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Prelude to a save: A closer’s guide to choosing the right entrance song

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Baseball players have a hard time expressing their personal style. Playing a sport with discrete events, prescribed paths of travel, and a set of unwritten rules that haven’t been updated in several decades, they have little room to color outside the lines. In most cases, hitches in pitching deliveries or bizarre batting approaches are drilled out of players at a young age. In contrast to sports like basketball, soccer, or football, there are few opportunities for the sort of open-field play that showcases peerless athleticism and unbridled creativity.

Because of these restrictions, players must take advantage of any opportunity afforded them to make a stylistic mark on the game. Somewhat bizarrely, one of the best ways to do this has nothing to do with the way the sport is played. Nearly every player in the majors is allowed to choose entrance music, whether it’s a short snippet before his first at-bat of the game or a longer entrance song before a pitcher comes into the game.

Closers need these songs more than anyone. Pitching just one inning to end the game, they rely on elements of intimidation that workhorse starters can’t sustain over six or seven innings. Closers are performers in the full sense of the word, and their entrance music is nearly as much a part of their personas as a filthy slider or 97-mph fastball. Yet few understand what makes a good entrance song. They have much to learn. Most of which, incidentally, can be found in the following guide.

Pump up the crowd. This precept is the most basic building block of the closer song, but still one that many players fail to meet. Fans are already primed for a closer’s entrance—he’s the bullpen’s best pitcher and they’re only three outs away from a win. The entrance music exists to ramp that excitement to the loudest levels of the game, and as such cannot wear people out all at once. Ideally, it builds from marginally quiet to excessively loud over the course of about a minute, announcing the closer’s walk from the bullpen to the mound with slow-burning noise and losing control by the time he’s halfway through his warmup pitches. The goal is not to wear out the crowd before the real excitement of the game returns—the song should only start a chemical reaction.

Not surprisingly, the best closer song in baseball history also has the best lead-up. Used by San Diego Padres fireman Trevor Hoffman for more than a decade, AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” begins with the death knell of a cast-iron bell and creeps along slowly. The song never really gets out of hand—much like Hoffman, who relied on a change-up instead of pure heat—but it builds enough over the course of 90 seconds that fans reached states of satanic fervor by the time he threw his first real pitch. In fact, it was so exciting that national TV broadcast often used to stay with the game instead of cutting to commercial when Hoffman came in from the bullpen. In a multibillion-dollar organization dependent on ad dollars, that’s a sign of greatness.

Establish a brand. Despite its importance, exciting the crowd is an entry-level part of picking the perfect closer song. If expressing style is the ultimate goal, then closers must establish themselves as unique individuals. A closer needs a strong sense of self to seem like a larger-than-life character—as with Batman, they must enlarge the basic aspects of their personalities to monstrous proportions.

Giants closer Brian Wilson is a mix of fratty confidence, Tim And Eric weirdness, and the affectations of professional wrestling. House Of Pain’s “Jump Around” is the perfect fit, standing for slightly goofy white-boy swagger and pure unfettered excitement. Plus, while the ever-present squeal is a saxophone sample, it sounds like a kettle flying off the stove, a nice match for Wilson’s demented personality. That’s also why it’s fine that “Jump Around” stays at a high level of energy throughout: Wilson, like the song, is never calm.

The active leader in brand-building, though, is easily second-year Brewers closer John Axford, who enters to Refused’s “New Noise.” Most closers go for generic metal, but Axford opted for a searing hardcore punk track that acts as a call to arms on an album, The Shape Of Punk To Come, that declares itself a tonic for a moribund genre. When the song plays at Miller Park and Dennis Lyxzen yells, “We dance to all the wrong songs,” it’s a response to rote baseball personalities as much as a method of pumping up the crowd. It’s also the best way to announce Axford, a former Notre Dame film major whose facial hair recalls Snidely Whiplash (or former Brewers great Rollie Fingers) rather than an extra from Wild Hogs.

