Sports MLB closers didn't always enter music. Sparky Lyle...

MLB closers didn’t always enter music. Sparky Lyle changed it forever with this song

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Major League Baseball has always been theater. On April 19, 1972, Marty Appel added some now-standard pomp.

Then 21, the Brooklyn native and New York Yankees’ assistant public relations director didn’t tell the new relief pitching ace, Sparky Lyle, about his plan. So it was a surprise to just about everyone when the future Cy Young Award winner made his way to the mound accompanied by organizer Toby Wright’s rendition of the graduation march, “Pomp and Circumstance.”

After the music stopped, Lyle faced just one batter in what was his first-ever appearance in pinstripes. He forced a groundout to shortstop Gene Michael for the final out and earned a save. The Yankees won 3-2 over the Milwaukee Brewers.

The closer’s entrance song was born.

The tradition of player entrance music did not fully take hold until the early 1990s, after the Seattle Mariners started piping canned content through their tinny stadium speakers. Today, it is well integrated into MLB. Just about every player has a hand-picked song that blares from the stadium speakers when he enters to pitch or hit.

The music was live

In its nascency, entrance music was produced live by the house organizer. At Yankee Stadium in 1972, Wright played Lyle’s tune when Appel phoned in the signal. Over in Chicago that same season, Nancy Faust started pumping out the overture to “Jesus Christ Superstar” for White Sox slugger Dick Allen, standardizing batter walk-up music.

Today’s tunes are rarely heard on video broadcasts and sometimes even at the park. Crowd noise can overwhelm the low-fidelity sounds that emanate from the stadium speakers. During an early April interview, Appel said he doesn’t even notice the music. Now 73 and a self-proclaimed grouch, Appel said he doesn’t care much for it, either.

“It was better way back then when people recognized the tune,” he said. “I’m for the quiet scenes at the park, anyway.”

Major League Baseball keeps a list on a dedicated website to track what music the players have selected. The songs are often swapped out as tastes change. Moreover, a few players, including Ronald Acuna Jr. of the Atlanta Braves, are shown to regularly cycle through five selections at once. The Yankees roster boasts dozens of different songs.

The selection

Sparky Lyle in 2017 with the Somerset Patriots

In the 1970s, however, one Yankee had but one song.

Appel said he didn’t clear the entrance music concept, or the song selection, with Lyle. Appel instead took the idea to a musician from his neck of the woods, in Spring Valley, New York, who played in Frank Sinatra’s touring band.

The selection was needed to break an odd tension in the crowd, Appel said. Just weeks before Lyle would make his team debut, the Yankees introduced a gimmick bullpen car. The pinstriped Datsun 1200 drove pitchers to the infield and left the crowd perplexed.

“There would be a murmur in the crowd, because they couldn’t see who was in the car,” Appel said.

Appel knew. He stashed binoculars in the press box.

Appel started working with the Yankees in 1968 at just 19. Then the editor of his college newspaper, he worked summers in the Yankees’ public relations department. By the time he was 23, Appel would be the department’s director.

He said the graduation march seemed the ideal fit for Lyle, who was effectively a closer in the days before the role was defined. Lyle’s job was to enter games as the final pitcher to secure a win or keep a game close. His entry heralded a path to victory.

“I felt within me that there was music going on in my head for things going on on the baseball field,” Appel said. “[And] I just felt there was something theatrical about his performances. “

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A legend

New York Yankees relief pitcher Mariano Rivera delivers against the Atlanta Braves in the fourth inning of a spring training baseball game at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla., Saturday, March 9, 2013.

Months before joining the Yankees, Lyle was holding out for a raise from the rival Boston Red Sox. Rather than acquiesce, the Red Sox brass traded him to the Yankees for 32-year-old Danny Cater, a right-handed hitter and third baseman. Cater would play 211 games for Boston over three years. He had 167 hits and scored just 76 runs.

Lyle, on the other hand, would become a Yankees legend. Pitching slightly under two innings per appearance in 420 games, “The Count” struck out 454 batters, recorded 141 saves and gave up just 32 home runs. In 1977, he won the Cy Young Award for best pitcher in the American League, an award rarely given to relievers. He and the Yankees won the World Series that year and repeated the feat in 1978.

By that time, the song had run its course. Appel said Lyle approached him at the team office and asked to nix the pomp.

“It was fine for a while, but it added undue pressure,” Appel said.

In 1974, the Yankees ended Lyle’s graduation march. Appel said he never felt the need to find music for other players. There would be no other Yankees closers before Appel left the front office in 1977 to start his own company.

“It was just more of a closer thing,” he said. “It resonated at the time, but it had run its course.”

The return

Lyle’s entrance song resurfaced in 1985. It wasn’t for Lyle, nor was it in baseball. It was nonetheless due to a former Minor League Baseball player.

Signed as a catcher in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, Randall Mario Poffo played nearly 300 games in the minor leagues before quitting in 1974. Poffo instead decided to concentrate on the family business: professional wrestling.

Poffo later became famous as “Macho Man” Randy Savage and used “Pomp and Circumstance” as his ring music when he joined World Wrestling Entertainment in 1985.

Crossovers in modern baseball are common. During his time with the Yankees, Tommy Kahnle used WWE wrestler Shinsuke Nakamura’s entrance theme. Current Yankee Anthony Rizzo has used the wrestling Hall of Famer The Undertaker’s music. Josh Reddick, a Houston Astros outfielder, has selected songs used by a variety of wrestlers, including Dolph Ziggler, Triple H and Ric Flair.

The most famous entrance songs, however, tend to be the ones that are most popular outside of baseball and resonate with the general public. They also generally fit the player and the circumstance.

Best baseball entrance songs

New York Yankees relief pitcher Mariano Rivera throws to the plate during the ninth inning of their baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels, Sunday, Sept.  11, 2011, in Anaheim, Calif.  The Yankees won 6-5.

About a decade ago, MLB ranked these as the top 10 closer entrance songs of all time:

  • 10 – Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers, Steel Dragon’s “Stand up and Shout”
  • 9 – John Smoltz, Atlanta Braves, ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”
  • 8 – Al Hrabosky, St. Louis Cardinals, Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” to go along with his “Mad Hungarian” nickname.
  • 7 – Dennis Eckersley with the A’s and Goose Gossage with the Padres, George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone”
  • 6 – Brian Wilson, Giants, House of Pain’s “Jump Around”
  • 5 – Mitch Williams, multiple teams, The Troggs’ “Wild Thing” to match his nickname
  • 4 – Eric Gagne, Dodgers, Guns N ‘Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle”
  • 3 – Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox, Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up to Boston”
  • 2 – Trevor Hoffman, Padres, AC / DC’s “Hells Bells”
  • 1 – Mariano Rivera, Yankees, Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”

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