The Undertaker, ‘The Wire’ and Timmy Trumpet: How closers became MLB’s ultimate showmen
- ESPN MLB insider
Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”
WHEN MICHAEL K. WILLIAMS died in September 2021, members of the Baltimore Orioles creative content team vowed to find a way to pay homage to the actor who had brought to life Omar Little, the iconic character from the Baltimore-set television show “The Wire.” In early August, after the Orioles traded closer Jorge Lopez to the Minnesota Twins, the opportunity finally presented itself.
Taking over for Lopez was Felix Bautista, a 6-foot-8, 280-pound leviathan nicknamed “The Mountain.” Bautista, a 27-year-old right-handed rookie, had spent the season’s first four months embarrassing hitters with a fastball that regularly topped 100 mph and a split-fingered fastball that dove as if it wanted to bore a hole in the dirt. He brought to the role all the tools necessary to dominate the ninth inning. Just one thing was missing.
A pitcher of Bautista’s skill and stature could not simply swing open the bullpen door at Camden Yards and stroll 350 feet to the mound, aided by the murmur of the crowd. In Bautista, the content team found the perfect avatar for Omar — beacon of justice, deliverer of pain.
When Omar prowled the streets of Baltimore, he often whistled the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell,” a nursery rhyme comically antithetical to his mission of robbing drug dealers. All it took was six notes for the streets to clear and frightened bystanders to bleat: “Omar comin’!” Bautista inspired similar dread, particularly with his splitter, which induces misses on 54.5% of the swings batters take.
“It’s interesting because even though hitters know that it’s coming, they still can’t touch it,” Bautista said with a laugh. “So, like I tell everyone all the time, that pitch has become my lethal weapon.”
Soon after the deadline, the content team had a pitch for their new closer: What if, upon his entrance, the tune of Omar’s whistle would blare through the Camden Yards speakers? Better yet, what if it were followed by the haunting music of “O Fortuna,” the medieval poem set to music by German composer Carl Orff? O Fortuna is Latin for “Oh fate,” an appropriate lament for hitters set to face Bautista. They’d accompany it with the lights at the stadium flashing on and off in mesmerizing fashion. Together, the spectacle would portend the doom Bautista intended to bring for opposing hitters.
He loved it. Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Bautista watched Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” welcome the greatest closer in baseball history, Mariano Rivera. This season, he marveled at “Narco,” the trumpet-heavy theme adopted by New York Mets closer Edwin Diaz, evolving into a full-scale production.
“Having my own now is super special and something that I cherish,” Bautista said. “Man, I just enjoy when I go out there and see all the lights flashing like that.”
In a game that relies on relief pitching more than ever — more than 41% of innings pitched this season have come from the bullpen — the closer is the star. His mere presence presages victory. The final three outs of a game are a show, and the closer is the showman. And what is a showman without a grand entrance?
TWENTY-FOUR YEARS before Félix Bautista introduced “O Fortuna” to the baseball world, another colossal man used it for his appearance on the grandest stage of them all. As he stood behind the curtain, 12 men dressed as druids, walking two-by-two, descended a ramp, stopped, tilted the torches they were holding 45 degrees and created a canopy of fire. The music halted. The crowd buzzed. And suddenly a bell tolled, its familiar bong an omen for what was to come.
Out ambled The Undertaker, premiering an elaborate edition of his signature walkout at WrestleMania XIV. He entered the ring — stone-faced, eternally serious — arguably the greatest character professional wrestling has ever seen and an unrivaled master of the entrance.
“Most people don’t realize that the entrance is part of the match,” the Undertaker said. “It really is. It sets the whole table for what you’re about to do in the ring and what’s going to happen from that point forward. When that bong went off, that was go time.”
If anyone understands the power of a great sports entrance, it is a wrestler. Do it right and it’s the key to unlocking stardom. Almost every all-time great wrestler, from Hulk Hogan to The Rock to Ric Flair to Stone Cold Steve Austin to John Cena to Brock Lesnar, followed the formula and reaped the benefits. A memorable entrance supercharges careers.
“Everything with the Undertaker made perfect sense,” he said. “The music fit the character. That’s the key element of it. The end is at hand for whoever’s going to be standing in that ring waiting for me to come down. That was the mindset behind the bong. And the music was just doom and gloom. You knew what was coming.”
