The Baseball Project, which began as a drunken lark between Scott McCaughey (R.E.M., Minus 5, Young Fresh Fellows) and Steve Wynn (Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3, Dream Syndicate), has truly taken on a life of its own. After an album (“Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails”) and a monthly series of songs called “Broadside Ballads” on espn.com, you figure the well would be running dry on baseball songs. Seriously, TBP has probably written more baseball songs than anyone.
Little does anyone who doesn’t love baseball know, there are morethan enough offbeat characters, tragedies, comedies and other misadventures in baseball to fill thirty Steinbeck novels. The beauty of “Frozen Ropes” and “Broadside Ballads” was they caught those stories and characters—the good, the bad and the ugly.
This they did without forgetting the irreverence and humor that is an ever-present part of baseball culture, but is missed by much of the two-dimensional Cal Ripken/Greg Maddux stories the mainstream media and fans feed on (no knock on Ripken or Maddux).
Could they do it again? Could they make a second (third counting “Broadside Ballads”) album as interesting as the first? Would there be stories as colorful as the boisterous “Ted F#$^ing Williams,” the gritty “The Closer,” or the wistful “Jackie’s Lament?”
The album starts off with a surprisingly melancholy vibe with “1976,” a tune about how Mark Fidrych was the center of all attention, but then passed away at such a young age. No doubt Wynn sings from the heart on this one, but it leaves you sort of wishing it would be one of the raucous tributes the band is known for, where the eccentricities and quirks are happily celebrated. That’s baseball, though—we’re all captivated in different ways, and we all have slightly different memories of the same things.
It’s not all tears in the beer, though. Giants fan Mc McCaughey celebrates his team’s world championship with the thrashy folk of “Panda Bear and the Freak,” where he gets these middle-aged guys (and a girl) belting it out like crazed adolescents. There is “Chin Music,” where Wynn celebrates the high and inside fastball and “Ichiro Goes to the Moon,” a goofy celebration of the Mariners star. Whether humorous or sad, they do put a lot of love into their character sketches.
The music is similar to that of “Frozen Ropes.” Most of Wynn’s songs feature the slightly cleaned-up Neil Young guitar with the carnival barker atmospherics of his solo albums, while McCaughey prefers the amphetamized folk he helped perfect with Young Fresh Fellows.
One of the centerpieces of the album is “Don’t Call them Twinkies,” where singer Craig Finn of the Hold Steady has the listener imaging if Springsteen grew up a Twins fan and was influenced by Nirvana and the Replacements instead of Dylan. He name-drops every Twin imaginable, and it makes the listener feel a little sad (unless they’re a Yankee fan) about their quick playoff exit not long after they released the song.
On the last part of the record, they truly hit home (for lack of a better term). “Pete Rose Way” talks of growing up idolizing Pete Rose, and although nothing is said about the gambling, the slow country shuffle seems to imply the disappointment in Rose’s predicament. “Twilight of my Career” sings of another anti-hero, Roger Clemens, who is out to show the Red Sox up because they gave up on him in the “twilight of my career” and “selling my soul piece by piece, until there’s nothing left.”
You feel a sense of empathy for these scrappy and competitive players without agreeing with what they (allegedly) did. The closing number, “Here lies Carl Mays,” recounts the story of Mays, who killed Ray Chapman in 1920 with a spitball and, while he would play nine more years, was always haunted by the incident.
The cool thing about The Baseball Project is not only their ability to turn baseball and its players from two dimensional, stereotypical “heroes and villains” images into living, breathing individuals, but also their ability to portray the humor, oddball culture and overall unique dynamics of the players and the game.
Right when you think they’re going the Ken Burns route on “1976,” they lighten things up with “Panda Bear and the Freak” and “Fair Weather Fans,” where drummer Linda Pitmon and (is that?) bassist Peter Buck get to proclaim their allegiances along with ringleaders Wynn and Mc McCaughey.
“High And Inside” is ultimately more reflective than “Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails,” and you still have to wonder how many baseball-themed albums a band can do and still be good. However, on “High and Inside,” they prove that, like the Grateful Dead, not only are they the best at what they do, they are the only ones that do it.