This week, Major League Baseball's regular season kicked off and delivered unto us — but especially unto me, a baseball fan — a new sense of purpose.
While early April isn’t technically summer, baseball has always signaled a fresh start each calendar year. It marks the end of winter, the promise of sunstroke at some point in June, and, perhaps most importantly, a new crop of walk-up songs through which to identify players. Which is why baseball’s place as the least musically relevant major sport is so confusing. Music plays a fairly big role in the way we experience the sport, and yet it’s arguably the last one we associate with it.
The relationship between players and their walk-up songs is long-standing and beautiful, defined by everything from the sensual (Josh Reddick’s use of “Careless Whisper” in 2014) to the questionable (Tony Cruz’s chest-beating chant from The Wolf of Wall Street) to the worst and most ironic. Walk-up songs are chosen by players to reflect their own personalities while keeping the crowd hyped — and where hockey or basketball music tends to reflect the ethos of the franchise, baseball creates space for individuality. In those precious moments at bat, we catch a glimpse of what an MLB-helmed DJ night might look like.
And, admittedly, that DJ night could be terrible. Which doesn’t bode well for a unifying musical presence.
Back in 1995, ESPN and Tommy Boy Records launched Jock Jams, a series of limited-edition compilation albums which quickly defined the sound of hockey and basketball games. And from there, sports began establishing specific musical affiliations that appealed to young fans while staying true to their histories.
Over the next 20 years, the NHL married the sounds of Stompin’ Tom with those of mainstays like Queen and newer acts like Drake — who, BTW, also lent himself to the NBA via his affiliation with the Toronto Raptors. That team, like the rest of the NBA, consistently uses its games as platforms for local DJs who merge their original music with sporting faves like Salt-n-Pepa or AC/DC to create a club vibe as high-impact as the games they’re soundtracking.
Meanwhile, when the popularity of skateboarding and snowboarding rose throughout the ’90s and into the noughts, both sports aligned themselves with punk and hardcore through vehicles like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and CKY, which positioned skateboarding as an “extreme” sport, necessitating an equally extreme sound. Ironically, that approach is the opposite of NASCAR's — a sport defined by risks and the likelihood of death, yet whose typical musical fare is country, classic rock, or Rihanna’s “Shut Up and Drive” (a.k.a. The Least Exciting Rihanna Song).
For better or worse, all these sports have fairly clear sonic identities. And then there's baseball — a sport in which, depending on who’s batting, the defining sound can be all of the above.
Of course, unlike the aforementioned, baseball also takes its time. It is a sport of nuance and subtleties, and can go on for half a day depending on how many extra innings are needed. At some point during an average game, you’re guaranteed to hear a call-and-response or the sound of an organ, but with a few carefully timed exceptions — like the unifying bars of “Let’s Go Blue Jays” in Toronto, “Sweet Caroline” in Boston, or the celebratory sounds of Sinatra if/when the Yankees win a game — anything more would be a distraction. Baseball hinges on what happens in between, and you need to be quiet to notice it. Or, like, not dancing.
Besides, there’s more than enough time to dance during the batting order. While showcasing individual taste does not necessarily create a sense of musical unity for a team or the sport at large, it does serve to reflect the diversity and personalities of each team, which help fans better understand their dynamic. You might hear Drake or Lil Wayne or Usher, followed by Brad Paisley, followed by Daddy Yankee. And while this range makes it impossible to define Major League Baseball by a single genre (or mix of two, like Jock Jams), it does establish it as unique. Where so many sports tout the importance of unification, it’s refreshing that this one ensures the importance of personality.
Which is maybe why baseball is still considered America’s pastime: If all of us opted to play, we’d sure as hell want a say in the way we’re presented to anybody watching us.