There's a band for the wizard universe of J.K. Rowling, another for cooking up pizza-inspired Velvet Underground covers and yet another that uses a parrot to lead grindcore sprints about all things avian. So a group dedicated to our traditional sporting pastime of baseball? Of course.
The supergroup The Baseball Project pens paeans to the sport and its characters, constructing a mythos from the misfits and demigods who litter and line the game's annals. While the idea might seem like an unnecessary thematic limitation, the concept seems to have the opposite effect. Across three albums, including the new 3rd, songs overflow with clever portraits of larger-than-life figures, improbable occurrences and personal testimonials, all in musical service to the game's allure. While The Baseball Project sounds like some really good indie rock, its subject matter almost qualifies it for status as folk music.
"We are all pretty fixated on and pretty nerdy about baseball," says singer and guitarist Scott McCaughey from Type Foundry Studios in Portland, Ore., where he's recording with a new band tentatively named Super, featuring R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, drummer Bill Rieflin and Sleater-Kinney guitarist Corin Tucker.
McCaughey, best known for his work with Young Fresh Fellows and The Minus 5, is one of three former R.E.M. members in The Baseball Project. Bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck are staples, while drummer Linda Pitmon and her husband, The Dream Syndicate's Steve Wynn, complete the roster.
"Rock is always kind of the first love," McCaughey says, "but for some of us, baseball comes close behind rock. It's a very big part of our lives."
The Baseball Project certainly isn't the first band to mine the diamond for songs. Simon & Garfunkel famously wondered where "Joltin Joe" DiMaggio had gone during "Mrs. Robinson," while Woody Guthrie penned a tune to DiMaggio, too. Terry Cashman's "Mickey, Willie and The Duke" captures three greats at once. Yo La Tengo is named for the New York Mets, and Kanye West and Lil Wayne teamed up for a boisterous cut in 2007 named "Barry Bonds."
For McCaughey, though, this isn't a passing fancy: He turns 60 soon, and like many American kids now his age, he's been inculcated with the sport since his youth, beguiled by televised stars whose baseball cards he could hold in his hands. He could peruse the stats, memorize the minutiae, concoct dream scenarios long before fantasy sports existed.
Wynn even holds onto his cards now, the source of inspiration for "The Baseball Card Song," an ambling '60s-inflected rocker that captures the wide-eyed wonder imprinted on that paper. "Soon, I discovered cars and girls, punk rock and booze/The whole wide world," he sings. "Late at night out on the Sunset Strip, I'd do my best to be cool and hip/I'd go home and let down my guard/Put my guitar away and check out all my cards."
Beyond mere childhood nostalgia, there's something engrained in the game's slow, methodical nature that lends itself to stories and, subsequently, songs. It's woven into the sport's idiosyncratic traditions, like singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in the middle of the seventh inning, or the peculiar mix of skills that doesn't necessarily require an exquisite physique. Often a player's beer gut (David Wells or John Kruk, anyone?) seems better-suited to gas station attendant than world-class athlete. The sport's long been the refuge of oddballs and colorful kooks, from Bill "The Spaceman" Lee to idiot savant philosopher Yogi Berra.
In a way, baseball is almost a folk art as much as a sport. Its tales are passed from one generation to the next, not only to understand the history that came before but how we fit within the story and how we believe it should be told. It's a reflection of both our heroic exploits and comic failures played out on a stage whose surface triviality—it is, after all, no more than a game—makes it easier to appreciate our own frailties.
"There are just so many characters in the history of baseball. That's part of the attraction and why we thought The Baseball Project would work," McCaughey says. "You have to look a little harder for characters in modern baseball, but over the years, the sport is littered with them."
The combination of the game's leisurely pace and the season's daily six-month grind creates a microcosm where careers rise and fall, quirks emerge and rumors become the stuff of legend. The new album, for instance, features an ode to Pittsburgh pitcher Dock Ellis, who alleged that he threw a no-hitter while tripping on acid. "The Day Dock Went Hunting Heads" recounts the infamous day he decided to knock down the entire Cincinnati Reds' lineup. "Pascual on the Perimeter" recalls how pitcher Pascual Perez missed a start once as he drove around Atlanta unable to find the park during his first season with the Braves.
Those with great potential, like Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigliaro, can lose it in a moment to a ball that hit him in the eye; he serves as the tragic hero of "Tony (Boston's Chosen Son)." Such diamond dramas are for many the first introduction to life's random iniquities and frequent disappointment. Just ask a Cubs fan.
Beyond the pratfalls were the heroes—for many of us, our first. And with defined positions and relevant stats, all able to be researched with stacks of baseball cards, there was a basis for comparison absent from most other professions or pursuits in life. The data never produced much consensus. It simply made for better arguments, same as with music. Baseball and music do seem ideally suited for each other, largely because they're both built on a rich heritage that fans can pore over, identify with and argue about.
"Everybody is always saying that was the greatest record of all time," McCaughey says. "And with baseball, it's the same thing. You can argue forever who is the best hitter or the best pitcher or the best player. It's a never-ending argument, and that's what's cool about it."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Up the alley"