⇒ See also "Musical odes to boxing and hockey"
The Baseball Project is what's known in the music business as a supergroup. However, Scott McCaughey and Steve Wynn, the two self-proclaimed baseball geeks who started the quartet and represent its songwriting half, might prefer the term John Stuper group, in honor of the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds pitcher who now coaches baseball at Yale University. That's how deep their fandom runs.
Yep Roc Records released The Baseball Project's debut, Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, last August, or three months into last year's Major League Baseball season. The record spun out of conversations between McCaughey and Wynn about baseball, talks that revealed equal high levels of fanaticism. "It came about after a few drinks on a few different nights," recalls McCaughey of the group's origins, as The Baseball Project van wanders from Louisville to Lexington, Kentucky. "Just talking about it and both saying that we've always had the idea to write a bunch of baseball songs and put out an album."
The ensuing songs do many things well. Let's consider them five-tool players. Opener "Past Time," with an intro that references shortstop Bert "Campy" Campaneris and Oscar Gamble's afro (the latter a band name waiting to happen), sends out immediate feelers to other baseball geeks. While the song is the musical equivalent of a shoebox full of well-pawed Topps cards, it also turns a tough double play: tapping into memories without wallowing in nostalgia.
"A lot of my strongest baseball memories are from when I was a kid. People tend to think about their baseball cards or going to a game with their dad," says McCaughey. "'Past Time' was meant to invoke a little bit of that, but without being cornball or rah-rah or gooey."
The song meets those aspirations, and in doing so, sets the tone for the rest of Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, which celebrates baseball but doesn't treat it as sacred, avoiding any kind of "ballpark-as-cathedral traps." "We probably could have gotten a little more stadium airplay or whatever if we'd written different kinds of songs," offers McCaughey. "We knew that some of these songs wouldn't be for mass consumption. At least they weren't written that way."
Instead, he and Wynn focused on the athletes and not the sport, resurrecting ballplayers like foul-mouthed genius Ted Williams and the boozing, brawling and ultimately tragic Ed Delahanty. Harvey Haddix, who pitched a 12-inning perfect game before meeting a 13th-inning loss, gets a song, as does the ageless, incomparable Satchel Paige.
But it's not all about what happened on the diamond. "A lot of the stories reflect on broader issues," says McCaughey. "You've got the Jackie Robinson song, the Curt Flood song. They're about more than baseball. They reflect on the social issues of the times." So these are history lessons you can rock to. After all, a collection of well-told athletic stories without an interesting musical backdrop isn't a record. It's an anthology by Sports Illustrated's Gary Smith.
The Baseball Project has a lineup built for brawny rock and spry roots-pop, as well as the record's dominant sound—a righteous jangle that falls somewhere in between. McCaughey's the mastermind behind Young Fresh Fellows and the rotating collective The Minus 5—the former 25-year purveyors of brainy goofball power pop and the latter a darker, even borderline sinister outfit—both of which released albums on Yep Roc earlier this year. As leader of The Dream Syndicate and into his formidable solo career and explosive work with Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3, Wynn has leaned on his special brand of guitar heroics and a writing style that veers from pulp fiction to newsroom-real, with echoes of The Velvet Underground and Crazy Horse occasionally co-starring as the fourth Miracle. The drummer for The Baseball Project is The Miracle 3's Linda Pitmon, a longtime Twins booster who started out in the TwinTone trio Zuzu's Petals. And you might be familiar with Baseball Project guitarist Peter Buck's main gig, R.E.M.
Indeed, they're all busy musicians, but, for McCaughey, the decision about which songs go to which band doesn't seem that taxing. "I see what I've got and try to figure out which songs would be best suited for which band. I do specifically come up with stuff that's geared toward the fun rock 'n' roll antics of the Fellows," McCaughey explains, adding with a laugh, "And usually the downer, somber stuff is ticketed straight to the Minus 5." Presumably, a song featuring, say, Cookie Rojas, would head straight to The Baseball Project. There will be another set of songs, too: The Baseball Project has been so successful that a second volume is in the works, with the basic tracks recorded during the break between the West Coast and East Coast swings of the current tour. "More stories about more characters," McCaughey describes it, with songs about the past (Tony Conigliaro, the 1986 World Series and Mark Fidrych) and the present (Ichiro and Albert Pujols), and one titled "Pete Rose Way" that serves as a bridge between the two.
And The Baseball Project's just-regular-folks-in-the-bleachers personality has led to some memorable adventures and connections for the foursome. McCaughey played Baseball Project songs live on mlb.com, and the band has been written up in Sports Illustrated and other sports publications. "Past Time" gets played at Twins home games, and a couple states over, Cubs announcer Len Kasper recently joined the band onstage to sing a Cub-centric verse that he wrote for the number. Ex-pitcher and dabbling musician Black Jack McDowell has even given his song, "The Yankee Flipper," a thumbs-up. A relative of Big Ed Delahanty showed up at a concert bearing newspaper clippings and family stories. An especially warm correspondence has taken root between the band and Marcia Haddix, Harvey the pitcher's widow.
Oh, and Craig Breslow—relief pitcher for the Oakland A's, aspiring physician and the season's American League leader in appearances—has made it known what a fan of Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails he is. Breslow, incidentally, pitched for John Stuper at Yale.
Wave those geek flags—or pennants—high.
Scott McCaughey, Steve Wynn, Linda Pitmon and Peter Buck play Cat's Cradle Saturday, Sept. 26. In addition to playing Baseball Project songs, they'll tackle Minus 5 material and, in the guise of the Steve Wynn IV, songs from Wynn's catalog. The show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets are $12-$15.