Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Prodigy -- "Firestarter" (1996)

I'm the trouble starter, punkin' instigator
I'm the fear-addicted danger illustrated
I'm a firestarter, twisted firestarter

Tonight is the 83rd Major League Baseball All-Star Game, which is being played at the recently renovated Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City.  (I saw the Yankees play the Royals there in 1975, when it was called Royals Stadium.  That was the same summer I saw the Rolling Stones perform at the adjacent Arrowhead Stadium.  But those are stories for another post.)

Kauffman Stadium
One of the relief pitchers on the American League team in Cleveland Indians closer Chris Perez.  "Firestarter" is the song they play at Indians home games when Perez enters a game.

One nickname for relief pitchers is "firemen" because they are supposed to enter the game and "put out the fire" -- that is, they are supposed to douse the hopes of the opposing team's hitters.  Relievers who fail to do their job are sometimes said to have "added fuel to the fire."  Baseball players are generally quite superstitious, and it would be the furthest thing from most relievers' minds to use a song titled "Firestarter" as entrance music -- they would feel like they were tempting fate. 

But the outspoken, rant-prone Chris Perez (his nickname is "Pure Rage") is not your ordinary baseball player.  Even the Indians' website admits that his "brazenness" and "brutal honesty" has made him a "polarizing figure."

Perez is the star of perhaps the most astonishing piece of baseball video I have ever seen.  Give this clip your close attention, and you'll be as astonished as I was.  (Note how the TV announcer either doesn't see Perez ralph on the mound -- twice -- or he chooses to ignore it.  If it's the latter, you can't blame the guy.)

Let's step back for a moment.

If you've attended a major-league game recently, you know that baseball teams provide their fans with constant aural stimulation.  Any momentary break in the action on the field is quickly filled with rock, pop, or rap music.  For example, although it takes only a few seconds for a batter to stride to the plate from the on-deck circle, even those few seconds are filled with "walk-up music" -- snippets of songs chosen by the hitter to be played over the stadium sound system as he makes his way into the batter's box to hit.  

 In the last decade or so, it has become de rigeur for the home team to present more elaborate musical entertainment during the two minutes or so it takes for the closer to jog in from the bullpen to the pitcher's mound and take his warmup pitches.

For those of you who don't pay much attention to baseball, I should explain that closers (which are a relatively recent phenomenon) are highly specialized relief pitchers who usually appear only for the 9th inning of a game in which their team is clinging to a slim lead.  

The job of the closer is to pound the final nail into the opposing team's coffin.  Closers are the tightrope walkers of baseball -- there's little margin for error when you're a closer.  One misstep can be fatal.

Successful closers usually share two characteristics.  First, they have one dominant pitch -- either a blazing fastball, or a deceptive breaking pitch -- that produces a lot of strikeouts or weak ground balls.  

Second, they have a closer's mentality.  They remain cool in pressure-packed situations, and on those rare occasions where they do cough up the lead, they shrug the failure off and take the mound the next day with no loss of self-confidence.

Today, a major-league closer's entrance into a home game is almost always accompanied by a signature song, and usually there is a scoreboard video to go along with it.  More often than not, the entrance music is an aggressive or ominous metal song played at maximum volume.

It wasn't always that way.

The Yankees may have been the first team to play a signature piece of music for a closer's entrance on a regular basis.  Here's how a 1972 Sports Illustrated article described how Sparky Lyle, the team's star reliever in the mid-1970s, entered the game to the Trio section of Sir Edward Elgar's "March No. 1 in D" -- the music commonly known as "Pomp and Circumstance," which has become the standard processional music for high-school and college graduation ceremonies.  (The music was played by the stadium organist, of course -- this was long before ballparks were equipped with high-definition scoreboards and other electronic audio-video paraphernalia.)

