Enter Sound Man: An Insider’s Look at Baseball’s Walk-Up Music
Mike Castellani put aside his pregame dinner, leaned back and smiled. Dressed in a blue polo shirt and gray jeans and twirling a pair of eyeglasses in his hand, he was as ready as he would ever be for the music to begin.
Castellani has been the sound man for the Mets since 1994, through some good years and numerous bad ones. From a room overlooking Citi Field filled with 35 monitors and co-workers banging on keypads, he can turn on the music in one of the stadium’s ritzy lounges with the flick of a finger.
With another press, he can cue the walk-up music that plays over the public-address system when Mets batters stroll to the plate or when the team’s relief pitchers jog in from the bullpen.
“Everything you hear in the park,” said Tim Gunkel, an official in the Mets’ production and marketing department, “goes through him.”
Which means that Castellani, 57, is providing the soundtrack for what may be a season of resurgence for the Mets, who, at least for now, are competing for a division title after six straight years of losing records.
Walk-up music is typically reserved for the home team in baseball and has loudly made its presence felt. The players pick the songs, and their choices often reflect pop culture. That means a lot of the lyrics are not necessarily suitable for ballpark audiences, although teams, by using only carefully chosen snippets of the songs, are generally able to sidestep that issue.
Castellani and others like him in ballparks around the major leagues make sure it all works — that the songs match the player, inning after inning, game after game, month after month. As the games become more important, the music takes on a little more meaning.
At Citi Field, Castellani — “I call myself an audio engineer,” he said — keeps an eye on which Met is headed to the plate, or to the mound, and punches a player-specific code into a large pad in front of him.
To avoid confusion, he sorts the songs to be used not by the name of the artist but by that of the player. To play the song for a Lucas Duda at-bat earlier this season, for example, he entered the code “LD1.” Soon, “All Along the Watchtower,” the Jimi Hendrix version, was thumping through the stadium’s speakers as Duda approached the batter’s box.
“We can be somewhere else not looking at the field, and we hear the song and we’re like, ‘Lucas Duda’s coming up,’ ” Gunkel said. “And I think the fans do that, too.”
But it is not just the fans who are listening. Some time ago, the Mets’ Curtis Granderson remembered, there was an umpire who really liked the song “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” a rap classic by Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Dogg.
Granderson used to walk up to the plate to that song, and the umpire felt compelled to praise the choice.
“He said, ‘By far the best song in the big leagues,’ ” Granderson recalled.
Umpires, fans, users of social media — they all have told Granderson, who this season has regularly used “Drop It Like It’s Hot” by Snoop Dogg, what they think of his musical preferences.
And in one instance, several years ago, when Granderson was using “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See,” he ran into Busta Rhymes, the man who sings it, when they were both on a talk show. (No, they did not break out in song.)
Other times, the artist approaches the athlete. Earlier this season, the Christian musician Brandon Heath found out that Yankees catcher John Ryan Murphy walked to the plate to “Give Me Your Eyes,” one of Heath’s most popular songs. Heath, who said he had always wanted to be a part of a player’s walk-up music, wrote Murphy a Twitter message.
That eventually led to lunch at a pub in the East Village, where they discussed their families and how to navigate New York City. Murphy then treated Heath and his wife to a Yankees game, and they have plans to meet up again, a friendship borne of walk-up music.
But if religion informed Murphy’s choice of music, movies have inspired one of his counterparts, Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen that one U.F.C. movie with Kevin James in it,” d’Arnaud said, referring to the comedy “Here Comes the Boom,” about a teacher who trains to become a mixed martial arts fighter. “The teacher talks about how in war they used to play their battle songs to get you ready for the war. And for me, that moment, that’s my war with the pitcher, so I need something to get me hyped up and get me ready to go out there and see a baseball coming at me at 95 miles an hour.”
The song that meets d’Arnaud’s lofty standards this year is “0 to 100 / The Catch Up” by Drake. “Because when I walk up to the plate, it makes me feel” — d’Arnaud paused, searching for the right words — “really good.”
Players used to have little input about what song was played before their at-bats. In 1970, Nancy Faust, the popular organist for the Chicago White Sox who retired in 2010 and is believed to be the founder of walk-up music, started playing hitters’ state songs as they came to the plate. She then started experimenting with other songs for various players, and they became her signature.
“I had the ability to be able to just play spontaneous,” Faust said.
