VIERA, Fla. - It wasn't all that long ago that walk-up music was first introduced in baseball games. It used to be when a player came up to the plate to start an at-bat, his name would be announced, the fans would applaud, then the noise would fade and then the player would dig into the batter's box.
I'm at the age that I can vaguely remember those days. Walk-up songs have become a huge thing in recent years, though, and many players agonize over their choices or pick three or four different tracks that they rotate in as the game goes on.
In today's game, music is a big part of the baseball experience. Songs are blasted before games during batting practice and as players shag flies and take infield. Music is played throughout the game, between innings, during mound visits and even sometimes between pitches.
Interestingly enough, even though he hated the idea of walk-up songs when they first started becoming popular in the majors around the 1999 season, Nationals manager Matt Williams wants his players to embrace the music that is played in the ballpark these days. And he even feels that players can use the music to their advantage.
That belief mostly comes from the idea that if players can develop a sense of rhythm, they can improve their timing and become more consistent. That's especially the case in the infield, Williams says.
"I always ask the infielders if they can dance or not," Williams said yesterday during his session with the media, causing a couple reporters to shoot glances at each other, trying to figure out if the new Nats manager was being serious or not. "If they can dance, then they can play infield. If they can't dance, we need to get them lessons, then they'll be able to play infield. So that's all it really is. You play through the baseball and create rhythm and all that stuff. You become more accurate, all those things.
"They always play music during batting practice, right?" added Williams, a four-time Gold Glove award winner as a third baseman. "And I would always try to get my ground balls according to the music. I developed that type of rhythm according to what's playing on the scoreboard. With the beat."
Williams "couldn't dance a lick" during his playing days, he said with a chuckle. He also once bashed 43 home runs during a season and was a top-notch defender, so he was still able to get by. But while he might not be the most accomplished guy on the dance floor himself, Williams does believe that being able to feel the beat can help players in a number of ways.
"Dusty (Baker) taught me early on as a hitter, 'We always have music in the cage,' " Williams said. "So if we went to work in the cage, there was always music. And we would hit along with that rhythm, that rhythm to the music.
"I was a big rhythm guy. I didn't like hitting against pitchers out of the stretch, because it messed up my rhythm. That's just the nature of the game."
Rick Schu, who took over as Nationals hitting coach midway through last season after the firing of Rick Eckstein, is known for blasting music in the batting cages as his players hit, which the players seem to love. Schu seems to do it more to loosen his guys up and make sure they're having fun as they get their work in, but if they can get a better feel for their swing thanks to the rhythm of the song, I guess, all the better.
"It's important," Williams said. "You all know if you hear that song that you really like, all of a sudden, what are you doing in your car? You're (bobbing your head). It's the way it is. And if we can do that on the field, we've got rhythm."
This conversation, of course, led to reporters trying to get a feel for what type of music Williams is into. Why miss out on a great opportunity to get to know the skipper a little better?
Williams initially refused to choose a walk-up song in his playing days when that concept was brand new, saying that he didn't need one. Eventually, when team staffers persisted, Williams let teammate David Dellucci to pick his song for him - "Tom Sawyer," by Rush.
"I enjoy something that's got a good beat to it, that I can hear the bass of it," Williams said. "Especially on the field, because ... classical, it's hard to get that rhythm. I don't know about hardcore rap, but something that's got the constant (beat), so that we can time things on the field."
Today's quote of the day, written atop the morning schedule sheet: "There is a difference between control and command."