- Tim Kurkjian, MLB reporter
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When I stopped playing, what I missed most were the sounds of the ballpark. For years after I retired, I heard those sounds in my head before I went to sleep.
-- Stan Musial
The sounds of the game are unmistakably present every night, in every ballpark. They are unique to baseball; some are loud, some subtle. After sight, hearing is the most acute of the senses. It helps create a fan experience not found in any other sport. Close your eyes and listen, and you can know what stadium you're in, which team is winning and even which pitcher is dealing.
Roger Clemens once said he loved going to the Astrodome to "listen" to Nolan Ryan warm up in the bullpen before a game, the gunshot sound that Ryan's 100 mph fastball would make when it collided with the catcher's mitt.
Chipper Jones says he loved the clatter sound made by Bobby Cox's metal spikes on concrete in the runway to the dugout, a sure sign that another major league game was about to start.
"My favorite sound is that little click you hear when the hitter knocks the batting doughnut off his bat in the on-deck circle," says the Rangers' Lance Berkman. "When I hear that, I know it's time for me to hit."
There are three places in a ballpark from which the most distinct sounds come: the plate, the mound and the stands. But the sounds come from everywhere.
"I've always liked the sound around second base when there's a steal," says Rays outfielder Sam Fuld. "The runner is sliding, the ball hits the glove, the runner hits the bag. [It isn't the same violent sound], but all that commotion must be similar to what goes on at the line of scrimmage in an NFL game."
Marlins outfielder Matt Diaz says: "I love the sound of footsteps. With the big guys, you hear that 'thump, thump, thump.' The louder the footsteps, the slower the guy. Andrew McCutchen, you never hear his feet; it's like he's floating. When he's going after a ball, it's like 'ah, ah, ah.' When that sound gets really loud, you move aside and let him catch it."
Braves outfielder Reed Johnson says it's hard to hear another outfielder running at him in the heat of a game in a loud ballpark. "You learn to glance over and look off the guy next to you," he says. "I played next to Vernon Wells for five years, and we never said a word to each other because we always knew where we were and who could make the play."
Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez yells all the time on the bases. "He is always making noise," says Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson. "As soon as he hits the ball, he's running to first and he's making these motorboat noises as he runs. And he's yelling -- I think at himself, but I'm not sure."
Padres catcher John Baker says: "Some guys were born in the wrong country. Carlos Gomez should be in the NFL. He is so big and so fast, and he makes so much noise as soon as he starts running. He's like a train chugging down the track."
Gomez, who grew up in the Dominican Republic, explains himself, saying: "I am still a kid out there. I still do things like did I when I was 12. I used to watch track and field guys when they ran, what their faces looked like, the sounds they made. When I run, I'm counting every step. Not like one, two, three, four I'm telling myself 'one more step, one more step' until I reach the next base."
When runners do reach the next base, the conversations begin.
"'Dunner' [Adam Dunn of the White Sox] is the best talker in the world," says Royals outfielder Jeff Francoeur. "When I'm on first, he'll say to me, 'You don't have a big enough lead.' Or 'You have too big a lead.' He gets pissed when you make him jump off the bag and get in fielding position. It really pisses him off when you hit a double and he has to trail you to second. He's yelling at you the whole way for making him run to second."
Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche laughs and says of Dunn: "Adam will not shut up. He is always funny. He rarely talks about baseball. He will talk to whoever is around him. All the umpires know not to get within 50 yards of him. If there's no one around, I'm convinced Adam will talk to himself."
Dunn smiles and says: "I'm not going to be bored out there. When I'm bored, I'm out of here."
There are conversations going on everywhere. "Miguel Tejada talked to himself, or his imaginary friend, the whole game," Baker says. "I think what comes out of his mouth shuts out the voice inside of his head."
And there are conversations that take place in the dugout every night.
"I draw a line in our dugout," says A's manager Bob Melvin with a smile. "Some players who are not playing that day know that they are not allowed to cross that line and come over and talk to me during the game because they are going to drive me crazy about not being in the lineup that day. Josh Reddick is one of those guys."
