March 2011

The Baseball Project gears up for Spring Training

Scott McCaughey says he still likes playing in “bad rock clubs.” So what’s not to love about plugging in a cheap PA system, hammering out chords on the concourse of a Spring Training ballpark in the late March desert sunshine alongside seasoned big-league musicians, and belting out lyrics to songs about baseball?

“I can’t wait,” says McCaughey, a touring member of R.E.M. and co-founder of the supergroup inspired by the Grand Old Game known as The Baseball Project.

“I don’t know how it’s all going to work, but one thing I do know is that I’ll get to see some games.”

McCaughey, who also plays with the Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus 5, conjured this off-shoot of a band with Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate, steve Wynn and the Miracle 3) in 2007 and drafted legendary R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and drummer Linda Pitmon (Golden Smog) to fill out the roster.

And after their Yep Roc Records debut, Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, came out to critical acclaim in 2008 and did its part in chronicling the stories of Curt Flood, Satchel Paige, Ted Williams, Jack McDowell, Fernando Valenzuela, Ed Delahanty, Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson, Mark McGwire and Willie Mays, McCaughey and co-writer Wynn kept going.

The result, Volume 2: High and Inside, dropped March 1 and listens and reads, lyrically, like a timeless piece of baseball lore — another exploration into the annals of the game’s sublime, sad and spontaneous.

“Don’t Call Them Twinkies,” for example, is a rollicking history of the Minnesota Twins with lead vocals and lyrics provided by none other than indie rock darling and Twins fanatic Craig Finn of the Hold Steady.

Frontman Ben Gibbard of the Seattle-area band Death Cab For Cutie contributed to the surf-rock paean to his Mariners hero entitled “Ichiro Goes To The Moon.”

And the band’s resident Giants fan, Bay Area native McCaughey, couldn’t resist by including “Panda and the Freak,” a San Francisco tune about Pablo Sandoval and Tim Lincecum that predated the club’s magical World Series run last fall.

“Who would have known that they’d end up winning the title?” McCaughey said. “I was really thrilled with that, and then I started thinking that if we had waited a bit longer, we could have thrown Aubrey Huff and Brian Wilson in there, too, because they were so memorable.

“But the great thing about baseball is that the stories never end.”

This album’s stories also include “1976,” a Wynn-penned song about the late Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, a song about the man whose error in the 1986 World Series helped seal Boston’s fate against the Mets called “Buckner’s Bolero,” and tunes about Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson Carl Mays, Tony Conigliaro, fair-weather fans, pitchers throwing at batters and more.

With the album in stores and Buck and McCaughey free to roam with R.E.M. off the road, the band is gearing up for a week near their hardball heroes. Yes, it might be the end of Spring Training as they know it, but they feel fine.

“We set up regular nighttime gigs, but when we got the idea of playing at the stadiums, we had a promoter get in touch with the teams and they were into it,” McCaughey says. “I think they envisioned us doing it acoustically, but we thought nobody would be able to hear us.

“So now we’ll be out there on concourses or wherever they put us, setting up in the morning for an afternoon game, and we’ll see how it goes. We don’t really know what to expect, but I’m sure we’ll have fun.”

Fans can expect to hear, well, “old” Baseball Project songs as well as the soon-to-be-base-hits off the new record.

They’ll undoubtedly catch “Harvey Haddix,” from the first album, which laments the former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher’s infamous lost perfect game while masterfully managing to crowbar the names of every pitcher who has thrown a perfecto in Major League history into the song. And yes, that has now been updated to include Mark Buehrle, Dallas Braden and Roy Halladay, all of whom turned the trick after the song was initially recorded.

And while Armando Galarraga didn’t historically make the cut and might not have, even if Jim Joyce made the right call last year (“His name would have been tough,” McCaughey says. “So many syllables.”), McCaughey says proudly that there will be a Volume 3 and the ultimately heartwarming tale of Galarraga and Joyce will probably be represented in song.

“Having a Volume 1 and a Volume 2 most definitely means there will be a 3 and 4 and who knows how many more?” McCaughey says with a laugh.

“Why not? We love doing it, and baseball history is a gold mine. t’s not like we’re lacking for material.”

***

Check out The Baseball Project at the following Arizona gigs next week:

Tuesday, March 22: Peoria Sports Complex (prior to White Sox vs. Mariners)

Wednesday, March 23: Camelback Ranch at Glendale (prior to Dodgers vs. White Sox)

Thursday, March 24: Scottsdale Stadium (prior to Indians vs. Giants night game)

Friday, March 25: Surprise Stadium (prior to Giants vs. Royals evening game)

Friday, March 25: Nighttime concert at Martini Ranch in Scottsdale

Sunday, March 27: Goodyear Ballpark (prior to D-backs vs. Reds)

Monday, March 28: Goodyear Ballpark (prior to Cubs vs. Indians)

 

Here’s The Baseball Project playing Letterman a few years ago:

 

 

And here’s the Mormon Tabernacle (“Fletch” reference … sorry. Had to do it.)

