Interview: Oakland Athletics pitcher Sean Doolittle

Photo by Joe Camporeale
Photo by Joe Camporeale

One of the best things about heavy metal is the sense of community it fosters: we’re all in this together because no one else fucking cares. So whenever a metalhead pops up out of somewhere unexpected, it’s always a cool feeling. Sometimes it’s that weird guy at work who never says a word to anyone but comes in one Friday wearing a Stargazer shirt…and sometimes it’s an MLB All-Star relief pitcher with more than 200 career strikeouts and a beard with its own zip code.

Enter Sean Doolittle, a former collegiate record holder (most career wins at University of Virginia), Olympian (USA National Baseball Team), first-round draft pick and overall badass who currently plays for the Oakland A’s. A left-handed fastball specialist with a unique, elbow-jutting stance, Sean is also a lifelong metal fan who cut his teeth on Metallica and blasts Machine Head before every game. Unfortunately, his 2015 season has been marred by a shoulder injury that’s kept him on the disabled list since April, but recent developments have put him in line for a Big League return any day now.

Fortunately for us, being a music-obsessed pro baseball pitcher who’s forced to watch his team play from his couch instead of the dugout means Sean has plenty of time to shoot the shit with metal magazines. Here’s our recent conversation with Number 62:

How’s the rehab going? Are you excited to get back on the mound?
Yeah, I’m getting really excited. The rehab process has gone a lot better this time. I feel great.

Is it weird watching your team play from home?
It’s really weird. It’s just a whole different perspective that I never think about. I’m still part of the team, but I’m watching the game just like everybody else. Sometimes the camera will pick up stuff from the dugout and I’ll catch an inside joke, but then I’m sitting on the couch trying to explain it to my girlfriend and my dog and they’re just looking at me like I’m an idiot.

Sometimes that happens to me when I try to talk about metal! Speaking of which, do you remember how you got into heavy metal? In a previous Decibel article, you mentioned your dad would play AC/DC and Van Halen when he drove you to baseball practice, but how did you start listening to metal on your own?
It started when my brother and I were kids—we’d go to games with my dad and roll up in the minivan blasting “Back in Black” or an Ozzy album, and everybody would just be looking at us. Also, my dad had this huge CD collection that was in a cabinet in our house, so once I got to high school and started driving, I would search in there for cool CDs to listen to in the car, and I heard a lot of old AC/DC and Black Sabbath albums that way. When I went to college, iTunes was starting to become a thing, so I would sit for hours with my headphones on, looking up new music and going down these metal rabbit holes, trying to find new things and exploring different subgenres. I’ve always been fascinated by finding new music.

So you like keeping up on the latest stuff instead of just listening to the classic albums that you know and love?
Yeah, but I’m always looking for stuff that’s new to me. I don’t have a ton of friends who are into metal, and not a lot of guys I’ve played with have been into metal, so I’m kind of on my own. It’s not like I can throw on a Gojira album in the weight room and have it last more than 14 seconds…it’s just not gonna happen. But I feel like with my upbringing, the foundation is already there with the classics. And playing baseball in the Bay Area, I’ve spent a lot of time going back and listening to all the great bands from around here, like Exodus, Testament and Death Angel.

Were you a fan of the Bay Area thrash scene when you were growing up in New Jersey?
I liked some of those bands but I never really made that connection. I wasn’t into learning a lot about metal. I remember shortly after I got drafted, Exodus put out Shovel Headed Kill Machine and Testament put out Live in London, and I was listening to those albums a lot when I was in the minor leagues, but I wasn’t digging that deep. Once I came to play for the A’s, I started learning more about the thrash scene and realizing how many really good bands come from here, including my all-time favorite band, Metallica.

What’s your favorite Metallica album?
…And Justice for All is probably my favorite, but Ride the Lighting has more sentimental value to me because that was the first album I bought with my own allowance money. I played the hell out of it on my boombox while I was doing my homework.

What’s the best song on …And Justice for All?
My favorite is “The Shortest Straw,” but there are so many good songs on that album, it’s like asking somebody to pick their favorite child or something. “Harvester of Sorrow” is one of my favorites. I think that would be a really good intro song for a pitcher. I came close to using that before I settled on “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

Will that still be your walkout song when you come back from the DL?
Yeah, I think so. I miss hearing it, man. I miss the fans headbanging in the bleachers—they seem to really enjoy it and it gets me fired up. There are a number of songs I’ve considered using, and since I’ve been on the DL I’ve thought pretty hard about switching it up and maybe going with something different. I came close to switching to a Machine Head song. That’s another great Bay Area group; they’ve actually been to some games this year since they got off tour, which has been really cool. That’s the kind of stuff I love about playing around here. I get a chance to meet guys who are legends in my opinion.