The Tigers' Miguel Cabrera always plays, and always talks. "He is a lovable, funny guy," Wilson says. "Guys rub people the wrong way with what they say in the field. Not Miggy. He's always messing with the Latin guys on the other team. [The Rangers'] Elvis Andrus was always making fun of him. He would call him fat, and Miggy would fire back."
There are constant conversations between teammates, but not always with words. They can happen with sounds.
"It's very hard to hear your fellow infielders during the course of a game," says Braves second baseman Dan Uggla. "When you see a shortstop and second baseman move closer to each other before a play, it's so they can talk to each other when you can't communicate with your hands. That's why there's a lot of whistling going on to get someone's attention. Our outfielders whistle to our infielders all the time. 'Rossie' [ex-Braves and current Red Sox catcher David Ross] is the best whistler ever. You can hear his whistle from miles away."
Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who played second base on pennant-winning teams in Baltimore in the 1960s and '70s, says, "A lot of the communication out there is very subtle. I called the coverage with visual signs, but sometimes [shortstop] Louie [Aparicio] would want a verbal command, and I'd know what he wanted just by his facial expression. When I went behind first base to catch a popup, Boog [Powell, the Orioles first baseman] always knew my voice. There can be 50,000 people screaming bloody murder out there, but the only thing you hear is the guy's voice that you need to hear on that play."
The worst sound on a baseball field, Baker says, "is the sound when someone gets hit by a pitch. That dull thud sound, you're going to have a bruise tomorrow. That slap sound, you probably broke your wrist. That slapping sound, the skin-on-skin sound, you know it's really bad. The worst sound of all is when a guy gets hit in the head."
J.T. Snow was once hit in the head by the scariest pitcher maybe ever, Randy Johnson. "I was lying in the dirt, blood gushing from my eye," Snow said. "It felt like I'd been coldcocked, like in a fight. All I could hear was my wife screaming in the stands."
Rays third baseman Evan Longoria smiles and says: "The worst sound is the sound of the ball hitting a guy's cup. It happened to me the other day. If you can hear it, that very loud tap, you know it's bad. Only the men can hear it. When you hear it, everyone just ducks their heads and hopes that the guy is OK. We all know what it feels like to take one in the cup."
The sound at the plate
When it's my turn to hit, the quietest place on earth is home plate.
-- Ted Williams
Hitting a baseball is the hardest skill in sports. Remarkable concentration is required to hit a ball traveling 95 miles per hour. Tiger Woods is incensed when a single camera clicks during his backswing. When a tennis player is getting ready to serve the ball, fans are asked to cease all conversation. But when a hitter is trying to make contact with Justin Verlander's 100 mph heater, the crowd is urged to go wild; and somehow, inner silence is imperative for the hitter.
"When you are locked in at the plate, you can't hear a thing," Francoeur says. "But when you are struggling, you hear everything especially when you're in Philly."
Indians DH/first baseman Mark Reynolds says: "I try to block everything out when I'm up there, like Kevin Costner in 'For Love of the Game.' The less you hear, the better. If you hear people, you can't hit."
Diaz says: "I hear everything until the pitcher goes in his motion. Then my senses shut down and all I hear is a buzz."
Baker says: "Players misidentify the sound. They hear it, but it's ambient noise. The sound that is more intimidating is with the smaller crowd. In Miami, you could hear everything that was said. Something that is very private becomes very public when there are only 50 people there. With 50,000 fans, when you walk to the plate, you can't not hear that, but it is white noise, like the noise that makes a baby sleep. You hear it, but you don't notice it."
Uggla says: "When I go to the plate, there is just a whole lot of nothing going on. My mind just kind of goes silent. A few times, you will hear that one fan that everyone can hear from home plate to center field. And you'll ask yourself, 'Why am I hearing that guy?'"