Sparky Lyle in 1977
There is enough ceremony in Lyle's emergence from the bullpen to satisfy a matador.  In the distance, beyond the right center-field fence, there opens the passenger door of a pinstripe-painted Datsun.  A man enters.  He is carrying a Yankee warmup jacket and is presumably stuffing his face with Red Man chewing tobacco.  The fans rustle.  Can it be?  Their murmuring is the sound of a giant engine.  It seems to propel the little car to a designated spot before the Yankee dugout.  Some expectant applause.  Then stadium organist Toby Wright solemnly plays Sir Edward Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance."  It is Lyle's theme song.  He steps out of the car, handing the jacket to a batboy lackey.  As he marches with rolling gait to the mound there is . . . PANDEMONIUM!

Cardinals' closer Al Hrabosky was another 1970s-era closer who entered the game to classical music.  Hrabosky -- who was known as the "Mad Hungarian" -- used Franz Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody #2" as his entrance theme. 

In the 1989 movie, Major League, fictional closer Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn (who was portrayed by Charlie Sheen) entered to X's cover of the Troggs' "Wild Thing" -- a particularly suitable choice for Vaughn, whose uncorrected vision was so poor that he rarely threw pitches anywhere near the strike zone.  Here's a clip from the movie that shows "Wild Thing" entering a game.

The popularity of the movie and the Sheen character marked a radical shift in the character of real closers' music.  As Slate magazine noted, 

The closer songs of the early '90s tended to mix a cranky bravado with the threat of mental instability -- don't mess with me, I'm so mean and crazy.  The more recent crop ditches the crankiness in favor of all-out psychopathy.  Today's closer isn't just baaaad, he's a cold-blooded murderer. Death threats spill out of the stadium speakers every time there's a save opportunity . . .

This explains why metal is the genre of choice for closers.  Heavy metal beats the hell out of anything else when getting the home fans all worked up and perhaps even striking a little fear in the hearts of opposing batters.

Don't underestimate the significance of pumping up the crowd.  Baseball is in competition for the fans' dollars with other sports and entertainment providers.  A good entrance song gets the crowd all jacked up, and if the closer can seal the deal by shutting down the opponents' bats, the fans will go home in a state of near-euphoria.  

Fans are already primed for a closer’s entrance -- he’s the bullpen’s best pitcher and they’re only three outs away from a win.  The entrance music exists to ramp that excitement to the loudest levels of the game, and as such cannot wear people out all at once.  Ideally, it builds from marginally quiet to excessively loud over the course of about a minute, announcing the closer’s walk from the bullpen to the mound with slow-burning noise and losing control by the time he’s halfway through his warmup pitches. 

But as the Rolling Stones famously said "It's the singer, not the song."  And as Freeman points out, a closer's entrance song must mesh with the closer's personality and personal style:
Despite its importance, exciting the crowd is an entry-level part of picking the perfect closer song.  If expressing style is the ultimate goal, then closers must establish themselves as unique individuals.  A closer needs a strong sense of self to seem like a larger-than-life character -- as with Batman, they must enlarge the basic aspects of their personalities to monstrous proportions.
There are a number of closers on this year's All-Star Game rosters, and several of them have topnotch entrance songs.  Jim Johnson of the Orioles enters home games to "The Pretender," by the Foo Fighters.  That's a great choice, but 2 or 3 lines has already featured that song.  

Huston Street of the Padres enters to Ted Nugent's "Stranglehold," which is an inspired choice.  (It was actually suggested to Street by the team's strength and conditioning coach.)  But once again, that song is the subject of a past 2 or 3 lines post, and I never post twice about the same song (except when I do).

Jonathan Papelbon entered to "Shipping Off to Boston," by the Dropkick Murphys when he was the Red Sox closer.  2 or 3 lines has already featured that song as well.  Papelbon is with the Phillies this year, and I think he uses a Metallica song as his entrance music.  That figures, because Mariano Rivera of the Yankees -- who is clearly the greatest closer in baseball history -- enters to Metallica's "Sandman," which is clearly the greatest closer's entrance song of all time.  (I could have looked up Papelbon's new entrance song, but I wouldn't piss on the guy if he was on fire, so there's no chance I'm going to feature his song.)

So we'll go with Chris Perez and "Firestarter."  It's a pretty bad-ass song -- and that's the whole idea, after all.

Here's the entrance video for Perez:

Here's the official video for "Firestarter."  It is not for the squeamish, and I'd strongly advise you to send the kiddies to their room before you watch it:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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