For a band that writes nothing but fun, catchy power-pop songs about the national pastime, The Baseball Project hasn’t exactly replaced “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at the ballpark.
The reverent “Past Time,” from Frozen Ropes & Dying Quails, the band’s debut, gets some play at Twins home games, but “They’re not going to play [The Baseball Project’s song] ‘Ted Fucking Williams’ at Fenway Park,” laughed songwriter and guitarist Scott McCaughey. “A lot of our songs disqualify themselves rather quickly.”
McCaughey, a cagey veteran best known for his work in Young Fresh Fellows and The Minus 5, is but one member of the “murderers’ row” that comprises The Baseball Project. The lineup boasts two all-stars in Mike Mills and Peter Buck, both formerly of R.E.M.
Steve Wynn, who led the seminal pop-rock band The Dream Syndicate, and his wife Linda Pitmon, a longtime Twins booster who plays with Wynn in The Miracle 3, round out the roster. As conceptual supergroups go, this ranks as one of the most righteous in pop music history. And while rock might be their the first love, baseball is a close second.
A lot of McCaughey’s strongest childhood memories, he said, are linked to baseball, and The Baseball Project is meant to invoke a little bit of that nostalgia without being too cornball or goofy.
“We don’t write songs, necessarily, to be played at the stadium as rah-rah baseball,” said McCaughey. “Some of our songs have a darker edge, some of them say some negative things and describe some less-than-savory characters, because they pique our interest.”
The Baseball Project certainly isn’t the first band to look to the national pastime for inspiration. Terry Cashman’s “Talkin’ Baseball” honors Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider, among other diamond legends. Jerry Jeff Walker wrote about Nolan Ryan as if he were a real Texas outlaw, armed with a 100-mph fastball instead of a Colt single-action revolver. Barbara Manning, Todd Snider and Chuck Brodsky have all written songs about Dock Ellis’ LSD-aided (or, possibly, -addled) no-hitter. Puig Destroyer’s grindcore sprints honor five-tool Dodgers phenom Yasiel Puig.
The Baseball Project, among its paeans to The Splendid Splinter and Charlie Hustle, mines the less dog-eared pages of baseball’s almanac for its hidden idiosyncrasies. The band’s latest, 3rd, features songs about home run kings Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, yes, but its more gripping songs star minor characters: Larry Yount, a promising pitcher whose career ended before he ever threw out a pitch, was eclipsed by his younger brother, Hall of Famer Robin Yount; Luis Tiant, a Cuban exile turned major-league hurler.
There’s a Dock Ellis song, one not about his infamous no-hitter but another notorious start four years later, when he attempted to bean the entire Cincinnati Reds lineup. Then there’s “Pascual on the Perimeter,” which recalls how pitcher Pascual Pérez missed a start once as he circled Atlanta on I-285, unable to find the park during his first season with the Braves in 1982.
“There are so many good stories like the Pascual Pérez [story],” McCaughey said. “And it’s not like that’s something a season turned on or affected the outcome of the World Series or anything like that. It’s just a weird, humorous story.”
McCaughey, like many Americans born in the 1950s, was enamored with baseball as a kid. He listened to San Francisco Giants games on the clock radio in his bedroom and on a transistor radio while doing yardwork, transfixed by legendary broadcasters like Lon Simmons and Russ Hodges (and, when the Oakland A’s moved to town in 1968, Monte Moore). The next morning, he’d recreate games at the breakfast table by reading the box scores in the morning paper—a devotion he describes in 3rd’s peppy “Box Scores.”
Wynn was a card collector. He filled shoeboxes with Topps cards before he “discovered cars and girls, punk rock and booze,” he sings on the ambling country loper “The Baseball Card Song,” and even now he’ll “go home and let down my guard/Put my guitar away and check out all my cards.”
Those songs point to The Baseball Project’s greatest asset: Though its songs are littered with statistics and arcane references, the music never takes a back seat. One needn’t know the infield fly rule to appreciate the songs, which are chockablock with clever arrangements that complement pointed and perceptive lyrics. The burly “From Nails to Thumbtacks” sums up the meteoric rise and dizzying fall of Lenny Dykstra; “You gotta fly high to fall this far,” McCaughey sings in the song’s chorus, mimicking the swaggering hubris of the former Mets and Phillies outfielder. “Monument Park” finds Wynn inhabiting Bernie Williams as he comes to the realization that he’ll only be, at best, the third-greatest player to roam centerfield at Yankee Stadium.
Baseball’s full of those kinds of “who’s better?” arguments, and in that way, McCaughey reasons, there’s a similarity to being a baseball fan and a diehard music fan. The intricacies of discographies aren’t much different than those of the data that drive baseball, in that they never produce much consensus.
“You can take statistics only so far,” McCaughey said. “You can say, well, if Mays had played at Candlestick [Park, former home of the San Francisco Giants], he’d have hit a hundred more home runs. Or you can say, if Mantle hadn’t tripped over the sprinkler or whatever the fuck it was in the outfield and wrecked his knee, then he would have been the greatest player ever. And that’s baseball. Things aren’t always on a level playing field. You can say, well, this guy’s got better statistics than that guy, or The Beatles sold more records than The Stones in their time period. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.”