Dunn says: "You don't hear anything. If you do, they've won. That's the home-field advantage."
The hitter tries to keep his concentration, tries to stay focused, but sounds can interrupt nonetheless. Reynolds says: "I hate it when the catcher and umpire get in a conversation during an AB. I step out of the box and want to tell them, 'Hey, shut the f--- up, I'm trying to concentrate here.'"
Royals infielder Elliot Johnson agrees, saying, "When they are both talking back there, I just look back at them with a look like, 'Are you done yet? I'm trying to hit here.'"
Then there are the ball/strike calls. Some umpires are loud, others soft.
"There's so much sensory focus," Wilson says. "When Tim McClelland is umpiring, your ears are turned up because he takes so long to make a call. I love Tom Hallion's strike call: Byyyyy-aaaaa! And it's not even strike three. Then he throws a punch. I got T-shirts made that say, 'Go for the Punch.' He has the best call. I look forward to hearing that call, even when it's against our hitters. I love Jim Joyce's call: the Eeeeeee! scream. When we go up and say hello to him, we say, 'How is it going, Jim-eeeeeee!?'"
Baker says: "When Joyce or Hallion call you out and do a dance behind you, that's one thing. It's worse when McClelland calls you out and you can barely hear him."
Dunn says with a smile: "Chad Moeller is the worst. He won't shut up behind the plate. He's talking while the pitch is coming. I have to look at him and say: 'Will you please shut up? Don't talk to me.' It really bugs me. With him, I'm praying for a play at the plate."
Baker, the Padres catcher, says: "I talk a lot to the hitters. I have nine-inning conversations with Brian McCann. But Lance Berkman is the best. He will talk to you the entire at-bat, even when the pitch is coming to the plate. He once stepped in the box and told me that he got a new dog, a Lab. He said, 'He's eating my socks, my sheets.' And then he'll say, after the first pitch, 'That pitch was down, wasn't it?' Then he'll continue to tell me about his dog -- during a major league at-bat. That's how relaxed Lance is. That's why he's such a great hitter."
With great hitters, the sound of the ball coming off their bat makes, some say, a different sound.
"That's my favorite sound on the baseball field -- when a big hitter hits the ball really hard, it makes a PLUCK sound," says Reds manager Dusty Baker, with Hank Aaron the first to come to mind. "Henry's bat made that sound; so did Barry Bonds'," he says. "But the guy that all my guys would come back to the dugout and say the ball exploded off his bat was Fred McGriff. There's no sound like that. That PLUCK sound is when a guy scalds that ball. You can hear that sound all over the park."
Pierzynski says: "Miguel Cabrera's bat makes the loudest sound. That's easy. He hit a ball last year that went so far -- about 520 feet to dead center field -- my ears are still ringing from that. After the inning, I had to go get my ears checked to see if they were bleeding."
Former pitcher and current ESPN baseball analyst Curt Schilling says: "Delmon Young, when he was 20, made the loudest sound I've ever heard. We had our backs to the cage, four or five guys went through, then we heard this sound. I turned around and it was Delmon Young. I'd never heard a sound that loud. I thought he'd win a batting title."
Elliot Johnson says: "I played with Delmon, and I played with Elijah Dukes, and the sound off of Dukes' bat was louder. But the loudest I've ever heard is Jose Bautista. I could turn my head to the side and tell you when he was taking batting practice. He uses an ash bat. Ash bats are louder than maple bats."
Dunn says: "[Dayan] Viciedo [of the White Sox] makes the loudest sound. I can tell you if he's hitting in our group, or way over on Field 4. It sounds like a cannon when he hits the ball. He swings so hard. I'd blow out every muscle in my back if I swung the bat that hard."
But according to most players, the loudest sound of all comes off the bat of Josh Hamilton.
"When you're walking to the tunnel and you hear the sound off Josh Hamilton's bat, you say, 'What the hell is that?' It sounds like a gunshot," John Baker says. "And he's hitting with Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli, guys with a lot of power. Mike Trout makes a lot of noise, also. He doesn't start his swing until it's so late, later than anyone. That quickness creates serious noise."
