Sports and music have always had an intertwined relationship. Athletes want to be rock stars, and vice versa. Baseball, of all the sports, may have the greatest connection of all with music. There were odes written to greats like Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle, John Fogerty branded “Centerfield” into the brains of anyone whoever went to any ballgame from the ’80s onward and, most recently, the Dropkick Murphys partnered with the Boston Red Sox to tackle the Broadway B-side “Tessie” from the 1902 musical production, The Silver Slipper.
As baseball (arguably) is this country’s national pastime, it has existed long enough for writers and artists to build up a fascination with it, due largely in part to the extremely excellent documentary work of Ken Burns. And for many generations of kids, until recently really, baseball was the team sport we all played. It holds a place in Americana lore and a connection to musicians that football or basketball have yet to occupy.
That connection has brought together a collection of accomplished musicians with a common passion for hardball: The Baseball Project. Founded by Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows) on vocals and guitars, Steve Wynn (The Dream Syndicate) on guitars and vocals, Peter Buck (R.E.M.) on guitars, Mike Mills (R.E.M.) on bass and vocals and Linda Pitmon (The Miracle 3) on drums, The Baseball Project is exactly what it sounds like: A group that creates all sorts of rock songs about baseball. Obviously — based on who they are and what they’ve already accomplished — they are tight. The guitar work is superb and the rhythm section is deep in the pocket, while maintaining the loose style needed for the pub-rock style they play.
Though the theme is unique, it doesn’t overpower the music. “I don’t think it gets lost,” explains McCaughey via cell phone, driving through Florida en route to a slew of Grapefruit League games.
“I think more people are attracted to the music we make instead of the baseball stuff. We have lots of fans who are fans of the music more than they are of baseball. They hear bits from the past from each of us and we end up creating some new baseball fans along the way.”
The lyrics, however, are quite notable, not quite like anything else. These aren’t songs about love between a boy and girl, but between a fan and a player, or even a fan and a ballpark. These aren’t songs about the government keeping the working man down, but rather about the Hall keeping a player out (sorry, Dale Murphy). These aren’t songs about Cupid firing a dart through your heart, but rather a foul ball tattooing some laces to your forehead if you aren’t paying attention.
“We thought having a band about water polo would be really boring,” says McCaughey. “It has been a fun songwriting exercise; there really is an endless number of tales to pick from.”
When you go see The Baseball Project this week at Colonial Quarter, you can expect a couple of things. Firstly, the songs are fun and the band is great. Secondly, you are going to hear a bunch of tunes about baseball, ranging from things the casual fan may know about (Alex Rodriguez’s steroid saga, on “13”) to things only the most hardcore fans may know (the near-perfect game thrown by Harvey Haddix in 1959, on “Harvey Haddix”).
“We all read a lot about the sport, we all follow the current doings. Every once in a while, something comes up that is really crazy and we have fans that come up and ask us ‘You know who you should write a song about?’,” says McCaughey. “The Hall of Fame was giving us a behind-the-scenes tour and the tour guide asked if we knew the story about Larry Yount. We all assumed that he was Hall of Famer Robin Yount’s brother but we didn’t know anything about him. Apparently, he came in and hurt himself warming up before an inning and never played again. The arcane stuff like that fascinates us.”
There are great stories about the Say-Hey Kid in “Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays,” cautionary tales about putting your phone down and paying attention at the ballpark in “Look Out, Mom” and a wacky ditty about the potential double-life of Japanese great Ichiro Suzuki with “Ichiro Goes to the Moon.” These aren’t novelty songs for novelty’s sake (to wit, “The Super Bowl Shuffle”). There is a certain sincerity behind the lyrics. “Gratitude (For Curt Flood)” tells the story of Flood’s struggle to become the first player to be a free agent, opening the door for thousands of future players to earn millions of dollars, essentially changing the game forever. “They Played Baseball” tells of ballplayers who are human beings, men who can make mistakes, reminding us we should be careful just whom we put on pedestals.
As a warm-up, watch Ken Burns’ 18-and-a-half-hour Baseball documentary in one crazed sitting and then head out to the Colonial Quarter this weekend, armed with the backstories behind the lyrics. The music will rock you on its own, but you may want to know who Ed Delahanty is and how he died. Play ball!