Regardless of sport, the best walkouts share common traits. An immediately recognizable first note, which triggers in fans a rush of emotion — elation, fear, sometimes both simultaneously. The necessity for some sort of communal element, whether it’s singalong-friendly lyrics, synced clapping or collective chanting. The best entrance songs are pure earworms, impossible to forget and eminently hummable.
And sometimes, the blueprint for an entrance can even elevate a career to new heights. Before July 16, 1999, when “Sandman” first rang through Yankee Stadium, Rivera was an excellent pitcher. In time, Rivera transcended the bounds of what a reliever could do. Never mind that his career ERA on the road was a half-point lower than at Yankee Stadium. The song birthed the character. Rivera didn’t just enter to “Sandman.” He became the Sandman.
“He’s going to get those last three outs and that other team goes to sleep, right?” the Undertaker said. “Obviously you have to be an exceptional talent to be a closer. And then, on top of that, it has to resonate. You build up that mystique. I’m sure when batters heard it start, watching him run out from the bullpen and listening to ‘Sandman’ by Metallica just cranking through Yankee Stadium, it challenges you. Am I going to have the stuff? Get a hit? Keep this alive?”
BEFORE 1972, ORGANISTS at stadiums occasionally feted relief pitchers with musical accompaniments upon their arrival into games. The fully formed entrance didn’t arrive until that year, though, when an over-the-top tradition married with a novel idea birthed what we now see in stadiums nightly.
About a month before the ’72 season, the Yankees traded for Sparky Lyle, a left-handed reliever who had saved 69 games over the first five years of his career with Boston. Lyle jumped into the closer role in New York and at home games was chauffeured from the bullpen to the cusp of the dugout by a pinstriped Datsun sedan emblazoned with a Yankees logo. There, he chucked his warm-up jacket to the batboy and rushed to the mound.
When he found out Marty Appel, a young Yankees executive, wanted to embellish Lyle’s arrival with “Pomp and Circumstance,” the regal theme of graduations everywhere, Lyle balked. The car was already excessive, especially for such a fallible role. Closers blow games, and he feared someone seeing him cough up a lead would wonder: “Why the f— are they playing a song for this guy?”
Lyle eventually acceded and used the song for two years, until he struggled for a stretch in 1974 and bagged the act. Little did he figure that nearly 50 years later he’d still be talking about it — that he’d have turned “Pomp and Circumstance,” for a generation of Yankees fans, into a song for ball caps, not just caps and gowns.
“I didn’t want that song,” Lyle said. “When I asked Marty Appel if he’d quit playing it, he said the fans loved it.”
Over time, Lyle would grow to appreciate what he started. In the 1980s, as the extravagant entrance became a wrestling staple, a former minor league outfielder named Randy Poffo — better known as “Macho Man” Randy Savage — adopted “Pomp and Circumstance” as his own theme song.
Meanwhile, closers were no longer failed starters but stars in their own right, and as bullpen specializing became the norm, the days of two- and three-inning relievers ceded to one-inning specialists. The ninth — the last three outs — was for one man alone, and the best warranted entrances to signify their grandiloquence.
Goose Gossage and Dennis Eckersley were indeed “Bad to the Bone.” The bong at the beginning of AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” was a tried-and-true winner for San Diego Padres closer Trevor Hoffman, the grandfather of the cinematic entrance. Rivera and “Sandman” were baseball peanut butter and jelly. (“That man made that song come true,” Lyle said. “If you’re going to pick a song, you damn well better be able to back it up.”) “Welcome to the Jungle” suited Eric Gagne, the Dodgers’ lockdown closer, perfectly. Jonathan Papelbon hit the singalong, chant and hum elements with “Shipping Up to Boston,” and Kenley Jansen, went local, too, with “California Love.”
And yet over the past few seasons, the novelty of the individualized entrance had faded. The closest anyone came to something memorable since Jansen was Los Angeles Angels closer Hansel Robles in 2019 — and it was the use of the Undertaker’s music for a reliever who the Mets had cut the prior year.
Nobody realized that the next big thing was already there. All baseball needed to show the potential of the closer’s entrance was a competitive New York Mets team, a grown man named Timmy and some imagination.
