The Baseball Project -- Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes And Dying Quails (Yep Roc)
Years ago, I was at the Fireside Bowl to see the band Wax. Some of you may remember Wax, a pop-punk band that had a minor hit single "California", with the Spike Jonze video featuring a man on fire, in slow motion, running to catch a bus.
I used to work with Wax’s bass player, Dave Georgeff, at the Sound Warehouse Records. I dug the music and wanted to support my pal, and found it charming that a large contingent from Dave’s family was standing off to the side, while the area in front of the stage was teeming with teenage punkers.
Before Wax came on, a large bearded man strolled in, and was quickly surrounded by the men of the Georgeff clan. Who commanded the attention of these older gents? None other than former Chicago White Sox star pitcher Black Jack McDowell, who put out some credible rock records of his own back in the day.
Baseball may no longer be the most watched American sport, but it’s still the National Pastime. The rich history of the sport insures that it will always be a part of American folklore. And there have been some good rock songs about baseball, such as Jonathan Richman’s "Walter Johnson" and the Hoodoo Gurus "Where’s That Hit".
But there haven’t been enough good songs about baseball. The Baseball Project aims to right this wrong, and they do so with the control of Greg Maddux. Steve (Dream Syndicate) Wynn and Scott (Young Fresh Fellows, The Minus Five) McCaughey are major fans who have written some swell baseball songs, and they get great support from Peter (R.E.M.) Buck and Linda Pittmon, who pounds the skins for Wynn’s current band.
I knew that Wynn was a baseball guy from his debut album’s terrific "Kerosene Man". I don’t know if McCaughey has any baseball songs in his past, but the two show a mastery of the history of the game. And since they are already bona fide songwriters, it’s no shock that this is an entertaining album.
Whether this will translate to folks who aren’t baseball fans, I’m not sure. But if you’ve pored over the works of Bill James, Roger Angell, Rob Neyer, Jim Bouton and Lawrence S. Ritter, you finally have a soundtrack.
The album has a bit everything. There’s the sentimental "Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays", with McCaughey’s looking back at his first baseball game and the Say Hey Kid’s storied past and quiet career twilight. This warm song is contrasted by "The Yankee Flipper". This is another McCaughey tune, a slow jangler about the day Black Jack McDowell gave the finger to Yankee Stadium after a poor outing. McCaughey claims that McDowell had an excuse -- he spent a late night out with McCaughey and Mike Mills of R.E.M.
Wynn takes up the cause of Curt Flood, the man who took baseball to the United States Supreme Court, on "Gratitude (For Curt Flood)". Flood protested the reserve clause, which contractually bound players to a team for perpetuity. Less than a decade after his challenge, the reserve clause was ruled illegal, leading to free agency and the big money contracts of today. Wynn bitterly notes how today’s players don’t pay tribute to Flood over dramatic music.
I’ve already gotten too carried away with the lyrical content. What about the music? Well, it pretty much sounds like what you’d expect from Wynn and McCaughey, full of rootsy music, a bit of twang, some power chords, and full of sincerity. To put it another way -- if you scrubbed out the baseball lyrics and replaced them with love songs and political diatribes, it would still be a swell album. Just not quite as unique.
In keeping with a baseball tradition, I’m going to bestow two awards. First, the Cy Young Award for best song about a pitcher goes to "Harvey Haddix". This Pittsburgh hurler allowed no baserunners in 12 innings in a 1959 tilt against the Milwaukee Braves. Sadly, his fellow Bucs couldn’t scratch, and the Braves scored and won the game. The kicker -- because Haddix did not finish the game without allowing a baserunner, the official records don’t list the best pitching performance in history as a perfect game.
Wynn manages to lace a bit of indignation into this folk rock slice of story telling, stating Haddix’s case for immortality. He couldn’t have a better advocate.
The Most Valuable Player Award goes to "Ted Fucking Williams". This cut is simply awesome, with a glam rock beat laid down by Pittmon. Williams was arguably the greatest hitter of all-time, and would refer to himself as TFW when taking batting practice. Wynn looks at what Ted must have felt about other stars got more adulation, when he had more ability, despite his prickly personality. Wynn also offers this does of imagined wisdom from The Splendid Splinter: "But failure is not a sign of grace/it only means you don’t know what you’re doing." Fun head bopping music and insightful lyrics -- an unbeatable combo.
I won’t go so far to say that this is a great album, as there are a few songs that aren’t as interesting musically as they are lyrically. But the batting average here is extremely high, which should ensure that The Baseball Project is signed for another season.