May 25, 2024

Inside Twins closer Jhoan Duran’s ‘badass’ walkout entrance, ‘the WWE event for baseball’

MINNEAPOLIS — The first sign he’s en route is the blast of a bell over the stadium’s sound system. Made famous by legendary WWE wrestler The Undertaker and handpicked by the Minnesota Twins’ closer, the gonging lasts 23 seconds and alerts both opponents and fans that the Jhoan Duran Experience is about to commence.

“I told them you need to put in the bell,” said Duran. “You put in the bell and everybody knows who’s coming.”

As the bell tolls, a sign appears on the 10,000-square-foot big screen above center field imploring fans to grab their phones and turn on their flashlights. The anticipation — of 105 mph fastballs paired with 97 mph splinkers and knee-buckling curveballs — begins to build as the bullpen door swings open and off go the stadium lights.

Then a cameraman races to the outfield to capture it all, the moment when Target Field transforms from an intimate ballpark into an arena erupting as a musical act first hits the stage.

With flashing lights, fire-drenched graphics and pulsating music, an entrance two years in the making picks up steam 40 seconds in, as Duran runs out of the bullpen toward a sea of flashlights behind home plate. As his jog quickens, Duran is surrounded by LED scoreboards exploding with red and orange hues and images of baseball’s hardest-throwing pitcher engulfed in flames.

Seventy-five seconds in, the house lights fully illuminate to reveal Duran throwing his warmup pitches. Shortly after, Twins public address announcer Adam Abrams waits for the music to dip before dropping in with his announcement:

“Now pitching for the Twins, No. 59, Jhoooooooo-an DUUUUUUUUUUURAAAAAANNNN.”

Flamethrower Jhoan Duran fittingly takes the field with a fiery background. (Abbie Parr / Associated Press)

What began two seasons ago as a way to inject energy into the Target Field crowd and provide the Twins with more of a home-field advantage, has evolved. With updated highlights, two fire reggaeton songs mashed together, or new video boards flashing images of his dominance, Duran’s walkout introduction has developed into one of the best— if not the best — closer entrances in MLB.

“This has basically become the WWE event for baseball,” said Twins gameday director Sam Henschen. “Our goal is to get the fans as jacked up as we can. … We want to create a home-field advantage for our guy.”

The Twins, like most teams, have produced walkout shows for their closer for more than two decades. The first was Eddie Guardado, who walked out to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” back in the Metrodome days. A practice that began in major-league baseball with San Diego Padres closer Trevor Hoffman and AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” and soared in the Bronx with Mariano Rivera and “Enter Sandman” has become a multi-pronged assault on the senses in the Twin Cities.

Previously, teams used to crank up the volume for their closer’s favorite song and play an accompanying highlight video on the big screen. Now, those shows seem antiquated compared with modern productions that include synced light shows, floodlights and endless graphics.

From San Francisco’s Camilo Doval walking out under a spotlight for the first time in April to New York’s Edwin Díaz once famously being followed to the mound by performer Timmy Trumpet, whose song “Narco” provides the fuel for the Mets closer’s ninth-inning entrance, teams across the league are taking notes and upping the ante to improve their own shows.

What makes Duran’s entrance a spectacle that has gained notoriety on social media is a wild combination of elements that includes involving the fans and their flashlights, much like a big concert.

“I will forever get chills,” Twins catcher Ryan Jeffers said. “I can’t imagine what it feels like to be (Duran) running in with that. He always throws hard, but to get the adrenaline boost of that, I’m sure that adds a couple miles an hour.”

It didn’t take long for the Twins to determine Duran needed a hyped-up entrance after his debut in 2022. Though he wasn’t the team’s full-time closer, it was hard to ignore Duran’s fastball, which topped out at 103.8 mph that season.

From Guardado to Glen Perkins backed by Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” Taylor Rogers walking out to Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” to Fernando Rodney with Lil Jon’s “Live the Night” and Hansel Robles with The Undertaker theme and videos of the white horse, the Twins have highlighted their top high-leverage reliever’s entrance for years.

But Duran’s is easily the most dynamic.

“It was like, ‘Let’s take what we used to do for these guys and build it into a bigger thing,’” Henschen said. “The Giants have a spotlight on the guy as he runs in. Do we hire a spotlight operator for the 30 percent chance Duran comes in this night? We’ve talked about flame pots going off. There’s always ideas out there, it’s just about which ones we execute on.”

Twins vice president of communications and content Dustin Morse picked the first song, Farruko’s “El Incomprendido.” Initially, Duran, who has three children, didn’t like the song choice, which references hookahs, blunts and tequila shots in Spanish. Working with Morse and now-Tampa Bay Rays communication director Elvis Martinez, Duran asked for the addition of Pitbull and Daddy Yankee’s “Hot.”