But in the mid-1980s, with better technology, walk-up music transformed into a player-driven phenomenon. Players chose their own songs, and walk-up music began its evolution to where it is today.
For the Mets, that means having members of the audio staff ask players in spring training for three or four songs they want to use in the regular season and to begin compiling playlists.
Song choices range from merengue to Macklemore. Matt Harvey consulted with a music editor to create his own Frank Sinatra-infused clip; on the Yankees, Alex Rodriguez used “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” by Journey earlier this season. Some players change their song every two years; others change it every other homestand.
Mike Piazza was famous for choosing a whole bunch of songs when he played for the Mets. “He would call for something pregame, and we wanted to try to get it for him,” Gunkel said, “so we’d actually send an intern out to a record store.” Now, of course, when players request a new song, the Mets’ audio staff simply finds it digitally.
For players, the process for choosing a song can be more complicated than it appears. First, they have to find a 15-second clip that is clean, which is not always easy. The crowd, Granderson noted, contains thousands of people of all ages.
Faust said, “At first, when we were playing recorded music, we had to be very mindful — and we weren’t at the beginning — of lyrics.”
To manage, the audio staff members frequently use instrumentals, find clean versions of songs or work around the lyrics they do not want pulsing through the stadium.
Next, the song must be different from other players’ choices because, Granderson said, “you don’t want to double up.”
One of the more notorious cases of doubling up involved “Enter Sandman” by Metallica, which had become the soundtrack of Mariano Rivera’s walks from the bullpen to the mound. When Yankees fans discovered that the Mets’ Billy Wagner, newly arrived from the Philadelphia Phillies, also used that song when he came in to close games, they were, naturally, incensed — even though Wagner had been using it for years and even though Rivera said he was hardly in love with “Enter Sandman” in the first place. The uproar underlined the aura of walk-up music.
Songs and entrances for relief pitchers and closers, made popular by the 1989 movie “Major League,” can be more theatrical than those used for hitters — check out “Craig Kimbrel entrance” on YouTube — because of the game situations in which they arise: late innings, game on the line, fans tense.
“That Broadway entrance,” the Mets’ Gunkel called it.
Gunkel noted that most stadiums now had “distributed sound” with speakers in every section, but he remembered a time when all of the stadium’s speakers were entrenched behind center field and “you’d listen for a couple seconds, and you’d try to figure out what song it is.”
Still, Granderson said, even current sound systems “might not do justice to the song you want,” so players have to keep their ears open.
A few lockers away, the Mets rookie outfielder Darrell Ceciliani explained that there were two types of walk-up songs: those that pump up and those that calm down.
Ceciliani, who was called up to the Mets from Class AAA Las Vegas in May and has since been sent back, said that in the minors this season, he was walking out to “All-American Middle Class White Boy” by Thomas Rhett because of its mellowing effect. With the Mets? “I actually don’t have one yet,” he said. “I’ve got to get ahold of somebody to do that.”
Well, maybe if he is called up again.
Some players, like d’Arnaud, care deeply, almost superstitiously, about their walk-up music; others seem more casual about it. When d’Arnaud was mired in a slump in the first month of last season, he cycled through four or five songs before returning to his original Busta Rhymes track. “And I started feeling good again,” he said.
But can walk-up music enhance performance? Jonathan F. Katz, a psychologist who has worked with several professional athletes and teams, including the N.H.L.’s Rangers, said music — which athletes have used to mentally prepare for competition long before walk-up music emerged — was one of several factors that could affect on-field production.
“Music is a factor in getting people in the right mind-set,” Katz said. “Now, the body and the mind work interactively, right? If you’re kind of anxious and nervous, the tension in your arm and how you hold the bat and your grip could be affected.”
He added, “The better the physical and mental state that a batter is when he gets in the batter’s box, the better position he is to hit.”
To cope with the musicless walks to the plate on the road, some players sing to themselves, said Blue Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar, who uses “Time of Our Lives” by Pitbull and Ne-Yo and imagines it playing before his at-bats in other stadiums. (Pillar, incidentally, has a higher career batting average on the road than at home, as do Granderson and d’Arnaud.)
During a recent interview with Pillar, the song “Springsteen,” by the country singer Eric Church, was blaring through a speaker in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse at Citi Field. About 30 seconds in, it cut off, and Pillar got up from his chair to investigate. He glanced at his cellphone, which was attached to the speaker.
“Sorry, I’m a popular person,” he joked to his teammate Justin Smoak. Pillar then set the phone back down, and the music played on.
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