George Springer couldn't help but laugh.
There he was, having a private moment with his wife. The Springers sat by the fire pit outside their Houston home underneath the dark winter sky, enjoying the last little bit of normalcy before the chaos of baseball season once again interrupted their lives. They reflected on an offseason that, thanks to the Astros' World Series victory, was all too short. As is usually the case in Springer's life, music played.
With his trusty iPhone on shuffle, he listened as a peppy Latino song filled the night air. That's when Springer started chuckling. His wife knew exactly why.
"Dale Pal Piso" was something of an anthem for the last year's Astros. Along with "24K Magic" by Bruno Mars, it was one of two ditties that blared throughout the clubhouse after virtually every single one of Houston's 101 wins. Make that 112, counting the postseason. The 2013 reggaeton record had become such an important part of Springer's life, as win songs tend to do, there was no way the largest part of his life wouldn't know about it. No way his wife wouldn't be able to name that tune.
Now that tune was ruining the mood, and Springer had nobody to blame but himself.
After all, he is the clubhouse DJ.
THOU SHALT PLAY music. It's less like one of baseball's infinite unwritten rules and more like a commandment. For eight months straight, a group of grown men spends upward of 10 hours a day together in close quarters. Half that time is spent out on the field, stretching, preparing and, of course, playing the actual game. The other half is spent in the locker room. Getting dressed, getting ready, getting focused. Playing cards, checking phones, killing time. Talking to reporters, talking to teammates, talking to themselves. Through it all, songs -- and the guys who play them -- are the clubhouse constant. Diamond DJs come in all forms, ranging from grizzled vets such as Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford to wide-eyed young'uns such as A's third baseman Matt Chapman. From All-Stars such as Francisco Lindor to backups such as Royals catcher Drew Butera. From Cy Young starters such as David Price to closers such as Pittsburgh's Felipe Vasquez. But regardless of who's running the show, there's one common theme: The show must go on.
For some guys, it's about getting your mind right. "You gotta have some music to get ready for the war," says Dee Gordon, who ran Miami's sound machine before getting traded to Seattle this offseason. For others, it's about greasing the wheels and putting a room full of alpha males at ease. "You need it because silence in the clubhouse is awkward," says Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez, who audits the audio in Washington. "It helps you interact with your teammates." For Lindor, the Puerto Rican-born shortstop who moved to Florida when he was 12, it's about more than merely interacting. "Music helps you bring together different nationalities. It can unite a whole world."
MUSIC IS SO crucial to clubhouse culture that players will do almost anything to keep it playing. Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin has been known to use a dry-erase board, on which he scribbles the weekly schedule, each day featuring a different pregame genre so that everyone is happy and the music never stops. On a road trip to Camden Yards last year, Rangers DJ Elvis Andrus accidentally left his beloved Monster Rave Box at home in Texas, so he went to a Best Buy in Baltimore and purchased a humongous Sony receiver to use as a stand-in. Notoriously stoic Nats hurler Stephen Strasburg was fed up with the lack of volume in the team's clubhouse, so midway through last season, he took it upon himself to hit the Bose store in McLean, Virginia's Tysons Galleria, where he dropped four digits on a sleek, black, audio tower that became the team's go-to gear for the remainder of the season. Even when the games don't matter, the music still does.
At Blue Jays spring training in early March, there was a notice posted on the bulletin board one day, saying there would be no music during batting practice. Something about standardized testing at a neighboring elementary school. Josh Donaldson apparently didn't get the memo and proceeded to lug a mammoth Denon wireless receiver out onto the field. Thirty seconds later, with Lil Uzi Vert blaring clear across the town of Dunedin, manager John Gibbons marched right over to the big black box, grabbed it and wheeled it back to the locker room. Donaldson went ballistic, following his skipper into the clubhouse and hollering at him the entire way.
"He was pissed," says Martin, who along with Donaldson serves as part of Toronto's multiheaded maestro. "You need music. It's the spice of life."
It's also the sound of victory.
DJ Josh Donaldson pic.twitter.com/86aPHBVP19— Eddie Matz (@ESPNeddiematz) March 6, 2018
OF THE THREE movements comprising the constant concerto that is clubhouse music, it's the postgame piece -- the win song -- that resonates most among players. That's not to say that Act 1 (pre-batting practice) and Act 2 (after BP but before the game) aren't important, but it's the victory verse that sticks in guys' heads and hearts.
"The win song is the only time that everybody's in on it," says recently retired pitcher Bronson Arroyo, who was the Reds' DJ last season and spent much of his 16-year career curating clubhouse playlists. "It's the only time that everybody's there, present tense, with the music. Any other time, guys could be in the weight room, in the shower, in the cage. But when you win, it's a celebration and everybody's present, right there in the music."
Of course, it doesn't hurt that the win song is the one that gets the most airplay.
"It's the most important because it's the one we're going to hear most often," says San Francisco's Crawford. Even on a cellar-dwelling team like the Giants, whose 64 W's were tied for the fewest in the majors last season, the win song still gets played dozens and dozens of times. That's why it's crucial to find just the right tune. It's a trial-and-error process that can't be rushed, one that requires input from all corners of the clubhouse.
