Thursday, April 26, 2012
Behind the music with Astros' stadium DJ
By Jayme Lamm Special to ESPN.com
Nunee Oakes mans his post above left field at the Astros' Minute Maid Park.
Let's be clear: Minute Maid Park is not a good place to catch a first-class baseball game and hasn't been for some time, dating back to ‘05 when the Astros won the National League championship. Coming off one of the worst seasons in Major League Baseball in which the Astros posted a franchise-worst 56-106 record, they aren't providing much enjoyment.
But that doesn't mean you won't find a different form of entertainment under that retractable roof, thanks to a guy whose job it is to provide entertainment, even when the Stros are striking out left and right.
For the past 14 seasons, that job has belonged to Nunee Oakes, audio engineer (fancy words for a DJ, he says) for the Houston Astros. After logging 14 championship-less seasons, the music man has lasted almost a decade longer than any of the 18 managers in the team's history. But Oakes does a lot more than play variations of Jay-Z between innings. He's the guy who controls every bit of sound you hear inside the 1,263,240-square foot ballpark -- from the video board (the first 1080i HD scoreboard in MLB) to the PA system to longtime broadcaster Milo Hamilton's radio show. He does it all.
While the team sporting the uniforms hasn't been above .500 since 2008, the team "behind the glass" above left field (which is comprised of three other full-time employees and 50 game-day employees) has been honored numerous times, including winning the Best Overall Display Award (known as the "Best Show in Baseball") for five straight years.
The team tries to instill a balance of Latino, country, hip-hop, top 40 and classic rock music for its fans.
Oakes works in tandem with Kirby Kander, senior director of creative services, doing everything from scripting music, picking player intro music (not all the guys pick their songs anymore), planning features/inning breaks and troubleshooting potential problems.
Minute Maid Park's audio and video systems are run at this control board.
Their jobs are all-encompassing, including telling a player he needs to change his intro music, as was the case with former closer Jose Valverde. Valverde wanted to use his song, Notorious B.I.G.'s "Big Poppa," the one he previously used with Arizona, but no one in the booth was feeling it for the situation. "It wasn't closing music," the guys said. They picked out Saliva's "Ladies and Gentlemen" and were tasked with selling it to the 6-foot-4 righty by loading it on his iPod. Heading to the locker room, bopping his head to the song, Valverde responded, "I need 10 copies of that song, OK?" and has continued using the song since, even throughout his 2011 regular season with the Detroit Tigers in which he was perfect in save chances.
When Kazuo Matsui joined the lineup, he brought with him a few slow ballads with birds whistling in the background, the same music he used in Japan. The Japanese fans loved it, but it didn't fare so well in a rally situation in Houston.
And players aren't the only ones guilty of cramping their musical style. Cecil Cooper, who managed from 2007-2009, gave his iPod to Oakes to play during batting practice.
"Coop was really into it, but I had guys like Carlos Lee calling up to change it," Oakes laughed. "Even after I explained it wasn't [batting practice] music, Coop still insisted there were a lot of good choices and to keep hitting shuffle."
Oakes also has to roll with the punches when guys change their songs. Former Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt decided to abandon his faithful Godsmack anthem "I Stand Alone" and convert to Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive." After a bad start (just one inning), Oswalt phoned up to the booth and changed it back to Godsmack. Superstitious or not, Oswalt came back and threw a 1-2-3 inning.
The music doesn't always go so smoothly. The late Jose Lima once gave Oakes an unlabeled CD with clear instructions to "play Track 3." But somehow the tracks got mixed up, and when Oakes hit play, Lima threw his fists up and looked up at him from the mound.
Oakes said most of the players picked their intro songs years ago, but not anymore. "I use their on-field persona and just guess at the music to play. I played heavy metal for Lance Berkman, but if you ever met the guy, he's all country and Christian," Oakes said. Players also became synonymous with their at-bat music. For almost two decades, it was obvious Craig Biggio was coming to bat anytime you heard U2.
But it's not always a guessing game. Former catcher Brad Ausmus was a bit more direct. "Ausmus once threw a ball at our window to get our attention and signaled to change the music," Oakes said, laughing.
Other players were a bit more intricate in their musical selections, such as Roger Clemens, who was adamant that his song play at a certain time from the moment he crossed the first-base line and ending at the 1:40 hook. "Fans can't be bothered with long intros. You have to get to the hook to keep the energy up," Oakes said.
"Music is a big part of these guys' game and really sets the tone for their outings," Oakes said. "Brett Myers is big on his music -- especially Nonpoint, which was the artist he pitched to last year. He even picked Matt Lindstrom's intro, another Nonpoint song." This season Myers has chosen to come out to Five Finger Death Punch, a heavy metal band.
So next time you hear anything at Minute Maid Park, whether good or bad (unless it's the actual score), you can blame it on Oakes.