If you had polled Los Angeles Dodgers fans about the Opening Day roster in March, rookie outfielder Alex Verdugo's name wouldn't have garnered an emotive response. Sure, Dodgers diehards would have known he was one of the organization's top prospects. But a fan favorite? The type of player who brings an entire stadium to its feet when he walks to the plate? No.
That all changed when Vicente Fernandez's "Volver Volver" started bumping through the Dodger Stadium sound system.
A backup outfielder entering the season, Verdugo made his first start of 2019 playing right field and batting sixth at home against the Diamondbacks.
As he strutted to the plate to the sounds of Fernandez—the "king of Mexican Ranchera music"—belting out his epic hit from 1972, Verdugo could feel the fans connecting with his song of choice.
"There's gonna be problems if he ever changes his song," says Lanier Stewart, aka DJ Severe, the longtime stadium DJ for the Dodgers. "That's our most popular walk-up song, by far, because of our strong community of Latin fans. ... It doesn't matter if we're up by 10 or getting blasted, that song gets the whole stadium singing and dancing."
A 2014 second-round draft pick from Tucson, Arizona, Verdugo grew up listening to Ranchera music with his father, Joseph. Originally intended as a subtle hat tip to his father, "Volver Volver" has become a gesture to an entire fanbase—a signal to the culturally diverse Dodgers fans that Verdugo, who represented Mexico in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, is one of them. According to Stewart, "Volver Volver" means more to Dodgers fans than any single game situation—save for maybe a World Series-clinching out—ever could.
"It's about: 'OK, he's one of us. Let's do this,'" Stewart says.
Once Verdugo solidified a consistent spot in the starting lineup in April, both the outfielder and DJ wanted to capitalize on the organic momentum. Stewart met Verdugo in the batting cages beneath the stadium to strategize about when—and how long—to play the song. Verdugo wanted to milk the distinct, trumpet-driven intro, and step into the batter's box only after Fernandez's baritone croon kicked in.
"I think we've got it where we want it now," Stewart says. "Hopefully there's no need to change it up."
Unlike most other major sports, where stadium music serves as constant background noise, hyping fans between long timeouts and on defensive stands, baseball allows for some individuality in what players hear during a game. In choosing their walk-up songs, ballplayers share a tiny bit of their personality with their fans. Some—either musically disinterested, creatures of habit or both—pick one song and stick with it for years. Others are obsessed with the latest trends in music, texting links to their team's DJ at all hours of the night. Most, it seems, engage with walk-up songs the same way they do everything else before a game: with superstition. If a batter's running hot, fans can expect to hear the same songs on the regular. Hit a slump on the road? Expect some new tunes in the next homestand.
Whatever the case, baseball's stadium audio has become an integral part of the fan and player experience. In a sport that famously struggles to market its most visible players, those few moments when a hitter saunters to the batter's box or a pitcher jogs to the mound humanize MLB stars in ways that few marketing efforts ever could.
"It's pretty impressive how dialed in a lot of players are," says Dante Deiana, aka Dante the Don, the Chicago Cubs DJ at Wrigley Field. "Jason Heyward will ask for new songs that dropped a few hours before a game. Javy Baez and Pedro Strop love to request non-mainstream Latin songs that don't even have official titles—then a month later Daddy Yankee or Bad Bunny appears on a remix and it's a global smash."
For most of Major League Baseball's history, this level of connection between ballplayer and music would have been unfathomable. Until the 1970s, typical stadium music included organists playing the national anthem, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" for the seventh-inning stretch and a mix of standard situational prompts like "Charge!" to keep fans engaged. White Sox organist Nancy Faust then began personalizing walk-up and home run songs for players—such as "He's So Shy" for Harold Baines in the early '80s—and the trend soon caught on in other ballparks.
Of course, the rise of modern technology brought new creative opportunities for stadium entertainment. Even in two of the game's most iconic stadiums—Dodger Stadium and Wrigley Field—massive speaker systems make sure the good vibes reverberate through every inch of the stands.
"The atmosphere is incomparable to any other setting," says Deiana about DJing Cubs games. "Wrigley is this nostalgic place with an intimate experience for fans and players. But it's now a state-of-the-art production, in terms of the music, sound system and video production, that really delivers a unique game experience."
Stadium music isn't all about walk-up tunes, but those songs set the tone. So, what makes for a walk-up song that resonates? According to the experts, it all comes down to authenticity, timing and a little bit of luck.
"Baseball is all mental, so I never want to discourage [their song choices]," Stewart says. "Unless they really don't work. But most of the guys are so into it—Justin Turner will text me in the middle of the night asking, 'Is this a banger?'—that the fans get behind their song choices."
