In something that once would’ve seemed strange, if not impossible, the worlds of baseball and indie rock have come together. No, we’re not talking the Goo Goo Dolls singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” or Scott Stapp’s “Marlins Will Soar”, but instead a group of old indie vets who have put out an album, are working on another one, and released a batch of songs on ESPN.com’s “The Life”.
They are The Baseball Project, formed in 2008 by Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate, Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3) and Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, R.E.M. and many others), and joined by Linda Pitman on drums and Peter Buck of R.E.M. on bass.
“It was a typical drunken conversation that happens when you’re on the road, where we (Wynn and McCaughey) both discovered we’d like to do baseball songs” said McCaughey, when asked how it all got started. After a few more meetings, they got Buck and Pitman (who also plays drums in Wynn’s Miracle 3) to come along for the ride.
The result was “Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails,” an album of all baseball-related songs. Musically, it doesn’t stray too far from the sounds these guys have been creating for the last thirty years or so, but the songs make it special. The band certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it isn’t some one-off goof, either.
“Past Time” sounds a bit like a punk rock travelling Wilburys. “Gratitude (For Curt Flood)” and “The Closer” tend toward the guitar-driven, slightly ominous tone of Wynn’s music, while the tunes McCaughey sings, like “Broken Man,” are more folk and sixties rock-driven.
It’s the lyrics that really hit home. They capture the humanity of the players and stories involved, but also don’t forget that they’re writing three or four minute songs instead of prayer hymms. “Ted F**king Williams” has the slugger favorably comparing himself to Duke Snider and Mickey Mantle with lines like “People say it’s hard to like a man who doesn’t fail and show he’s a human/but failure’s not a sign of grace it only means you don’t know what you’re doing.” “Satchel Page Said” is a tribute to the great pitcher that shows respect without being overly adoring.
They’re not afraid to show baseball’s darker side, either. “Gratitude (For Curt Flood)” has Flood bemoaning his career before the years of free agent dollars, while “Broken Man” is Mark McGwire’s lament of how the press and public can build you up and then tear you back down just as easily. The best of these is “The Closer,” in which Wynn sings over an ominous guitar riff from the point of view of a closer whose arm feels like “hamburger meat” getting called in with the bases loaded and nobody out after pitching five straight days.
Most of these songs are character sketches not totally unlike the people who have always inhabited their songs, but now they happen to be baseball players. This is where the appeal lies in doing these songs, according to McCaughey.
“Yeah, these songs are more about the people and the stories than the statistics and sabermetrics” he said.
Next came a unique opportunity, writing songs for ESPN’s “The Life”, a group of tunes called Broadside Ballads.
“Steve and I came up with a brilliant idea that will make us do a whole bunch of work for no financial rewards” McCaughey joked.
The result was writing a song a month based on what was going on in the 2010 season. “Do the Triple Crown” is a organ-driven 1960s style rocker where they celebrate guys like Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto and Josh Hamilton at one point having a shot at winning the triple crown.
“Lima Time” was written for the late and lamented Jose Lima after he passed away in May of this year.
“He was one of those players that had some success, but also really struggled a lot,” McCaughey told ESPN.com “It’s not such an unusual story. I guess what made it unusual was his obvious love of the game, and the way I imagine he reminded those whom he played with to enjoy themselves.”
Other songs included “The Way It’s Gonna Be” where they sang about the then-upcoming playoffs and “DL Blues” where they bemoaned the serious injuries suffered by guys like Kendry Morales and Dustin Pedroia.
The most recent song they wrote was “Don’t Call Them Twinkies,” a tribute to the Twins co-written with Craig Finn of Hold Steady, where they name-drop every famous Twin from Harmon Killebrew to Kent Hrbek and back, that was perhaps sadly anti-prophetic of the Twins’ playoff fate.
They are recording another album, and are looking to tour next year, perhaps doing a spring training tour of Arizona. When asked how it would sound, he replied, “Yeah, it’s quite similar to the first, but a little more current player-wise.”
So what is the point? After “The Life” and a new record on the way, they all seem to be pretty committed to The Baseball Project despite still being very involved with their other bands.
“It was the whole business about indie rock crossing over into baseball” he said when asked about what inspired them. While noting there was quite a chasm, at least on the surface, between traditional baseball fans and the indie rock crowd, he said “Well….we’re trying to bridge that gap.”
Some links to the music of the Baseball Project: