In baseball, one of the hardest positions to handle mentally is that of the closer.
Closers are asked to pitch several times a week, almost always appearing in tight situations where a clutch performance wins their team a game while mistakes could end up costing it.
Sean Doolittle, the Nationals’ ninth-inning man, understands how much pressure is required to make a career out of closing. Earlier this spring, he told reporters he used lavender oil on his glove during the playoffs last season to help him relax while pitching. But the closer has been employing another method for several years now: listening to the Grateful Dead.
Sitting down with Brian Brinkman and David Goldstein of the Beyond the Pond podcast, Doolittle explained that he wasn’t always a Grateful Dead fan. In fact, he found his way into that genre after spending several years in the Bay Area while playing for the Oakland A’s.
“The evolution of my musical taste is kinda all over the map,” Doolittle said. “I grew up listening to a lot of heavy metal. To this day, Metallica is one of my favorite bands. I did play in the East Bay for six years when I was with the Athletics and so that thrash sound that’s so native to that scene…playing there for a long time, I really got into that a lot deeper.”
From there, he branched out his listening habits, going down “rabbit holes” of YouTube and iTunes searches until he finally, at the urge of his wife and Dead Head herself Eireann Dolan, dove into the Grateful Dead’s music.
“As my career has progressed, I’ve found that I do so much better when I’m calmer and more relaxed going into a game,” Doolittle said. “Around that time after I got traded and I came over to Washington, I started listening to the Grateful Dead a lot because it really helped me chill out and relax and just mellow out a lot more throughout the day and leading up to the game.”
The Nationals acquired Doolittle around with Ryan Madson in July 2017 to help shore up the back end of their bullpen. He immediately stepped into the closer role and enjoyed one of the better stretches of his career. Even so, Doolittle still had to conquer the mental side of playing on a different team for the first time since making it to the majors.
“Later in that season, I’m feeling the pressure of being the new guy on a team that’s making a playoff push and not wanting to be the guy that messes this up and you’re trying to find your niche in the clubhouse,” Doolittle said. “I’m a very introverted person by nature so I was trying to keep a low profile and show everybody that I could handle the pressure. Mellowing out like that before the game just kind of helped me relax a little bit more and the more I listened to it, the more I liked it.”
Three years later, Doolittle still makes the Grateful Dead part of his pregame routine—to the point where he’s even timed his pitching delivery to the tempo of one of their songs.
“To this day, I listen to ‘Box of Rain’ and ‘Ramble on Rose’ before every game,” Doolittle said. “I’ve done a lot of pitching work to ‘Ramble on Rose’ because the tempo of the song fits perfectly with the tempo of what I’m trying to do with my mechanics and my delivery…I’ve started to incorporate a lot of it into helping me manage some of that anxiety that comes along with being a relief pitcher pitching in high-leverage situations when the game’s on the line.”
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