ANAHEIM, Calif. — Hansel Robles, sometime closer for the Los Angeles Angels, leaves the bullpen to a bong-bong funereal creep professional wrestling fans regard as The Undertaker’s theme song, and at that point, it’s only starting to get weird.
The video materializes above Angel Stadium, love story B-roll splashing across 23,000 square feet of canvas, pulsing through eight million LED lights, a riderless white horse frolics, rose petals waft, a real live person in a rubber horse mask stares from three levels up, behind home plate. The music plays. Bong-bong. Here comes Hansel.
A lot’s going on.
Like the image of the black hole.
Like plumes of smoke.
Like streaks of lightning.
Like the horse mask puckering and unpuckering, some poor soul pulling breaths as though through an aquarium filter. Which is subtle, because there’s also a black cape over the person-horse’s shoulders, and a staff in its right hand, and another horse’s head on the end of the staff, all of which tend to draw attention from the person-horse’s gasps for oxygen.
Like the 30-some thousand people staring at this show, Robles trotting across the outfield, reaching the mound, making warm-up pitches, the white horse rears, the candles glow, the lightning flashes. Bong-bong, here we go.
“Uh, it was interesting, you know?” New York Yankees pitcher James Paxton said after his first viewing. “I thought the music was kinda cool. I was a little confused by, what’s the person dressed up as a horse?”
“Whatever fires you up, you know?” he said. “Whatever it takes.”
Hansel Robles grew up in a small town called Banao, on the road between Santo Domingo and Santiago in the Dominican Republic. His father worked on a pig farm. Cousins lived nearby. When they weren’t playing baseball with sticks and whatever might pass for a ball, they would sometimes pretend to be professional wrestlers. Hansel always got to be WWE’s The Undertaker, the hulk in the hat and black eye makeup he’d seen on television. When the music came on — “Rest in Peace,” it’s called — Robles would leap from the couch and assume the position of the ready wrestler.
“I used to love to watch The Undertaker,” Robles said. “When I heard the first “bong” I’d look up. It pumps me all up.”
IT'S THE UNDERTAKER'S MUSIC! pic.twitter.com/TUFQZzLgGQ
— Los Angeles Angels (@Angels) April 11, 2019
In 3½ seasons with the New York Mets he saved one game, and seeing that cool music and gritty videos are a closer’s domain, Robles generally entered to whatever was going on at Citi Field. He was put on waivers by the Mets last June — “In my head, I was ready to go,” he said — and pitched to a 2.97 ERA over 37 appearances for the Angels. It was in that time The Undertaker theme became his in-game escort. The video was added this season, odd in a charming way on its own, a bit odder in that Robles wasn’t the team’s regular closer. Cody Allen was. The seventh or eighth inning, with so much game still out there, tends to limit the fanfare, but Robles wore it well and with suitable graveness. So much so that it would be fair to wonder if horses and flowers and stuff were an overcooked reach for levity or a perfect tapestry of machismo or something only Robles got.
“For me,” he said, “it signifies a lot of emotions, a lot of excitement, something to hold onto.”
The Angels’ in-game entertainment department merely sought a compilation of scenes and attitude that matched “Rest in Peace,” that honored Robles’ love for horses and his nickname — El Caballo Blanco, The White Horse. After a few days work, the first of many late-inning Angels games fell face first into a Barbara Cartland novel.
“We started small,” said Jordan Esswein, who leads the department, the same people who generate the Rally Monkey videos. “We’d find some slow-motion horse footage and throw it up in there. We have an incredibly creative team upstairs. And how dramatic can we get? Where can we go? Can we put rose petals falling? Can we get candles burning? Where’s this thing going to go? We kept adding to it and pushing it a little bit longer and more. He loves it. If he didn’t perform the way he did when he comes out, then it would kind of lose its thing. But every time he comes out it’s a clean game and it just works.”
The image of the black hole was a tribute to the news of the day. The rose petals were the only colorized element in the initial video. The person-horse has been played by many staff members, and this week stared from its stable in the sky as Esswein explained how the show came together.
“No, we did not need a volunteer,” he said. “There was a line out the door. Whoever wants a shot. We have some requirements, you know, because there’s a lot of movement involved.”
Actually, there is no movement involved. That was the joke. The person-horse stands and stares, dramatically, with only one issue.
“The only eye holes are through the nostrils and the mouth,” Esswein said. “So there is a few people guiding that person out to where they’re standing.”
— Marcus Vanderberg (@marcowill) May 1, 2019
So, Esswein and his team built the video, mixed in live, slow-motion shots of Robles’ feet pounding toward the infield, and presented it to Robles himself.
“I didn’t want them to change anything,” he said. “I told them to leave it just the way it is. I like they included the white horse.”
The perfect amount of kitsch. Of inside joke that maybe isn’t an inside joke. Of is-this-serious? Of maybe-the-joke-is-on-me? Of, oh hell, why not?
“Hansel has a great sense of humor,” Esswein said.
Bong-bong. Let’s go.
Albert Pujols was taping his bat one afternoon. He looked up. The video, man. The video.
“I haven’t really put much thought into it,” he said.
Then he smiled.
“Funny though,” he said.
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