From there, DJ Skee, a Minnesota native, was asked to mash the songs together and work around the lyrics Duran felt didn’t represent him well. Henschen said player input is always important and pitchers must sign off on their entrance song.

Once Duran heard the bells and how the songs were mixed, he gave his blessing. Then he was consumed by the lights.

“The only thing I pay attention to is the phones when I see the lights,” Duran said. “When I’m going through the bullpen, I can see everybody. When I see that, I feel like — you know when you drink a lot of Red Bull? Like that.”

Quite the entrance: Jhoan Duran jogs to the mound to close out Game 1 of the 2023 Wild Card Series. (David Berding/Getty Images)

Brock Stewart, who along with fellow Twins reliever Griffin Jax has a walkout entrance of his own, thinks the experience provides relievers pitching at home with an adrenaline boost in a friendly atmosphere. Whereas opposing fans might provide additional fuel in New York or Philadelphia, pitching at home isn’t hostile, Stewart said.

“At home, I’m more comfortable,” Stewart said. “But then I hear the walkout and it’s kind of badass. For two seconds maybe I’ll think, ‘Oh, it’s pretty cool that I have a cool walkout in the big leagues.’ After that two seconds, it’s business as usual.”

Duran said he enjoys the moment as he makes his way through the outfield. But by the time he reaches the umpire for an equipment check, he’s focused on his job.

Upon first experiencing the scene early in the 2022 season, Duran said he felt pressure to perform. Since then, he’s been comfortable with a show that includes a flaming tarantula, an ode to a “Duran-tula” campaign the Twins hoped to promote with signs and T-shirts before they canceled it after discovering NBA superstar Kevin Durant had trademarked the phrase.

Though Duran downplays the boost he receives, his home and road splits suggest the entrance might provide a lift. At home, Duran has a 1.45 ERA and 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings over his career compared with a 2.62 ERA and 10.9 whiffs per nine on the road.

“It takes all your attention,” Jax said. “The lights drop. Everybody gets their phone out. You can hear the crowd get excited for it. It’s unbelievable.”

But Duran said he tunes it all out.

He’s so focused on hitting the catcher’s mitt, he’s largely oblivious to the synchronized show going on around him. He has no idea that the team’s 2023 overhaul of its LED boards and gigantic scoreboard allowed the gameday crew to transfer its program from disparate systems to one, which makes synchronization that much easier.

Still, timing is critical for Abrams, who is seated next to Henschen as the program goes on. Once he’s given the green light, Abrams, a local deejay of 30 years and the PA announcer for the Twins and Minnesota Wild, lets loose with his introduction of Duran.

“I’m just trying to nail it,” Abrams said. “We still tweak it around. … It’s the perfect tune. I hold it for a long time and then it’s the crescendo. You can’t go 100 mph all the time.”

Duran can.

Since the start of the 2022 season, he’s thrown 891 pitches of 100 mph or more, by far the most in the majors. Only San Francisco’s Jordan Hicks is in the same stratosphere, topping 100 mph on 744 occasions. Nobody else has reached 500.

Since 2022, Duran has the five fastest pitches in baseball, each of which was 104 mph or greater. Two from last season were rounded up to 105 mph.

“Seeing him come on in and seeing everyone get worked up, that’s good for us,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He’s a spectacle.”

Teammates appreciate the entrance as much as Duran.

Utilityman Kyle Farmer, who said his oldest son sings along to Duran’s music, compared the walkout to University of Georgia football games and how the team manipulates the lights before the start of the fourth quarter.

“Badass, huh?” Farmer said. “It’s entertaining. It brings a different kind of feel to the game. It makes the ninth inning feel a little more important and a little more energetic.”

Royce Lewis thinks Duran’s entrance is the best in baseball. He makes a point to soak up the scene whenever he’s in a new stadium and the closer enters a game. Lewis has only seen Díaz’s entrance at Citi Field on television, but he gives Duran’s the nod.

“I take them all in,” Lewis said. “I want to check ’em all out and then I’m like judging them. ‘That wasn’t as good as Duran’s.’ … The only critique I’ve got to say is we’ve got to turn up the music when he’s coming in.”

Twins players have few complaints about the production. They love how it announces their teammate’s presence with authority and how he’s learned to enjoy the moment.

“He definitely has that mentality now of ‘It sucks to be you,’” Jeffers said. “He’s fully embraced that he’s that guy and has that confidence now. Not that he lacked it, but he didn’t quite understand ‘I’m a bad motherf—–. That’s my job is to come in and be a dog.’”

(Top photo of Jhoan Duran coming out of the bullpen as he’s introduced: Courtesy of the Minnesota Twins)