 

 

–Doug Miller

 

 

 

If you get confused …

… then listen to the music play.

Here’s a list of my nine favorite baseball songs of all time. This could be amended, of course, at any time. The great Steve Poltz, for example, tells me he’s written one about Bill “Spaceman” Lee. I might eventually write one about Brendan Donnelly. Brendan Donnelly might write one about me. Youneverknow. Anyway, here goes:

1. “Catfish” by Bob Dylan: Written in 1975 but released on a bootleg compilation in 1991, this is a perfect tale of a unique baseball man — Jim “Catfish” Hunter — told in typical Dylan style and co-written by Jacques Levy. Highlight lyrics: “Come up where the Yankees are/Dress up in a pinstripe suit/Smoke a custom-made cigar/Wear an alligator boot” and “Catfish, million-dollar-man/Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can.” Dylan also was prescient, correctly predicting that Hunter would make the Hall of Fame. Here’s a decent cover version of it, since I couldn’t find one of Bobby Zimmerman himself doing it:

 

 

2. “Night Game” by Paul Simon: This deep-track gem comes right after Stevie Gadd’s drums fade out on “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” on the 1975 classic album “Still Crazy After All These Years.” It’s a tragic story of the death of a pitcher during a tied game but still has that classic Simon quirkiness and evocative imagery to it. “And they laid his spikes/On the pitcher’s mound/And his uniform was torn/And his number was left on the ground.”

 

3. “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” by Steve Goodman: The song, written by the late genius who gave Arlo Guthrie “City of New Orleans,” reads just like the title, and it’s a brilliant ode to a fan base alone in its struggle of 100 years without a World Series title. “Build a big fire on home plate out of your Louisville Slugger baseball bats/And toss my coffin in/Let my ashes blow in a beautiful snow/From the prevailing 30 mile an hour southwest wind/When my last remains go flying over the left-field wall/We’ll bid the bleacher bums adieu/And I will come to my final resting place, out on Waveland Avenue.” Sadly, Goodman died of leukemia in 1984 at the age of 36. But at least that means he never knew the name Steve Bartman.

 

 

4. “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” by Meat Loaf: A song all about coming of age and the angst that comes with it veers into baseball-as-metaphor territory in classic fashion, with the adolescent meanderings of a boy and a girl set to the soothing tones of a Phil Rizzuto play-by-play. It doesn’t get any better than the Scooter’s, “Holy Cow, I think he’s gonna make it!” immediately followed by vocalist Ellen Foley’s “Stop right there!”

 

 

5. “Zanzibar” by Billy Joel: This jazzy cut off the underrated “52nd Street” album isn’t really about baseball, but it has one line that puts it in this group, yet another metaphor for perseverance that isn’t hard to figure out or relate to: “Me, I’m trying just to get to second base/And I’d steal it if she only gave the sign/She’s gonna give the go-ahead/The inning isn’t over yet for me.”

 

 

6. “Talkin’ Softball” by Terry Cashman: Cashman broke into the baseball-song-writing game with the ubiquitous “Talkin’ Baseball,” featuring Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider. However, his self-parody version for the 1992 “Homer at the Bat” episode of “The Simpsons” is more of a classic because of its brilliant mention of every nuclear power plant-related malady that struck the Major League All-Star “ringers” on the company softball team. Best line: “Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness made us smile/While Wade Boggs lay unconscious on the barroom tile.”

 

 

7. “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen: Sure, it’s overplayed, and sure, the video for the song shows that The Boss is a lot better at writing songs and singing than throwing a baseball, but it’s got a great opening riff and a message we can all relate to. The “speed ball” line still can make a baseball fan cringe, though. Would it have killed him to write “fastball” or even “heater?”

 

 

8. “Centerfield” by John Fogerty: It’s been played at every stadium, maybe every night, since its release on the album of the same name in 1985. He loses a few points for saying, “Put me in, coach.” That might work in Little League, but “Skip” is probably preferred at the big-league level, and we’re not sure how many players would get away with telling their manager to play them. Nevertheless, the man who brought us Creedence Clearwater Revival scores points for the Louisville Slugger bat/guitar he plays this number on when he performs it live. You can see the custom axe in this video, along with session drum monster Kenny Aronoff, formerly of the John Mellencamp band:

 

 

9. “Your Love” by the Outfield: This rocking staple of “Best of the Eighties” compilations has nothing to do with baseball other than the fact that the band is called the Outfield and the album the song appeared on is called “Play Deep.” But for some reason, it seems like it is about baseball. Maybe it’s the fact that it gets played at stadiums all the time, or that guys like former big leaguer Eric Byrnes have used it as a walk-up song or Tacoma News-Tribune Mariners beat writer Ryan Divish and possibly other members of the media use it as their ringtone. Also, the London-based band started out with the name, “The Baseball Boys.” That’s impressive in the land of cricket.

 

If any of you out there ever come across this list, add your suggestions. There are probably hundreds of ‘em out there that a lot of us have never come across.

 

–Doug Miller

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