Walk-up Songs in Baseball
HIT PARADE: No one knows when it started, but today, the walk-up song is as much a part of baseball as spitting
Every few innings during Sox games, U.S. Cellular Field’s speakers echo with a familiar pop refrain from the eighties: Josie’s on a vacation far away . . . If these lyrics don’t ring a bell, look up “Your Love” by the Outfield on YouTube. You’ll remember it instantly. The limp song about a guy planning to cheat on his girl while she’s out of town reached number six on the Billboard charts in 1986, then disappeared—mostly. Baseball, forever wrapped in rituals both profound and absurd, currently dictates that each player gets his own “walk-up song,” and the White Sox second baseman, Gordon Beckham, uses “Your Love.”
The first time he steps to the plate and you hear “Your Love,” it’s benign, nostalgic. You may even sing along ironically the second time, depending on your rate of alcohol intake. By the third listen, you hate the song. By the fourth, you hate Gordon Beckham.
No one knows when the walk-up song tradition started, but my first awareness of it featured Sparky Lyle—a flaky Yankees reliever famous for sitting on birthday cakes naked—jogging onto the mound to “Pomp and Circumstance” in the seventies. Whether or not the song was his choice, it captured his unhinged persona. (To this day, at graduations I think, Hey, it’s the Sparky Lyle song.) Others adopted songs that reflected their playing styles. Mitch Williams, a former Cub who said he pitched like his hair was on fire, entered to “Wild Thing” and then launched fastballs that landed everywhere from the catcher’s mitt to the visiting team’s water fountain.
Today, walk-up music is as much a part of baseball as spitting. Players’ intro songs generally fall into one of two predictable camps: Opponent Intimidators (“Hells Bells,” Trevor Hoffman; “Iron Man,” Mike Lowell) and Crowd Pumper-Uppers (“Welcome to the Jungle,” Eric Gagne; “Thunderstruck,” Cole Hamels). As with most baseball rituals, straying from the norm is not tolerated. Nor is change. Chipper Jones, a third baseman for Atlanta, once had the nerve to replace his longtime theme song—Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”—with a Kid Rock tune, and Braves fans reacted as though Chipper strangled puppies during the seventh-inning stretch. He went back to “Crazy Train.”
Some guys try hip-hop or reggaeton or goofy stuff like the Darth Vader theme, but fans prefer testosterone-fueled redneck anthems. Most big leaguers fall in line, even if the music makes no sense for them personally. Mariano Rivera, the formidable Yankees closer, shocked New Yorkers in 2006 by admitting that he had never cared for “Enter Sandman,” the Metallica dirge that makes his entrances ominous. Paul Konerko, the goody-goody White Sox first baseman, has “Harvester of Sorrow,” a delightful Metallica ditty about a man who murders his family.
All of which brings us back to the mystery of “Your Love,” a song so vanilla it couldn’t possibly pump up or intimidate anyone. I initially theorized that Gordon Beckham’s Sox teammates had stuck him with it last season as a kind of rookie hazing. Erroneous. It turns out the 23-year-old Atlanta native fell in love with the song in high school and used it for a walk-up song his freshman year at the University of Georgia. As a sophomore, he pulled a Chipper and chose another song—“just to mix it up”—and the crowd booed. So he reverted to “Your Love,” hit a three-run homer in his next at-bat, and that was that.
But ballplayers are a famously superstitious lot, and I asked Beckham if a prolonged slump—or constant ribbing over his song’s intrinsic lameness—would ever lead him to change it. (Please?) “Yes, I get a lot of crap from teammates, particularly from A. J. [Pierzynski] and Ozzie [Guillen],” Beckham said. “But I will never change the song, regardless of how I am doing.” I admire the kid’s conviction, but here’s hoping he gets traded to Seattle.
Illustration: Rachel Harris