Last April, Crawford tried to foist Icona Pop's "I Love It" upon his Giants' teammates after their inaugural win in Arizona. Not surprisingly, the 2012 dance hit, which was called "one of the most annoying songs in the world" by the very person who wrote it (Charli XCX), didn't take. "Buster didn't like it," says Crawford, referring to five-time All-Star catcher Buster Posey.
So the San Fran DJ went back to the drawing board, ultimately finding success with "Grove St. Party." A rap tune Crawford and his Team USA pals used as the win song during their championship run in last year's World Baseball Classic, the Waka Flocka Flame record didn't have the same impact on the Giants, who finished with their worst record in nearly a quarter-century. Although Crawford downplays the correlation between song selection and success -- "probably not," he says when asked if "Grove St. Party" had anything to do with the Giants' fifth-place finish -- it's worth noting that good pitching and timely hitting weren't the only things last year's playoff teams had in common.
The Boston Red Sox and Washington Nationals, each of whom won division titles last season, used Future's "Mask Off" as their win song. Both the Los Angeles Dodgers and Minnesota Twins, two more playoff teams, blasted the Grammy-nominated "Bad and Boujee" by Migos after each and every one of their 189 combined victories. Says Twins DJ Brian Dozier: "I think there's a huge connection."
He's not the only one.
KATERINA BEZRUKOVA, an associate professor at University of Buffalo's School of Management, has studied the impact of team chemistry on winning and says music plays a key role. "Players do better when they have things in common, and music can be one of the things that they share. It's part of the soup. It's one of those things that binds a team together."
Just as important as which song gets played after a win is when that song gets played.
"It's really important to have it on right when the guys walk into the clubhouse," says Arroyo, the Reds' soundman emeritus. "There can't be a gap, man. If there's like a 45-second gap, man, it's a killer. It's like being in the club and the smoke's going off, the lights are blinking and the music just stops, and they're like, 'Oh man, the DJ's having problems.' You literally just got half the people in the club un-laid."
Arroyo swears his attention to DJ detail is what allowed him to keep collecting checks well past his prime. "That's why I'm still standing here at age 40 with a crap arm," said the righty last summer, shortly before calling it quits. A guitarist who released his own album back in 2005 when he was with the Red Sox, Arroyo had Tommy John surgery in 2014 and didn't pitch at all in 2015 or 2016. Still, two weeks before spring training last year, the Reds saw fit to sign him, whereupon he proceeded to post a 7.35 ERA while allowing an absurd 23 home runs in 71 innings.
But regardless of how Arroyo performed, he always made sure he was the first one out of the postgame handshake line and into the clubhouse, sprinting up the tunnel after each win so the music would be pumping by the time his teammates joined him. "That's part of the reason why people give me the opportunity to have a job," he said. "I always pay attention to those small details and make sure that nobody drops the ball."
Sweating the small stuff is one way to land the clubhouse DJ gig, but it's not the only way. For Brian Dozier, it was about proximity: The Twins second baseman was locker mates with former Minnesota DJ Justin Morneau, so when Morneau got traded in 2013, Dozier was the next man up. For Drew Butera, it was about serendipity: When starting DJ Mike Moustakas tore his ACL in 2016, the Kansas City backstop subbed in and never gave the gig back. For Aaron Judge, it was about curiosity: Shortly after he was first called up in 2016, the Yankees slugger walked into a silent locker room the day after a win and asked incumbent DJ CC Sabathia why there wasn't any music playing. Just like that, Judge took over the job. For the record, he wouldn't trade it for the world.
"I take pride in it," says Judge, who's in the extreme minority when it comes to major league maestros: Instead of relying on apps such as Pandora and Spotify to serenade his New York teammates pregame, the reigning American League Rookie of the Year prefers to go old-school and make actual mixes. Like most DJs, he aims for a mellower vibe prior to batting practice (Michael Jackson, Fleetwood Mac, Drake), then pumps it up afterward when it's time to get ready for the game (50 Cent, Eminem, Travis Scott). Regardless of which mix DJ Judge deploys, he feels like it makes a difference on the diamond.
"If you can put a positive vibe in the clubhouse, it'll translate to the field. Having a little bit of fun in the clubhouse will keep guys loose and playing their best."
These days, no group of guys is looser than the group of guys who played the best last year.
GEORGE SPRINGER IS on his hands and knees.
It's 8-something in the morning, and the Astros' DJ is in a bind. His beloved phone has gone missing. He had it with him earlier in the batting cage, but shortstop Alex Bregman somehow ended up with it. Now Bregman is nowhere to be found, so it's next phone up.
So there's Springer on all fours, scrolling through Josh Reddick's music, trying to figure out how to plug his pal's phone into the receiver that sits in the middle of the Astros' spring training locker room. Because god forbid the defending champs go a couple of minutes without music.
"Sick last song, Reds," Springer hollers across the room to Reddick. "'Hot N Cold'?"
"Wasn't me," deadpans Reddick. Then he comes clean. "You don't know what you're missing."
Springer pauses for a second and considers the benefits of deniability, of pretending that he, in fact, does now know what he's missing. But he realizes that it would be a tough sell.
"I like me some Katy Perry," he says.
After all, he is the clubhouse DJ.