the battlefield and into the bedroom—there's just no space for pillow talk when you're jogging in from the bullpen.

The best rap closer theme—and a contender for the best of all time—belongs to last year's American League rookie of the year, Oakland's Huston Street. At first the 23-year-old refused to take a theme song, "out of respect for the true closers in the game." But like a true closer, he's now abandoned any pretense of modesty. This year he's coming out to Nas' " Hate Me Now"—a suitably out-of-date rap anthem with all the elements of a classic shut-down song: A creepy opening, a dramatic buildup, and a swaggering chorus worthy of the Braves and Yankees. You can hate me now/ But I won't stop now/ Cause I can't stop now/ You can hate me now. Perfect.