C.J. Wilson says: "It depends what type of bat you use. An ash bat has more of a whip sound to it; a maple bat has more of a crack. There is no sound coming off the bat like the one off Josh's bat. That's partly because he uses a really heavy bat, 33 ounces. It's sort of a smashing sound. Most guys have a little click. It's like his sound lasts much longer than other guys'. It reverberates more than other guys'. It echoes. When he squares it up, you can hear it from 100 feet away. And when you're in an enclosed place, like the batting cage in Detroit, it is crazy loud when he's hitting."
Diaz says: "There's nothing like the sound off Josh Hamilton's bat. He uses such a heavy bat. It's much more dense. It resonates."
LaRoche says: "I could swing Josh's bat and make a similar noise even though he swings the bat 100 miles per hour faster than I do. But I wouldn't make that sound nearly as often as he does."
Berkman, though, shakes his head in disbelief.
"I think it's psychosomatic," he says. "I can't tell the difference. Josh Hamilton's sound is no different from the sound of Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Prince Fielder. It's been that way forever in baseball. Old-timers said, 'Oh, you should have heard the sound made by the bat of' then fill in the blank. If you took the 10 best hitters in baseball, put a blindfold on me, I couldn't tell the difference between the sound of any of them."
The sound on the mound
I knew I was in trouble on the mound tonight. I could hear the crowd.
-- Roger Clemens
Remarkable concentration is also required to be a major league pitcher. The night in the 2000 World Series when Clemens picked up the barrel of a broken bat and threw it at Mike Piazza is a perfect example of that focus. Television cameras picked up Clemens mouthing the words, "I thought it was the ball," meaning he thought the bat was the ball and that's why he picked it up and threw it at Piazza. A convenient excuse? Maybe. But when pitchers get in a zone on the mound, they sometimes have no idea what's going on around them. They need that silence.
"I don't want to hear a sound out there; I don't hear a sound," says Rangers pitcher Derek Holland. "Have you ever seen the movie 'For Love of the Game'? I try to watch it the night before every start. I don't stand on the mound and whisper, 'Clear the mechanism' to myself like Costner did. But I get so locked, I can't hear anything. The only sound I hear is when I turn to say something to an infielder, which really annoys them."
Wilson says: "I don't hear a thing. I hear nothing out there. But when a dude really squares one against you, then you can hear it. You know, and you drop your head and say, 'Please go foul, or hit a bird.' When a player hits a home run on the road and the place is really loud, and then the place just goes silent, that's the big noise: the absence of noise. It's like when a record skips or some guy walks into a party who's not supposed to be there."
Nationals pitcher Drew Storen says: "I don't hear anything from the stands. It's like from 'For Love of the Game.' But I can hear my infielders. I can hear what's being said in the dugout. It's fascinating. As players, we have a sense of whose voices are what. We hear what we need to hear, and we don't pay attention to what we don't need. It's very difficult to get our outfielders' attention from the bullpen, but they can hear things from dugout because that's where they need to be listening. As players, we know the sounds of the game. You know when there's a fly ball and the fans yell, 'Oh!' like it's gone? As players, we aren't fooled by that sound. We know that's a routine fly ball to center."
And yet, the mound can be a very noisy place, too.
"Pitchers are out there grunting and snorting; Jake Peavy is the best. He's hilarious," Wilson says. "He's always yelling at himself on the mound. He's yelling, 'Dang it, Jake, that's terrible!' [A's closer] Grant Balfour is always yelling at himself also. He grunts all the time. I will yell a loud obscenity once in a while. I'll drop an F-bomb. At that point, there is no volume control out there. It's like, 'Whoops, sorry to the kids in the front row.'"
