By one measure, the modern closer era began 15 years ago last month. It wasn't Hoyt Wilhelm or Sparky Lyle, Mike Marshall or Dennis Eckersley. It wasn't even Tony La Russa. No, the modern closer era began one night in July 1998 in San Diego, when Trevor Hoffman stepped out of the bullpen at Qualcomm Stadium to the deafening sounds of "Hells Bells" for the first time.
Hoffman wasn't the first closer with personal entrance music (or, as the papers called it back then, "theme song"). Mitch Williams was using "Wild Thing" all the way back in 1989*, for example. Eckersley used "Bad to the Bone". Even 1970s-closer Al Hrabosky had "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" to go along with his nickname. But that July night -- in that stadium with that crowd with that specific song -- things were set in motion. The bell had been rung and, from that moment, closers would forever be associated with a rock 'n' roll entrance.
* And, yes, it was a blatant rip-off of Major League. Funny story about that: Williams' pitching coach Dick Pole didn't appreciate associating his closer with a song about wildness, so he had the music changed to "Thriller". That didn't last too long.
Since 1998, thirty-four closers have accumulated 150 or more saves. From Jeff Shaw, who earned 152 saves for the Reds and Dodgers between 1998 and 2001, to the great Mariano Rivera, 595 and still going strong, the list spans relief aces of all talent levels, including more than a few "Oh yeah, I remember when that guy closed for us!" guys. Though all of these pitchers had at least four or five good seasons, their musical impact was less impressive. In fact, most of these closers changed their entrance music at least once during their tenure. Only the truly great closers -- or those with truly great entrance songs -- kept their music the same throughout their career.
With that in mind, I set out to rank the twenty or so best entrance songs of these most successful closers. It seemed easy enough. But here's the secret: Most closers' music sounds the same -- and isn't very good to begin with. Sure, "Hells Bells" is terrific, but what about "Thunderstruck" or "T.N.T."? Are they just as good, or merely cheap, transparent copies (hint) of the original? And don't get me started on the nu-metal junk that invaded way too much of our lives ten years ago. Believe me, I wouldn't want to touch that garbage with a pair of industrial-strength rubber gloves.
Instead, I present this breakdown of entrance songs of the modern day's most successful closers. For some closers, it was impossible to find which song they used (Ugueth Urbina, for example), while others I'm a bit unsure of (did Jose Mesa really came out to "Que Sera Sera"?). The divisions below are in a rough worst-to-best ranking, though the particulars might vary a bit.
One hint before we get to get to the list: Chances are, your favorite closer doesn't fare too well here.
The "Really? This is what you want to spend 300 saves listening to?" Division
Joe Nathan - "Stand Up", Steel Dragon
You know, the lousy song by the fake band from the Mark Wahlberg vehicle, Rock Star. Maybe he was trying to be clever with his choice (then again, maybe not).
The "Completely Forgettable Rock/Metal" Division
Troy Percival - "Keep Away", Godsmack
Brad Lidge - "Soldiers", Drowning Pool
Brian Fuentes - "The End of Heartache", Killswitch Engage
Bobby Jenks - "Boom", P.O.D.
Jason Isringhausen - "Feels Like Tonight", Daughtry
Heath Bell - "Blow Me Away", Breaking Benjamin
Isringhausen - "Free", Vast
Danny Graves - "Show Me How to Live", Audioslave
Bob Wickman - "Slither", Velvet Revolver
Let's be kind and call this category "Completely Forgettable" instead of "Boring and Terrible". It's a little surprising that this division is so small, but that might be because we chose to focus on the more successful closers. It might also be because I've left off some of the second and third music choices these pitchers had over the years. Evanescence? Linkin Park? More Godsmack? Staind?! No thanks.
The "Beavis and Butthead" Division
Jose Valverde - "The End of the Line", Metallica
Jonathan Papelbon (Philadelphia version) - "For Whom the Bell Tolls", Metallica
J.J. Putz/Eddie Guardado/John Smoltz - "Thunderstruck", AC/DC
Kevin Gregg - "T.N.T.", AC/DC
Beavis wears Metallica. Butthead wears AC/DC. They both think they're cooler than they really are.
The "Doing His Own Thing" Division
Todd Jones - "Last One Standing", MercyMe
One of a number of Christian songs chosen by Jones.
The "I Don't Know How I Feel About This One" Division
Armando Benitez - "Big Pimpin'", Jay-Z
It's different, which is nice to see, but is it truly a good entrance song?
The "Genuinely Clever/Inspired" Division
Jonathan Papelbon (Boston version) - "Shipping Up to Boston", Dropkick Murphys
Brian Wilson - "Jump Around", House of Pain
Keith Foulke - "Mother", Danzig
Robb Nen - "Smoke On the Water", Deep Purple
Huston Street - "Stranglehold", Ted Nugent
This might also be called the "Something a Little Different" division. One note: Huston Street switched to "Stranglehold" just recently (Ted Nugent's "controlled craziness" was the inspiration). For years, Street used "Hate Me Now" by Nas, a song he chose with only an hour's notice before his first game.
The "Truly Perfect" Division
This is what every closer hopes for the day they play his entrance music for the first time. Something energetic and powerful, intimidating and thrilling. It's almost amazing that only four closers have been able to achieve it.