Leave the metal womb. Implicit in the notes on brand-building above is the sense that closers, for the most part, gravitate toward generic metal. In part, that’s because baseball players have legendarily bad taste—it’s perhaps the only sport in which free Ed Hardy shirts have been used as a morale-booster by managers. But that doesn’t make the selections excusable, and some of the best closers working today have interchangeable entrance songs: the Padres’ Heath Bell and Breaking Benjamin’s “Blow Me Away,” the Nationals’ Drew Storen and Five Finger Death Punch’s cover of “Bad Company,” Pirates All-Star Joel Hanrahan and Slipknot’s “Before I Forget,” etc. ad infinitum. As in the case of the bar patron who asks for a shot of “any tequila,” these choices broadcast the selector’s indiscriminate approach to life. Yes, you’ll get blitzed, but you’re also telling everyone in the place absolutely nothing about yourself.

On the other hand, moving outside of this comfort zone can be invigorating. Take enigmatic Cubs closer Carlos Marmol, who used the Detroit Spinners’ classic “Rubberband Man” for the brief period last season when the Cubs allowed music that didn’t emanate from organ pipes. The pairing was inspired, both because of Marmol’s elastic delivery and the bouncy rhythm of the song. At his best, Marmol and his confounding slider are one of the sport’s chief pleasures. Crucially, the Cubs were only able to find a perfect sonic match for his style by embracing joy instead of standard rawk.

Sound isn’t the whole story. AC/DC’s “T.N.T.” has a perfect crowd sing-along with its repeated “Oi!,” is tuneful enough to appeal to everyone in the crowd, and features a rousing chorus to match up with the start of an inning. Unfortunately, it builds up to Bon Scott yelling “watch me explode,” which is pretty much the one thing closers are expected not to do. Is it any wonder that Kevin Gregg of the Orioles has a 4.45 ERA this year? And, while Indians All-Star (and David Foster Wallace doppelganger) Chris Perez has been pretty good this season, he’s tempting fate by using The Prodigy’s “Firestarter.”

Don’t pander. Pandering is the cousin of a lyrical dealbreaker in that one problem ruins an entrance that would otherwise rank among the best in the majors. Take, for instance, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon’s choice of the Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” best known from its ubiquity around the release of The Departed. Loud and sloppy, it sums up Papelbon’s borderline-insane, Massholish personality about as well as anything. The problem is that it’s almost too good—the association with a much-loved Boston movie, the Boston-referencing title, and the use of a band from the area mean it might as well have been performed by Larry Bird with Kevin McHale singing backup. It’s shameless and embarrassing. No one in Texas has ever come into a game to the theme song from Walker Texas Ranger. A city should never define a persona.

Know your source. Sometimes a song can be a rousing call to action and an embarrassment all at once. Twins closer Joe Nathan has used Steel Dragon’s “Stand Up And Shout” for several seasons. As the title indicates, it’s all about letting go of inhibitions and making noise because it’s a moral imperative. Unfortunately, Steel Dragon is a fictional band from the Mark Wahlberg flop Rock Star, a horrible film full of awkward tonal shifts and nostalgia for a bygone era that’s rendered with all the subtlety of a tinfoil-wrapped cucumber stuffed into a pair of spandex trousers. Anyone familiar with the song’s origins cannot be intimidated or impressed by Nathan’s entrance.

Still, as bad as Nathan’s song is, at least he chose a song that had never been used before. Some of the best closers in the game, including the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera and the Braves’ Craig Kimbrel, have completely squandered the opportunity for stylistic statements by opting for entrance music already chosen by All-Stars. Rivera, the greatest closer in the history of the game, comes out to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” previously used by now-retired lefty Billy Wagner. On the other end of the age spectrum, Kimbrel, who’s about to break the rookie saves record, enters to “Welcome To The Jungle,” popularized by the Dodgers’ Eric Gagne when he was the best closer in baseball from 2002 through 2004.

Both are excellent closer songs, and Rivera and Kimbrel are good enough that fans will always be excited when they enter games. But while performance is ultimately what matters most to those in attendance, baseball has a hard time reaching new fans when players don’t do everything possible to distinguish their personalities from the pack. With a fan base disproportionately older than those of leagues like the NFL and NBA, Major League Baseball needs to seem forward-thinking and cool whenever possible. Closer entrances can be gimmicky and distract from the sport as it’s played on the field, but they still broadcast baseball players as performers, not just names in a box score. Guys like Brian Wilson aren’t just selling themselves—they’re convincing potential fans that the sport is worth watching, too.