Do you ever go to concerts in the offseason?
I spend my offseason in Arizona, and a fair amount of metal shows will roll through there. Last spring training, I saw Allegaeon in Phoenix, which was awesome. A couple years ago I went to see Hellyeah and All That Remains in Tempe, and Randy Johnson was there photographing it! It was like my two favorite things colliding, and it just blew my mind.

When you’re traveling during the baseball season, do you ever consider checking out concerts in the different cities you’re in?
I definitely consider it. I keep track of where certain bands are and check our schedule to see if anything links up. It’s just really tough with our schedule. If a band is playing in a given city, the only way I can make the show is if we play a day game and then don’t travel afterward for some reason. Unfortunately, that means I don’t get to many shows during the season, but I have a lot more flexibility in the offseason, so I try to catch one or two concerts during spring training.

As a professional athlete, you spend a lot of time in the gym. What’s the best type of metal for working out?
My tastes are all over the map, so I have a couple of playlists with a little of everything. I find that thrash works best for cardio. The other day, I put on The Ultra-Violence by Death Angel and found myself running to the beat, and I ended up doing an extra 10 minutes on the treadmill, which is really weird for me. If I’m trying to get a lift in—especially lower body because I hate lifting lower body—I’ll go with something really heavy like At the Gates, Dimmu Borgir or Gojira. Upper body workouts are fun, so I’ll just go with whatever I’m feeling like on a given day. I go in and out of phases when it comes to genres of metal.

What phases have you been into lately?
Recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of Sylosis and At the Gates… I rediscovered Slaughter of the Soul a couple weeks ago and I’ve had it on a loop. It’s unbelievable. I put it on the other day when I was walking to the ballpark and I was just in the zone…nobody was getting in my way. I like the new Lamb of God album. The new Between the Buried and Me is good. There’s always something in my headphones. Especially being on the disabled list—the days can be a grind, so I always have some pent-up rage and have to go in the weight room and work out to some music that melts my face off.

Two years ago, we ran an article that called you, Grant Balfour, Pat Neshek and Travis Blackley “the most metal bullpen in the MLB.” All three of those guys are on different teams now, so do you have any metal allies left in the A’s locker room?
Not really. Jarrod Parker at least won’t change it if I put it on, which I guess is the closest thing I’ve found to an ally. Billy Beane gets on me sometimes for playing the music too loud in the weight room. He’s a big music guy, but he’s more into classic rock and punk. He’s always like, “I just don’t understand why you have to listen to it so loud. I can hear it coming through the wall!” I have to find some time when I’m the only one in there so I can sneak in a few songs before someone complains.

Being a pro athlete has some similarities to being a pro musician, like the constant travel and performing in front of people in high-pressure situations. If you started a band, what instrument would you play and what type of metal would it be?
The music would have to be something fast-paced with driving double bass, and I would play the drums. We had a drum set in the basement when I was growing up, and my brother and I would go down there and just absolutely wail on it. We’d put Metallica on the headphones and try to keep up. It was hysterical to watch how bad we were, even though we thought it sounded good. I’m really bad at drums, but I think that would be so cool to be back there. I guess it’s a bit like relieving: you’re behind the scenes, and no one really notices you until you fuck up. Or if you’re really, really good.

Like John Longstreth or Blake Richardson.
That stuff is insane, man. When you get into metal that has progressive elements and weird time signatures, it just blows my mind. I love listening to it because I can’t understand how you get your feet and hands to move like that. It just jams me up because I don’t get it. But it sounds amazing.

If you had to deconstruct it, why do you think you’re drawn to heavy metal?
I feel like when it comes to music, people listen to a certain genre because they connect with it on a personal level and it elicits some kind of response in them. When I hear a good metal song, it raises my heart rate and gives me an adrenalin rush, which is what I feel every time I come out of the bullpen. It’s similar to coming into a game and trying to close it out, just on a smaller scale. It makes me feel alive. Like right now, I’m grinding it out on the DL, working out four or five hours a day in the weight room, trying to get healthy…so when I throw on some metal and it gets me going, that can be the difference between getting after it and just going through the motions. That’s the biggest reason I’m drawn to it. Also, since I play baseball for a living, I love the team element of metal. Some of these songs are so fast and technical that if one guy screws something up, it’ll throw everything off. To be able to go so hard and fast with such precision—it’s mind blowing when it’s done right.

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

Follow Sean on Twitter for metal musings, baseball observations and pictures of his dog.