Saturday, March 27, 2021

Reliving the past with The Baseball Project

2014: McCaughey (cap), Mills, Pitmon, Buck, Wynn

Major League Baseball's Opening Day is Thursday, and I am sad to report that I'm not feeling much excitement about it this time around. What with pandemics and universal designated hitters and free extra-inning baserunners and expanded playoffs and whatnot, all I have left for this sport are memories about how much fun it used to be. I'm a purist, I admit it. The game's history and its overarching storyline have captivated me for decades. But no more. It's like the pandemic and Rob Manfred and a new media age have conspired to push a reset button and everything is starting over from scratch, and I have no interest in starting anew with it.

Thankfully, though, the memories and the game's history do hold on. And for you folks who like me love what has gone before, let me introduce you to this indie-rock group of baseball superfans who celebrate the grand old sport in song. They call themselves The Baseball Project.

The Baseball Project was hatched during a discussion between Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony for R.E.M. in March 2007. Wynn, the driving force behind indie-rock progenitor The Dream Syndicate, and McCaughey, a journeyman who worked a lot with R.E.M., decided it might be fun to work up some songs about the national pasttime. The two went their separate ways for the next few months, each of them writing a few songs about baseball in their spare time. Later in the year, with enough material to take this idea seriously, Wynn recruited his wife, drummer Linda Pitmon, McCaughey reached out to R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, and The Baseball Project was born.

Yep Roc Records released The Baseball Project's first album, Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, in July 2008. It turned out to be a pretty good product -- critics praised it as musically solid, and ESPN did a few stories on it, raising its profile among sports fans. Soon enough, The Baseball Project started turning up on the festival circuit and accepting invitations to sing the national anthem at MLB parks.

The Baseball Project followed up the debut with a series of songs for free digital download at ESPN's website through the 2010 baseball season -- later released as the compilation album The Broadside Ballads. Volume 2: High and Inside appeared in March 2011. R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills joined the band for 3rd, released in March 2014. I don't think much has happened since. All of these folks continue to be involved in other projects separately and together. The band's Twitter account remains active, indicating that The Baseball Project might be on hiatus, not forgotten.

It's pretty easy to describe the music of The Baseball Project. Imagine what it might sound like if Steve Wynn replaced Michael Stipe in R.E.M. If you've ever heard any of Wynn's solo stuff over the years, if you've heard his band Gutterball, if you've heard anything from McCaughey or Buck or any of their multitude of side projects over the years, you know exactly what you're getting with the Baseball Project. It's straightforward, driving, three-chord turn-of-the-century rock -- two guitars, bass and drums with an occasional Buck mandolin or banjo tossed in. Sometimes you'll hear a McCaughey turn on the piano, every now and then a sax or trumpet solo from a session player. It's solid, nothing fancy -- the rock and roll is there strictly in service to the subject matter.

And it's that subject matter that makes this stuff special. All the songs, every single one, are related to something baseball -- its history, its fandom, its colorful stories, its controversies, you name it. We're not talking "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"-type songs (OK, The Baseball Project does a quick little take on that old standby to close out 3rd.) We're talking songs about Dock Ellis throwing a no-hitter while high on LSD. We're talking songs about Ed Delahanty being run over by a train, songs about Jack McDowell flipping off a stadium full of booing Yankees fans, songs about Robin Yount's kid brother Larry suffering a career-ending injury while warming up for his major-league debut. The Baseball Project's songs go deep into the weeds where the real baseball fans live.

Sure, the rock nerds among us will find some enjoyment in these records -- especially the dedicated fans of Wynn and R.E.M. and all those side projects those guys do. But make no mistake, these records are made for the baseball nerds among all us rock fans, no question. I'm not going to do a ranking of these albums -- there's no real point in that. There isn't a whole lot of difference between one Baseball Project album and another. The distinguishing characteristic is the specific subject matter of each of the songs. Check out the Spotify sampler linked in the sidebar of this page to get an idea. If you want to dive into one of the albums, eyeball the song titles and decide which is dominated by stuff that grabs your interest:

Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails (2008):
"Past Time"; "Ted Fucking Williams"; "Gratitue (for Curt Flood)"; "Broken Man"; "Satchel Paige Said"; "Fernando"; "Long Before My Time"; "Jackie's Lament"; "Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays"; "The Death of Big Ed Delahanty"; "Harvey Haddix"; "The Yankee Flipper"; "The Closer."

Volume 2: High and Inside (2011): "1976"; "Panda and The Freak"; "Fair Weather Fans"; "Don't Call Them Twinkies"; "Chin Music"; "Buckner's Bolero"; "Tony (Boston's Chosen Son)"; "Ichiro Goes to the Moon"; "The Straw that Stirs the Drink"; "Look Out Mom"; "Pete Rose Way"; "Twilight of My Career"; "Here Lies Carl Mays."

3rd (2014): "Stats"; "From Nails to Thumbtacks"; "¡Hola America!"; "13"; "The Day Dock Went Hunting Heads"; "To the Veterans Committee"; "Monument Park"; "Box Scores"; "They Don't Know Henry"; "The Babe"; "They Are the Oakland A's"; "Pascual on the Perimeter"; "The Baseball Card Song"; "Extra Inning of Love"; "Larry Yount"; "A Boy Named Cy"; "They Played Baseball"; "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

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