Peavy smiles and says: "I try not to yell; I try not to swear. But at 7 o'clock every night, I turn into someone different. I'm out there trying to focus. I'm competing. I can't control myself. But I have three little boys. I want them to be able to watch their daddy pitch without hearing all the yelling. Greg Maddux made me feel good. He would say one [bad] word all the time when he pitched. I just try to say, 'God bless it.' But I wear my emotions on a sleeve. I'm conscious of it. I love to compete. I am not a crazy animal. But it's been 11 or 12 years of this. I don't think I'm going to change. And I'm not going to apologize."
Dunn smiles and says: "I make fun of Jake. I mock him. I can't even make the sound he makes when he's out there; it will hurt my throat. We do an over/under on when he's going to first yell at himself. I usually set it at about five and a half pitches. He's a clown."
Diaz says: "In the minor leagues, Peavy broke my bat. I singled up the middle, and he yelled at me, 'Are you going to take that?' I said: Yes. I need all the help I can get off Jake Peavy."
The Padres' Baker says, "[Chris] Carpenter and [Roy] Halladay are always yelling at themselves. I saw Carpenter give up a hit to a guy -- a guy who was just called up -- in a simulated game and Carpenter was screaming into his glove as the guy was running to first. It wasn't very nice language. Halladay is the same way. I hit a grounder up the middle off him a couple of years ago, and he bore a hole in my face with his eyes, then he screamed at me. That was a good feeling: make a guy that good that mad."
Baker adds: "Kip Wells yells on the mound all the time. Or he'd really grunt, that Serena Williams grunt. We'd mess with him and tell him that he only screamed when he threw his breaking ball, so he started screaming on his fastball. Jason Marquis told me last year that he was going to start screaming when he let the ball go, just yell "Strike three!' just to mess up the hitter."
"Some pitchers, you can hear the ball coming, it's spinning so fast," Wilson says. "It makes a sizzling sound, it comes in so hot. [The Rangers' Alexi] Ogando's ball makes that sound. His stuff is so filthy. It has backspin on it. [The Angels'] Garrett Richards is the same way. The ball is halfway to you, and you think, 'Oh s---, here it comes,' it's making so much noise. Rick Ankiel was like no one else. When he threw that curveball, you could hear it spinning from the dugout. It was disgusting. His curveball is the loudest I've ever heard."
Reynolds says: "You can hear a really tight slider. It sounds like a big insect flying by your ear. Back in the day, you could hear Peavy's slider. And [John] Smoltz's slider. They were loud."
Dunn says: "It happened to me this spring with [the White Sox's] Nate Jones. I was facing him on the back field. I couldn't see the ball, but I could hear it coming. I thought, That one sounded really hard. It makes a sound, a buzz, like a pissed-off bumblebee."
Baker says, "With [the Blue Jays'] Josh Johnson, it sounds like a missile is coming at you."
LaRoche says, "When [Adam] Wainwright throws his curveball, I hear the pop when he lets it go."
Fuld says, "When Verlander throws that curveball, it is spinning so fast, you can hear it. He just has more revolutions on it that anyone else. But the sound you hear after he throws that curveball is even louder: the whoosh of the bat when you swing and miss."
The sound of the crowd
I listen to the fans. But when you hear 'You suck!' for the 30,000th time, you tune it out.
-- Adam Dunn
Baseball fans are different from those of any other sport. There are so many of them, they are so close to the field, there is a game every night, the game moves so slowly, there is so much dead time, so much time to rag on the players. And although pitchers and hitters do their best to block out the sounds of the fans when they're on the mound or at the plate, that's a tougher challenge for outfielders. An outfielder can stand in one place for 30 minutes at a time with the fans right behind him, screaming. That's why there is more heckling going on in baseball than in other sports.
"A couple of places, there is great animosity for you: Wrigley Field and San Francisco," Berkman says. "You get the feeling that they genuinely hate you there. They are very uncreative there. You know, they usually just say, 'You suck.' Or they call me fat."
