In the Southeastern Conference, stages for college athletes are never small, and among them are some of the biggest in sports.
Athletic departments worth hundreds of millions, and a conference with worth in the billions, depend on 18-22 year olds to keep the business running.
Coaches, fans, TV executives and friends. Families, journalists, scouts and opponents, all watching every move.
The pressure is real. Part of what makes the process so difficult.
Some situations, however, some moments of required inspiration, carry a greater burden than any other.
“It’s the hardest decision you’ll make up here,” one Mississippi State baseball player said.
As you walk to the mound or plate, one thing rings clear throughout the stadium – your walkout song.
Impossible to miss as the musical selections are blared over the speakers, these songs are testimony and the crowd serves as judge. It better be a good choice.
Coming up with the song can be a long journey filled with bouts of both creativity and frustration.
I ventured into the heart of the MSU baseball program to find the stories of how these walkout songs are discovered.
“It’s definitely a process,” said true freshman Reid Humphreys, who recently had to make his first collegiate decision, ultimately settling on ‘The Outsiders’ by Eric Church. “We’ll bring them in here and play them for everybody in the locker room to see what everyone thinks about the song. If a bunch of people down it, then you just throw it out and start over.”
Like an animator crumpling another sheet of drawing paper, all that work goes for naught in mere moments.
Part of what makes that process Humphreys speaks of so difficult is the number of factors involved. First, obviously, it needs to be a good song. Second, these players want something representative of who they are, where they come from. Third, and perhaps most importantly, they want a song the crowd will enjoy.
Of course, these variables are weighed differently person-to-person.
In fact, one team source who wished to remain anonymous said the pitchers lean to the mental side, while hitters fall on the crowd side of the decision, wanting to please the fans in attendance.
“I want something that represents me,” Humphreys explained. “It’s not all about pumping me up. I’m pumped no matter what when I go up there. There’s people yelling, fans are loud. I don’t do it for something to get me hyped. I want the fans to enjoy it. Something that’s clean and everybody can enjoy.”
However, Humphreys expounded, he wants to please the crowd with a song still representing him. Citing a desire to stick to his roots in Brandon, Miss., Humphreys wanted (and selected) a country song.
So what does it say for others?
Perhaps outfielder Jacob Robson, who walks out to the hit ‘Timber,’ has dreams of being a lumberjack one day.
It may be that pitcher Preston Brown holds a deep-seeded fear of the dark, hence his choice of the Billy Squier hit ‘Lonely is the Night,’ or that Avery Geyer, who approaches under the melodious classic ‘Iron Man’ is a big Robert Downey, Jr., fan.
At the very least, John Cohen may want to keep a close eye on Ben Hudspeth, whose choice of ‘Answer to No One’ by Colt Ford is a clear flaunting of authority, while Daniel Garner’s selection of ‘Let’s Get It On’ sounds like someone who may be a bit too ready to swing for the fences on the first pitch, rather than exhibit the patience approach coaches would prefer.
That said, the school’s athletic director himself heaped praise on Garner’s selected tune.
“We’re two innings into the season,” Stricklin tweeted on Opening Day, “and Daniel Garner has my favorite walkup song of all time. #HailState #LetsGetItOn”
Choose wisely, players know, and the higher-ups take notice.
Beyond recognition, there is a mental edge to be gained by song of choice in a game so intellectually taxing as baseball.
Junior pitcher Trevor Fitts revealed to me from deep in the confines of the locker room that he made his selection for that very reason. A high-energy player, he needs a slower, more thoughtful tune to keep him grounded.
The pressures of decision on ball clubs across the country are all too real.
“A lot of guys will spend a couple weeks on it,” Humphreys whispered after checking to be sure no one was around. “They’re tweeting for suggestions, they want a bunch of help.”
Such is the bond and brotherhood of a team, to be able to lean on each other for help when in such dire need.
Even the brotherhood of blood comes into play, as Humphreys said he and older brother Tyler Moore, who played at MSU and is now in the MLB with the Washington Nationals, go back and forth in the preseason with ideas, younger brother often leaning on older for his wealth of experience in song selection.
The sad news is that the pressure doesn’t end once a ditty is decided. Second guessing, worrying and occasional feelings of shame when hearing better songs picked by others nag at the minds of some.
In fact, no less than two members of MSU’s team exclusively revealed to this reporter that they plan on soon changing their walkout music, unsatisfied with their initial selection.
So yes, upon investigation, what seems like an easy and happy 20 seconds of song at the ballpark may only be the painted outer shell of a darker world beneath.
May you choose wisely.