Baseball teams revere “five-tool” players, those once-in-a-generation superstars who come along and can do it all on the field.
Over on the Heavy Hitters squad, meanwhile, everyone’s a five-tool player.
Maybe the most high-profile of the Atlanta Braves’ entertainment teams, the Heavy Hitters are one of the most elite drum lines in a city where you needn’t look farther than a movie screen to know just how much that means (both “Drumline” movies were set and filmed here). Their high-energy, higher-decibel routines on The Battery — not to mention the laugh-out-loud nicknames on their Braves jerseys — have made snare drums and cymbals nearly as big a draw as bats and balls during home games at SunTrust Park.
“Drums speak to people,” said Anthony Aiken, aka “Bowzer,” the Heavy Hitters’ captain and a nine-year veteran of the squad. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Beautiful, but not exactly a walk in the ballpark for anyone looking to join the line. In early February, dozens of accomplished drummers from metro Atlanta and beyond began auditioning for the few open slots on a “team” that plays all 81 home games, plus as many as 100 off-site events during the off-season. The Heavy Hitters’ routines use four different types of drums, plus cymbals, and every member must be proficient in all five.
“We like to call people ‘all-rounders,’” Aiken said as auditions were about to get underway inside the Chop House at SunTrust Park. All around him, hopefuls milled about, chatting and nervously drumming their fingers on tables. “We always like to make sure people have the nice wheelhouse of skills because we may use you for anything.”
But a winning personality counts for as much as being good with the sticks.
Actually, it may count for more, says the man in charge of the Heavy Hitters, mascot “Blooper” and the new break dance team, among other fan favorite performers at Braves games.
“I would rather find a good drummer who could perform and entertain you really well,” said Braves Entertainment Manager Geoffrey Schmidt, “versus a fantastic drummer who can only stand there and play.”
That wasn’t really an option at the February auditions, where two nights of preliminary rounds winnowed the group down to those called back to show their stuff alongside the veteran Heavy Hitters.
“I’m going to ask you to do that again and really move around this time,” Aiken told one aspirant who’d barely budged while expertly playing two different types of drums for the judging panel.
“You have a great smile,” Schmidt chimed in. “Let’s see it while you play.”
Others needed no prompting.
“What do you bring to the team?” Schmidt asked “Legend,” as another would-be Heavy Hitter introduced himself.
“I like to interact with crowds, I’m a real energy person!” Legend responded, then proved it with a snazzy snare drum routine that had him high-stepping around the Chop House while calling out a series of high-pitched “Woohs!”
Spoiler alert: Legend was one of nine newcomers, including two women, who ended up making the squad. There are 24 Heavy Hitters this year, although they don’t all play at every game (see box). That’s four more than last season, when SunTrust Park and The Battery were brand-new and, Schmidt says, they discovered what a “great canvas” it was for performing.
And how. After the Braves’ thrilling opening day comeback win over the Phillies last Thursday, the Heavy Hitters team performed on The Battery’s so-called “Spanish Steps.” As the Tomahawk Team clapped along and break dancers spun, tumbled and even walked on their hands down the steps, the Hitters’ rhythmic pounding lit up their drum rims in different colors that flashed against the dusky night sky.
As Legend might say:
Starting April 5, you can listen here to a new AccessAtlanta podcast about the Heavy Hitters, including sound from the auditions.
MORE ON THE HEAVY HITTERS
1. It all began in 2004. “Five gentlemen from Clark Atlanta (University) would come and perform outside of home games,” said squad captain Anthony Aiken. “Braves (personnel) came out and saw what the fun was all about” and soon the official drum line was born.
2. Typically, 10 work each home game, arriving 3 1/2 hours before game time and working through the seventh inning. On weekends, they perform post-game as well. This year’s group ranges in age from 18 to their 40s.
3. They’re paid, but the Braves won’t say how much. Many of the Hitters have other jobs — their ranks have included church musicians, client support specialists, teachers, even a firefighter, said Aiken. At least one of the Hitters appeared in “Drumline.”
4. Tri-Cities High School in East Point is Heavy Hitter Heaven. At least 17 Tri-Citiers have been on the squad. Says Aiken (a graduate of you-know-where): “At one time when the line was 25 people, it was 13 of us” who’d gone to Tri-Cities.
5. Every new member is given a nickname. Some years, there’s a theme — recently, it was the movie “Sandlot.” A couple of years ago, a guy who worked in merchandising for the Braves made the line and was dubbed — what else? — “Merch.” This year’s theme? “Cartoons,” Braves Entertainment Manager Geoffrey Schmidt chuckled. “All are named for cartoon characters.”
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