According to Stewart, Turner is one of the Dodgers' most thoughtful walk-up curators. The veteran third baseman regularly uses Justin Timberlake's "(Oh No) What You Got" and "Old Town Road" by Lil Nas X, but he'll also coordinate with the stadium's theme nights. When the Dodgers hosted Korea Night in early August, Turner rocked a song by hit K-pop boy band BTS. Other Dodgers, such as Kike Hernandez (Bad Bunny's "Estamos Arriba") and pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu ("Korean Monster" by JED) use songs from their countrymen to get the positive mojo flowing.
What kind of on-field performances follow those song choices are the key to consistency in the walk-up-song game.
"You want a song to have time to marinate a little bit," says Stewart, noting that it's easy to know which players will change their music choices—based on things like high strikeout rates or a bad stretch on the road. Early in the season, infielder Max Muncy cycled through several songs before he found a groove. "Luckily," Stewart adds, "this team has been really hot."
Yankees slugger Aaron Judge echoes the idea that music can affect a player's rhythm.
"This game is all about mindset, so finding a song that helps you get in the zone is important," Judge says. "There's nothing like stepping into the box with the entire crowd behind you. Luckily, that's usually the case at Yankee Stadium."
For iconic mashers such as Judge, who alternates between "Baila Baila Baila" by Ozuna on odd at-bats and "Pure Water" by Mustard and Migos for even at-bats, the walk-up song is a signal to those who need reminding in the bleachers that they'd better turn their attention to the plate, lest they miss the show.
For others, such as the Philadelphia Phillies' $330 million man, Bryce Harper, the walk-up is a way to ingratiate yourself in your new home. In March, in his first appearance at Phillies spring training, Harper took the plate with the theme song from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air blaring. Back in Philadelphia this regular season, Harper's use of local hero Meek Mill's "R.I.C.O." has become a fan favorite.
The bridge a walk-up song can build with the fans not only can provide a warm welcome for a player, but may also serve as a boost to their hitting eye. In Chicago, Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo has used Martin Solveig and GTA's "Intoxicated" as his first at-bat walk-up song since 2015. "Even after four years, that one still gets the place going," Deiana says. It seems to help Rizzo too. The three-time All-Star has hit 88 (41 percent) of his 216 career home runs in innings one through three, and he's hit more home runs (40) in the first inning than any other.
The effect isn't limited to what happens at the plate. Think of iconic entrance songs from closers Mariano Rivera (Metallica's "Enter Sandman"), Trevor Hoffman ("Hell's Bells" by AC/DC) and Aroldis Chapman ("Wake Up" by Rage Against the Machine). Hitters may be launching balls into the abyss at a record pace, but the allotted two minutes between innings and pitching changes allow some pitchers to send a message designed to intimidate. It's a callout to the hitter that not even Vicente Fernandez can save you at that moment.
For other hurlers, music is a reflection of how they see themselves, just as it is for many hitters. In 2016, Yankees reliever Adam Ottavino, then with the Rockies, was looking for a new song while rehabbing his surgically repaired elbow. Kid Cudi's introspective "Alive"—which centers on Cudi's discovery of his true self at night—spoke to Ottavino, an avid music fan. "I picked that one because of the lyric, 'Every time the moon shines I become alive,'" says Ottavino, who repped his hometown with The Beastie Boys' "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" while in the minor leagues. "It felt like a good description of what I do, since I mostly pitch at night."
Out in Los Angeles, another overpowering relief pitcher is using his diverse musical taste—and awareness of his surroundings—to win over a new team. Last season, en route to a World Series title with the Boston Red Sox, Joe Kelly went viral when he entered the game to some fire from Mason Ramsey, aka the Walmart Yodeling Kid. This year, he's taking a more serious approach. After starting the season with Snoop Dogg's "Lay Low," Kelly pivoted to Lauryn Hill. Of late, though, he's become a fan favorite with his choice of Lizzo's "Truth Hurts."
"That's a really big song that takes over the stadium," says Stewart, adding that "it really endeared him to the female fanbase. Kelly has had some of the best song choices this season."
Whether it's a current chart-topper, a throwback classic or up-and-coming EDM, Stewart knows a song is taking off when a tweet storm rolls through. Pleasantly surprised fans have swarmed his mentions when Kelly takes the mound and, lately, when Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw steps to the plate. Kershaw, who always takes the mound to "We Are Young" by Fun, decided to send a message to opposing pitchers with his walk-up song.
"Kershaw pulled me aside at the Dodgers' [Blue Diamond Gala in June] and said he wanted to change his batting song to 'No Scrubs' [by TLC]," says Stewart. "I liked that. I guess he wanted to have some fun on offense, too, and the fans really took notice."
A future Hall of Famer on the mound, Kershaw knows a timely hit could make or break a deep October run. And so the music plays. Hopefully, he doesn't have to change it.
Matt Foley is a writer based in New York. His freelance work has been featured in SLAM, the New York Times, Ozy and theScore. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyfoles.