A day at the ole ball yard should, at least in theory, provide an audio experience as rich and expansive as the visual one. The cowhide-meets-leather crackle of a jacked-up relief ace's warmup pitches. The disgusted roar of the crowd after the ump punts a bang-bang play at home plate. The resounding thwack of a well-struck ball, in those increasingly rare instances the bat doesn't splinter like an IKEA armoire.
Instead, thanks to baseball's we-must-appeal-to-moms-kids-and-puppies bent, we are treated to the audio equivalent of a Brian Bocock at-bat. While attending games, we hear full-throated ditties about jailbait (Sweet Caroline) and melodic celebrations of communal showers (YMCA).
|The Baseball Project's debut album will hit stores July 8. (Provided to CBSSports.com)|
If there's any justice in the sportsgoing world, these wrongs will soon be righted courtesy of The Baseball Project, an ad-hoc band founded by Steve Wynn (late of The Dream Syndicate) and Scott McCaughey (R.E.M., The Minus 5). With support from R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and drummer Linda Pitmon, the pair wrote and recorded an album of songs, Volume One: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, about baseball luminaries and cult figures alike. It arrives in stores and online on July 8.
On paper, the half-highbrow concept -- songs! about baseball guys! with loud guitars! -- sounds like a dodgy proposition. After all, the history of popular music includes precisely 3.5 passable songs about baseball and/or the people who play it: Steve Goodman's A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request, Warren Zevon's Bill Lee and Bob Dylan's Catfish; give partial credit to Say Hey (the Willie Mays Song) by The Treniers, because Mays himself sings background on it. Who the dickens are Wynn and McCaughey to have the audacity to believe they can triple this figure their first time out of the batter's box?
To begin with, they love baseball and have an abiding respect for its history. They might write and sing about Ted Williams (Ted F***ing Williams, which kicks off with a rhythmic pinch from Rock and Roll, Part 2) and Mark McGwire (Broken Man), but they lavish equal attention on fringe figures like "Big Ed" Delahanty, who disappeared under suspicious circumstances in 1903.
One song, Gratitude, is narrated from beyond the grave by Curt Flood, resentful that well-compensated modern players barely acknowledge his sacrifice. Another, The Yankee Flipper, sheds some light on the 1995 incident in which Jack McDowell flipped booing Yankee fans the bird on his way off the field. It turns out he had tipped a beverage or 12 the previous night with McCaughey and R.E.M.'s Mike Mills. Other names dropped include Bert Campaneris, Len Barker and Garry Templeton.
"We went for our favorite characters," Wynn said. "It's really a natural subject to write about, all these great American heroes and villains. Baseball's always had that extreme-outlaw element."
Added McCaughey, "We ended up writing about some of the freaks, some of the oddities, some of the malcontents. It would've been harder to write about Ernie Banks being such a great guy. That's not in our nature."
The record works for two reasons. First, because of that clear passion for and knowledge of the game; and second, because it is way loud and incredibly hooky. The end result? Think Ragged Glory-era Neil Young, had he focused his lyric-writing energy on baseball instead of love and peace and model trains.
(Is this a plug? Damn straight it's a plug. We have suffered through Cotton Eye Joe and the accompanying fat-guy-dancing video montages hundreds of times. Our collective sanity and aural well-being hinges upon the Baseball Project becoming a ballpark mainstay, or at least enough of one to bump Takin'Care of Business from the regular rotation. OK, rant over.)
Wynn and McCaughey each came up with the concept for the record independently ("that's why we had to do it together," Wynn deadpanned). They hashed out the idea at a reception before R.E.M.'s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in March 2007, then wrote and recorded the album during a week-long flurry last December.
They arrive at their fandom genuinely. Wynn grew up in Los Angeles worshipping Sandy Koufax, even though he wasn't much of a player. "Once I saw live pitching, it was all over," he admitted. McCaughey was slightly more of a jock, continuing to play in beer leagues well into his 30s. He rooted for the Giants growing up but has transferred his affection to the Mariners after living in Seattle for 25 years. He has saved either the box scores or ticket stubs from each of the "couple hundred" games he has attended, and hit six MLB games on off days during R.E.M.'s recent U.S. tour. "I got a foul ball in Minnesota," he crowed.