Fuld, who is 5-foot-8, says: "You can hear the fans in Oakland and Toronto. I get yelled at, especially about my height. You know, the usual, 'Hey, Fuld, stand up, we can't see you.'"
John Baker says: "You can hear people yelling at you, especially when you're going poorly. You can hear the three people screaming at you, 'Baker, you suck.' At Dodger Stadium, 50,000 are screaming at you. Barry Bonds said you have to be pretty good to have 50,000 yelling at you. I think it's worse when three guys are, and you can hear every word they say."
But every ballpark is different.
"Your ears play tricks on you," Wilson says. "The acoustics are so loud in some parks. Like Tampa, it's so loud in there even when there are only 10,000 in the stands. There's a fan in the stands with the cowbell, you can hear him. There's an old Rays fan in an old Rays jersey -- you can listen to the game on the radio and hear his voice. You know why players wear warm-up jackets in the bullpen? It's so the uneducated fans don't know them and can't yell their name. It is like, 'Hey, you' or 'Hey, brown-haired pitcher' instead of, 'Hey, Wilson.'
"But in Detroit, they are very clever. When the Rangers had Eric Gagne, they'd yell, 'Hey French Tickler, how are you?' It was hilarious. One city, which I won't mention, they are not inventive. They have the worst heckler there. He yells at the right fielder the whole game. He just yells his name. Really? Is that it? Is that all you have?"
A lot depends on where and when you are playing.
"In spring training, you can hear the left fielder cough from the pitcher's mound," Wilson says. "But in the regular season, when you are in a packed ballpark in a stressful situation, you can only hear the roar of the crowd. In quieter places, you can hear a fan in the upper deck. It's funny, but my brother comes to all the games I start. His voice cuts like a knife. When he yells 'Yes, C.J.,' I can hear him from wherever he is sitting. I laugh my ass off. He weighs 140 pounds, and I can hear him in a crowd of 40,000. It's a genetic thing."
Some visiting players have become favorites of the home crowd, and vice versa. Two years ago, the fans in the right-field stands in Oakland became favorites of Francoeur because they were so passionate, and so funny. During one game in Oakland, he wrapped a baseball in bacon and threw it into the bleachers in right field.
"I call them 'the Bacon Crew,'" Francoeur says. "Last year, I bought them all a bunch of hot dogs during the game and they started cheering me. Then I bought them pizza. At end of  spring training, they came to an exhibition game in Camelback just to cheer for me. I got together with those guys for an hour in the parking lot after a game this spring. We just cooked some bacon."
Francoeur says that he hears no sounds when he's at the plate but that he hears everything in the outfield because "it takes a lot more focus to hit than it does to play the outfield. I am so confident in my ability out there. I hear everything, but I can still focus completely on the game."
Diaz agrees. He hears the fans when he plays the outfield. He says he used to get razzed in Philadelphia, as all outfielders do, until a few years ago "when I leg-whipped the Red Man. This guy came running out in the field dressed in a red spandex outfit. I was considering giving him a full-steam spear; but he was slightly built, and for a second, I thought it might be a woman. So I leg-whipped him to the ground, then the security guys clobbered him. The security guys gave me a security T-shirt and an ID badge. The next Halloween, I went dressed as a security man. It was a nice night at the park. The next time I went there, I got a standing ovation from the fans.
"Then they heckled me. They'd scream, 'You don't hit the ball as hard as you hit our fans.' The fans in Philadelphia are very creative."
That's what Dunn is looking for in a game.
"I listen to the fans," he says. "I don't want to miss anything. I am listening when I'm at first base. I am listening for something funny. I am willing to laugh if they say something funny."
Elliot Johnson laughs and says, "I heard a guy yell this: 'Elliot Johnson, Elliot Johnson, I Googled you and the reply I got was, "Why?"' I turned and gave him the thumbs-up. That was pretty funny. He made me laugh. There's no telling what you might hear at the ballpark."
They yell. They whisper. They talk (sometimes to themselves). But what do major league players actually hear on the field in the heat of the action?