EARLY IN THE 2018 season, when a 24-year-old Edwin Díaz would establish himself as the most dominant reliever in baseball, the Seattle Mariners made him a similar pitch to the one the Orioles gave Bautista. He deserved a proper entrance, and they had some ideas. There was a song by Steve Aoki and another by Party Favor. Neither stood out to Díaz. But the third one? That worked.
It was called “Narco.” A Dutch house duo named Blasterjaxx had released it about six months earlier. As much as Díaz liked the beat, something else about the song caught his attention: the 43 toots laid over it by an Australian who calls himself Timmy Trumpet.
In the same way the Undertaker felt his theme music told the story of his character — a preemptive dirge for what he planned to inflict — “Narco” (implication of the song’s name aside) was Díaz distilled: upbeat, intense, relentless, fun. Much as Mariners fans appreciated the two together, only a handful of videos from Díaz’s 2018 entrance exist on YouTube. None has even 50,000 views.
Upon his trade to the Mets during the 2018 offseason, he ditched “Narco.” Fresh start, fresh song. After a mess of a first season in New York, Díaz’s wife, Nashaly, suggested he summon the trumpets once more. “Narco” returned in 2020, as did the dominance of 2018.
The Mets, though, still stunk in 2020 — and 2021. Finally, this season, their newfound eminence has put added emphasis on the ninth inning, and Díaz has risen to the occasion. He has struck out 107 hitters in 56⅔ innings. His ERA is 1.43.
Fans, meanwhile, have reacted with increasing fervor to the trumpeting. Recognizing the phenomenon, SNY, which broadcasts Mets games, started to experiment with Díaz’s entrances. Rather than go to commercial, the broadcast would follow Díaz winding his way through the bullpen and onto the field as “Narco” hit. The scene was cinematic, gorgeous, closer’s entrance 2.0. It quickly went viral and prompted the Mets to bring Timmy Trumpet to Queens for a live performance before a Díaz save against the Dodgers.
“It’s almost like a party atmosphere with his music,” the Undertaker said. “Most guys want to be hard and heavy and have that real tough-guy thing. This was more of a celebration. I love it, man.
“There’s somebody watching that who’s not a baseball fan who wants to see that now. That’s a win for him. That’s a win for Major League Baseball.”
Admittedly, not every closer can be Edwin Díaz. He might become the first $100 million reliever when he reaches free agency this winter. But he is setting an example for his peers: The best can be very good — and very cool.
“At that moment, I’m just locking in to do my job,” Díaz said. “But at the same time, I see the reaction from the fans. It’s like I’m on another planet when they play that song. When I walk from the bullpen to the mound, I can feel the energy. It pushes me to do my job even better.
“I can see it. When they play my song, [hitters] know they’re in trouble. Because I’m coming in.”
OVER THE WEEKEND, Edwin Díaz was talking with his brother, Alexis, a first-year reliever for the Cincinnati Reds. Alexis is the Reds’ newly minted closer, and as such he needs the proper entrance. They were workshopping ideas for next season.
“You need to do something good,” Edwin told him.
Something, the Diaz brothers agreed, like the red-light-bathed show recently adopted by St. Louis Cardinals closer Ryan Helsley, or, even better, akin to the entrance of a fellow rookie: Félix Bautista.
Bautista’s first season couldn’t be going much better. He was almost out of baseball after the Marlins released him when he was 19. He went to the Dominican academy of the Hiroshima Carp, a Japanese team, learned to pitch and grew into his immense frame. Baltimore signed him, Ramon Martinez taught him a splitter and even then he was still in rookie ball at 23. Guys like him don’t make it, let alone throw a full season of 1.71 ERA baseball, lock down 14 saves and position themselves to snag Rookie of the Year votes.
“It’s one of the most exciting moments of any game to be out there in the ninth inning,” Bautista said. “And knowing that it’s a high-pressure situation, the adrenaline pulses through my veins. It’s a lot of fun and it’s super exciting for sure. I just really enjoy being out there and being able to pitch in moments like that.”
Now he’s on a T-shirt in which his face is atop a body dressed like Omar — trench coat, loose pants, hands in pockets, with two words at the top: FÉLIX COMIN’. Which is true, sure, and goes along nicely with the whole motif, but by now it’s clear that both Félix Bautista and a new era of closer’s entrances aren’t exactly coming. They’re already here.
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