Baseball & Country Music: Part 1 – An Introduction

One of the fun traditions in going to an MLB game is hearing the music that each player chooses for his walk up to the plate, or in the case of relief pitchers when they are coming into the game, in particular in search of fun country songs.  Sometimes this stuff is referred to as entrance or intro music which is appropriate for relief pitchers, but I prefer the terms walk-up for batters and walk-on for relief pitchers. I guess for starting pitchers qua starters, warm-up music is the best term.

These song choices are small windows into players’ personalities.  For some of the players I’ve heard about, song choice is motivated by the preferences of children or other family members or the actual or perceived preferences of fans (David Wright sometimes lets his brothers choose his songs and a few years ago opened his walk-up music up to a fan vote.)  In some cases I’ve read about players being apathetic about the music played when they come to bat, but extremely rare is the player who has chosen to come on to silence (see e.g., Brian McCann).  In most cases though, I think players are choosing songs that represent their music tastes or that they think will motivate them in their performance and that’s pretty interesting to hear.

Of Simple Man, Jacob deGrom’s said: “I never picked anything in the minor leagues. I would always just tell them, ‘Play whatever.’ But then I didn’t really like the song they were playing when I got called up. So I just decided to change to ‘Simple Man.’ I like slower music like that. It kind of calms me down, I guess. I don’t want to get too amped up going into the first inning.” Cody Allen, one of the Country All-Stars I’ll talk more about in Part 2 of this post, said of one of his choices – Outsiders by Church – “I’m a big country music fan and it’s just an awesome song. I used to listen to it every morning on the way to the gym. It sounds good over the speakers, especially a certain part right in the middle of the song. I had a good year last year, so I rode with it.”  Awesome.  Allen definitely sounds like the kind of country guy I wouldn’t mind throwing back a few Lonestars with.  And Joe Beimel, one of a number of closers aptly choosing Cash’s God’s Gonna Cut You Down, recounts facing Lance Berkman three days in row and then the “last day I got him out, and on the play I had to run over and cover first. After the out, he looks at me and says, ‘What is your entrance music?’ I told him the song and the next year, he started using it when he came up to hit. I was like, ‘Really, dude?’ But I’m sticking with it. I’m more likely to change my socks than my entrance music.”

There are a couple sites that purport to track the songs each player chooses. None of them are great.  MLB.com is the most official listing, but based on my familiarity with Mets’ players’ music and sports reporting on the music selections of other players, this listing is not so accurate.  Relying on this data (I believe for the 2015 season) Baseball Prospectus says 411 players had only 1 song compared to 145 with more than 1, but I think in reality a great many more players than indicated have multiple songs.  Even if the underlying data is outdated or incomplete, there are still some super interesting statistics that can be run, e.g. on the interaction between genre or song choice and on-field performance.  MLBplatemusic.com seems to take a wikipedia-like approach letting readers update entries for players and has the virtue of being searchable by artist, but the presentation doesn’t distinguish between current and outdated walk-up choices and isn’t comprehensive.  Getting perfect data here is a tough enterprise, particularly accounting for the ability of players to add and subtract the number of their picks and change those picks themselves and the frequent influx of minor leaugers into the MLB in season.  Plus, added to this, is that at least a couple of players I’ve read about seem to have performance-related triggers around their (warm-up) music (imagine God’s Gonna Cut You Down feeling awkward after a 6-run first).

Focusing in on the New York Mets for a moment, country fans include Curtis Granderson – Tim McGraw’s Indian Outlaw, Eric Campbell – Eric Church’s Broke Record and Jacob deGrom – Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Simple Man (not quite country, but close enough to mention). And from first-hand observation Jonathan Niese (no longer, of course, a Met), David Wright and Zack Wheeler have also chosen to come on to country music.  So just by way of example re: the reliability of the data discussed above, MLB plate music only reflects deGrom and Wright’s country choices and MLB.com gets Campbell, deGrom and Granderson right (but for Granderson failing to mention that he only choose Tim no more frequently than every third song).

In any event, depending a bit on the season and more on how narrowly we defined other categories of music, country comes in about third or fourth place in terms of genre over the past few seasons. Hip hop/ rap take the number one slot, followed by latin music/ reggaeton and then a pretty close competition between rock & roll and country.  At the top of the country heap are Jason Aldean, Brantley Gilbert, Eric Church and Lynyrd Skynyrd (more rock or country depending on the song), with MLB.com putting each of these artists in the overall Top 20 with Aldean tied with Drake for the top spot with 15 players choosing Aldean songs. Johnny Cash, Tim McGraw, Zac Brown Band and Florida Georgia Line also do well.

Overall Eric Church’s The Outsiders, Jason Aldean’s The Only Way I Know and Lights Come On (and My Kinda Party and Just Gettin’ Started Tonight, but surprisingly not Dirt Road Anthem), Brantley Gilbert’s Kick it in the Sticks and Hell on Wheels, Cole Swindell’s Chillin’ It, Florida Georgia Line’s People Back Home (and assorted other selections from FGL), a few scattered Luke Bryan hits, and Johnny Cash’s God’s Gonna Cut You Down, are most of the most common country selections.

But for me the most fun comes when we get to some of the more unique country selections, the players that choose songs I really like and the players who choose country who are also great at baseball…so stayed tuned for Part 2!

Country Worldwide

I wasn’t greeted with the typical sound of the driver screaming into his bluetooth headset on my last NYC yellow cab ride. Instead, after giving the driver my destination and orienting myself in the cab, it occurred to me that I was being serenaded by the dulcet tones of Eric Church’s Springsteen and a quick glance confirmed that 94.7 NASH FM was playing on the radio. (More to come in a future post analyzing the strengths of “Springsteen”, including but not limited to an analysis of the title lyrics’ ability to conjure up of powerful nostalgia as well as both musical aspirational and inspirational themes all in one word.)

My ears perk up whenever I hear country music in New York City but the context of a taxi cab, being driven by a man who I initially thought – and subsequently confirmed – was not originally from these United States and did not speak English as a first language, I was particularly surprised at the choice of music. I tentatively engaged Mr. Ait-Ouamer in conversation, asking whether he liked the music that was currently playing, assuring him – lest he interpret my query as some sort of complaint – that I, in fact, liked the music. And so it turns out that he did like the genre, expressing a preference for country over various other genres and in sum delivering his verdict that it was nice music to drive around to. We chatted for the rest of the ride about music and culture, the driver I think manifesting significantly more surprise at the fact that I knew where Algeria, his native country, is located than I, at least outwardly, displayed with respect to his preference for country music.

And at the end of the day, while I can’t confirm that Mr. Ait-Ouamer will be attending the time Reckless Kelly comes to town for a concert, this was a nice reminder of some of the things that make country music so great. Country music features songs that are easy to listen to, based around universal themes like family, love and hard times that defy boundaries of state or country. A song about the nostalgia of young love can be just as appealing to a middle-aged immigrant from Algeria driving a taxi cab up and down the potholed streets of a big city as it can be to a young kid driving a harvester up and down rows of corn that seem to go on forever in a farm town out in the sticks. Brantley Gilbert sang that country must be country wide, and I agree with that sentiment as far as it goes, but – as my recent encounter reminded me – the appeal of country is indeed even wider than that.