In my nightmares, I’m at Yankee Stadium at the end of a World Series clincher, and I’m bundled against the chill, and it’s past deadline, and I have an empty screen, and I can’t summon the words, and my editors are calling, and they’re screaming for my story. … But all I can hear, at a brain-melting volume, is Frank Sinatra belting, “It’s up to you, New York, New Yooooooooooooooork!” across a darkened stadium.
Then, finally, with one last belch of brass and strings, the song is over, and I can resume typing.
Until, a split-second later, it starts again — “Start spreading the news ...” — and the nightmare continues.
I have never been able to listen to music casually. No matter what else I’m doing, the music is where my ears and my mind drift. Sitting in front of my laptop, I would sooner write a story to the cacophony of kids fighting and dogs barking and sirens wailing than to a soundtrack of Liszt, Liz Phair or Lizzo. The other stuff, I can tune out. The music, I can only tune in.
It may be the residue of my days as a music student in college or the downside to having been blessed with a “good ear” — I can generally pick out a song on guitar or piano if I know it well enough in my head. But it has been that way forever. My brain no longer has any memory left to file away the names of people I have just met — or sometimes things my wife told me an hour ago — because it’s all taken up by song lyrics.
This attunement with music makes life as a sportswriter fraught. As you may have noticed, our sporting events are awash with music, the games and the sounds woven together so tightly that they are inseparable. It’s one of the things I love most about writing about sports. But it comes with a toll. By this point in my career, conservatively speaking, I’ve probably heard 5,000 “The Star-Spangled Banners,” 3,000 “Welcome to the Jungles,” 2,000 “Centerfields” and 1,000 “We Are the Champions.”
Not to mention 100,000 “SportsCenter” themes.
I’m sure I would be miserable covering the NBA, where they pipe in music as the game is being played — I probably would be locked in on bass lines instead of baselines, reverb instead of rebounds, late key changes instead of late lead changes — and don’t even get me started on figure skating, in which the music is an essential part of the performance.
I love college football at least as much for the music — the fight songs, the singalongs, the brassy, bouncy renditions of “Hey! Baby” and “Smoke on the Water” — as for the games. I got to see Johnny Manziel play once at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field, and I’m sure he did some cool stuff in the game. But my lasting memory will be of him perched on the railing of the first row after the victory, leaning back into the student section and singing “Aggie War Hymn,” full-throated, everybody swaying in rhythm as they metaphorically sawed off the horns of hated “Texas University.”
After being at this as long as I have, I consider myself an expert in the morphology of stadium anthems — those cherished, thumping standards played at seemingly every ballpark or arena to collective, delirious effect — having distilled their essence down to three principal factors: rhythm, simplicity and, above all, interactivity.
The best of them have all three elements. Here, definitively, are the five best:
5. “Hip Hop Hooray” by Naughty By Nature (interactive element: “Hey! Ho! Hey! Ho!”)
4. “Jump Around” by House of Pain (“Jump! Jump! Jump!”)
3. “Kernkraft 400” by Zombie Nation (“Whoa-oh-oh-OH-oh”)
2. “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes (“Oh, oh-oh-oh-oh-ohhhhh-oh”)
1. “We Will Rock You” by Queen (Stomp-stomp, CLAP! Stomp-stomp, CLAP!)
But by far the best integration of sports and music can be found in baseball. In part, this is because of the game’s structural advantages: the pop-song-length pauses between innings, the individual nature of the action with one batter at a time, one pitcher at a time, each with his own song.
I’m not alone in pointing out that I still can’t hear “Enter Sandman” without thinking of Mariano Rivera. Same with “Kashmir” and Chase Utley. Picking the right walk-up song is an exacting skill. Scientists say the 2019 World Series champion Washington Nationals were made 11 percent more lovable by Gerardo Parra’s choice of “Baby Shark” — and its viral, once-a-night appearances.
At a team level, the choice of a proper song for the seventh inning stretch — to follow “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” of course — is another underappreciated art. The right song can turn that antiquated exercise into a cherished, singalong tradition.
In my mind, a series in Milwaukee means three renditions of “Beer Barrel Polka.” Houston means (clap-clap-clap-clap) “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” Citi Field in Queens equals “Lazy Mary”; Baltimore, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” In San Francisco, you get a Journey song: “Don’t Stop Believin'” if the Giants are trailing, “When the Lights Go Down” if they’re winning. When the stakes are highest, as during the Giants’ three World Series titles in the 2010s, they could sometimes coax Steve Perry himself to come sing.
And at Yankee Stadium, at the end of each game, they play Sinatra’s “New York, New York” as the fans stream toward the exit. But if the fans refuse to leave — as at the end of a postseason clincher, the likes of which happened all too frequently between 1996 and 2001, when the Yankees won the World Series four times and lost one other — they keep the song playing on a continuous loop deep into the night.
I’m neutral on the Yankees — I have always maintained that I root for the story, not for or against any particular team. But as a sportswriter with an ear that drifts toward music and then can’t pull away, trust me when I say that’s the stuff of nightmares.