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A Swing and Another Hit
At Nationals Park, Pop Music Pumps Up the Baseball Crowd

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The defining sounds of Opening Night on Sunday at Nationals Park were generally so traditional that the playlist could have been drawn up 50 years ago: roar of the crowd, crack of the bat, rhythmic clapping, sizzling hot dogs, booing, beer-hawking and, of course, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

But there was also this: a hit parade pouring out of the glistening stadium's speakers.

Following a league-wide trend that began with the stadium-building boom of the 1990s, Nationals Park was pumped full of pop music from the moments the gates swung open just after 3:30 and Kelly Clarkson's power ballad "Since U Been Gone" boomed over the PA.

The hits (along with bits of recorded organ music) kept on coming for the next seven hours -- through batting practice, as the Nationals took the field for the first time, between at-bats and half-innings. And they continued after Ryan Zimmerman's ninth-inning walk-off home run won the game for Washington: The Nationals celebrated the dramatic ending to their home debut by blasting their new victory song, U2's "Beautiful Day," and following it with one of manager Manny Acta's favorites, the Toby Keith anthem "How Do You Like Me Now?"

Buy me some earplugs and Cracker Jacks, indeed!

Whereas baseball has long been known as a game of inches, it's also becoming a game of decibels as Major League Baseball teams and many of their minor-league affiliates attempt to broaden the sport's appeal by featuring more and more music and other forms of entertainment in their stadiums.

Nationals Park isn't exactly a giant iPod dock -- which is to say, it's not an NBA arena, where just about every nanosecond seems to be filled with noise -- but it's hardly a temple of solitude, either.

"It's somewhere in between," says John Guagliano, the team's vice president of marketing and the man in charge of overseeing music at the new ballpark. "We're all here to watch a baseball game, but we also have to keep our fans entertained. . . . As ticket prices go up, people's expectations go up."

So there's a high-definition video scoreboard towering above right field. An outpost of Ben's Chili Bowl on the concourse along the third-base line. A video-game arcade, batting cages, a karaoke stage and a Build-A-Bear Workshop behind the bleachers in center.

And all that music, from Fergie, Keith Urban and Fall Out Boy to Madonna, the Who and a who's who of disco stars. Also: a whole lot of Smash Mouth, whose radio-friendly 1999 hit, "All Star" -- the one that goes "Hey now, you're an all star/Get your game on, go play" -- was played no fewer than five times on Sunday.

"We try to stay away from extremes: nothing too loud or too soft, too mellow or hard-core," Guagliano says of the park's playlist. "Wedding-type music is probably the best way to describe it. It's music for everyone."

Which, of course, is the point. While operating Nationals Park as a quiet zone might be good for attracting the sort of baseball nerd who would like nothing more than to ponder sabermetrics and hit-and-run strategy in peace, it's not necessarily good business strategy for an organization that has 41,888 seats to fill 81 times each season.

"Baseball is becoming all-inclusive and trying to appeal to everyone, not just hard-core fans," says Josh Pahigian, author of multiple baseball books including "The Ultimate Baseball Road-Trip: A Fan's Guide to Major League Stadiums." "For me, the game speaks for itself; I don't need to hear Gwen Stefani and Akon when I'm at a game. But when baseball started opening those new ballparks, they figured out they needed to put on more of a show for the average consumer. We have short attention spans these days, and the music is part of keeping people engaged."

And it seems to be working. Major League Baseball has set single-season attendance records in four consecutive seasons, including last year's total of 79,502,524. Minor League Baseball also set an attendance record for a fourth straight year last year.

So shush already with the noise complaints, says Peter Gammons, who spends three-fourths of every year in ballparks as a baseball reporter for ESPN. "If that's what the fans want, then fine," he says.

Gammons is standing in front of the Nationals dugout as the team takes batting practice. "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" by the Killers is blaring over the sound system. He is talking about the trend, about how music has been in ballparks for years (organ music first, and then pop, such as "We Are Family," Sister Sledge's disco hit that became the theme for the 1979 world champion Pittsburgh Pirates); about how the Oakland A's really began to take their playlist seriously during the 1980s; and about Baltimore: The movement didn't really go wide -- or loud -- until Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992, Gammons says. "It changed ballparks into entertainment venues."

Now, even the most traditional ballparks are embracing the trend. Even Boston, where Red Sox fans go nuts upon hearing "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" by the local shanty-punk band Dropkick Murphys and victories are celebrated by playing "Dirty Water" by the Standells and everybody sings along to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" -- an idea that's since been co-opted by the Nationals.

"Music has become a big part of the game at Fenway Park," Gammons says. It's a good thing, he adds, "although I have a hard time with Neil Diamond."

Not long after he's left the field, more music. When Acta and Atlanta Braves Manager Bobby Cox meet at home plate with the umpires, the theme from TV's "Law & Order" is played. When the Nats take their positions for the first time, it's AC/DC's howling "Thunderstruck."

There are snippets of songs when the Braves make outs (Outkast's "The Way You Move," EMF's "Unbelievable") and even more when the Nationals are up, including the rhythmic stomp of Queen's "We Will Rock You" to prompt the crowd and Akon's "Woo hoo/Yee hoo"-ing line from Gwen Stefani's "The Sweet Escape" after the Nationals take a 2-0 lead in the first.

There's music when the Nationals players come to the plate, too, though their new walk-up music won't be used until the team returns from a road trip next week. There wasn't enough time to load the songs before Opening Night, apparently.

During the seventh inning stretch, it's "Shout," the Isley Brothers song covered by the fictional Otis Day and the Knights in "Animal House." That one was selected by the fans in an online vote. (So, too, were the victory song, U2's "Beautiful Day," and the home-run song, "Bustin' Loose" by the godfather of Washington's go-go scene, Chuck Brown.)

But there was also something strange: periods of relative silence.

When Braves star Chipper Jones, who'd homered earlier in the game, came to bat in the sixth, he was showered with boos . . . and then, for five pitches, there was nothing but the hum of the crowd and the crack of the bat on a foul ball. The silence was finally broken more than a minute later when Jones struck out swinging and the crowd cheered -- and a short bit of Tone Loc's "Wild Thing" played over the PA.

Not exactly "Talkin' Baseball." But nobody said the game's song had remained the same.

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