Friday, August 13, 2010

For Love of the Game

What if the Velvet Underground had been more interested in the hit and run than intravenous drug use or had felt more at home in the Polo Grounds than on the Bowery? Or if Bob Dylan had written about Ray Chapman instead of Davey Moore? Of if the Gashouse Gang had been a New Wave band instead of a bluegrass outfit?

Then there would have already been something like the Baseball Project. But those things never happened. Like Harvey Haddix's perfect game. So this group featuring Steve Wynn (from the Dream Syndicate), Peter Buck and/or Mike Mills (from REM), Scott McCaughey (from the Fresh Young Fellows and the Minus 5) and Linda Pitmon (from my dreams) is the first All-Star band singing songs about Big League All-Stars.

I'd read an article in some MLB-produced publication about this group at least a year ago and thought that it was a fun novelty project for some musicians accomplished enough to pull it off. And then I heard a few of the songs and thought they were clever novelty tunes befitting the talents of those involved. So when I scored a free pair of tickets to the show last night I assumed it would be a light-hearted diversion on a Thursday night. But nothing more. Certainly not. I mean, how many rock songs about baseball could I listen to in a row? I thought I'd pedal over to Maxwell's, chain up my girlfriend's bike and head in to check out some live music for an hour and then pedal back home to catch Seinfeld at 11:30. Even if I wasn't planning on staying for the duration, it was tough to pass on seeing a band singing tunes about baseball in the town that claims to have hosted the first organized game in the sport's history.

I wasn't expecting to find a bigger crowd - especially one that included at least two guys sporting Clemente shirts - than I've seen at the Hoboken venue for the last few shows I've been to (although the familial atmosphere the makes the place so special was still in full effect with bandmembers greeting family and friends before, during and after the show). Nor was I expecting for the bona fides of these performers to make these songs really seem genuine and poignant. But all of the above happened. They had Maxwell's rocking like Shea in '86, Forbes Field in '60 and Fenway after Game 6 in the '75 Series. And, I stayed throughout the long set, not only missing Seinfeld but also the episode of The Simpsons that followed it. Because The Baseball Project was [forced baseball metaphor] rocking and rollicking through their entire catalog as well as a few tunes from the musician's day jobs.

Whether it was Mills impersonating the late Yankees announcer Bob Sheppard introducing Manny Mota as a pinch hitter in the Bronx, Wynn add-libbing references to Armando Galarraga in a song about perfect games, McCaughey expressing thanks for players like K-Rod that screw up just enough to keep the game and its participants from seeming too corporate, there was no doubt that this foursome knows there hardball nearly as well as their hard rock.

Without any t-shirts or commemorative beer cozies being sold at the back of the room and the band's latest tunes being given away for free online, there was also no question that they play these songs with each other because they enjoy the hell out of it. Whether talking about sports or music this sort passion and spirit seems like a relic from the sepia-toned age that so many of the songs engage. Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson and Ted Fucking Williams populate the group's lyrics, song by Wynn and McCaughey.

Ted Fucking Williams
People say it’s hard to like a man who doesn’t fail and show he’s a human.
But failure’s not a sign of grace. It only means you don’t know what you’re
doing. And everyone says “hey Mick!” Mantle this, Mantle that—it makes
me sick. It’s just so hard to see. Why do they like him better than me? I’m
Ted Fucking Williams!

Although they are happy to sing about Curt Flood and Willie Mays, the group's members do make an appearance in "The Yankee Flipper," which chronicles the night when Mills and McCaughey were out for a night in the Big Apple with former pitcher Jack McDowell when he playing for the Yankees. A night of boozing and covering The Replacements led to "Black Jack" passing out in a bathroom and ultimately flipping off the crowd at Yankee Stadium the next afternoon as he left the field after getting shelled in the second game of a doubleheader on July 18, 1995.

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