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All-Stars on All-Stars: The Baseball Project, June 9 at RIBCO PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 25 May 2011 05:13

The Baseball Project. Photo by Michael E. Anderson.

To get a sense of the challenge, charm, and skill of the Baseball Project super-group – playing RIBCO on June 9 – start with Scott McCaughey’s “Buckner’s Bolero,” a litany of all that conspired to make Bill Buckner one of the sport’s great scapegoats.

“If Bobby Ojeda hadn’t raged at Sullivan and Yawkey / And hadn’t been traded to the Mets for Calvin Schiraldi,” it begins. “If Oil Can Boyd hadn’t been such a nutcase / And Jim Rice had twice taken an easy extra base.”

Here it’s evident that McCaughey knows the game in general, knows Game Six of the 1986 World Series in particular, and is fearless in attempting rhythms and rhymes with proper names and baseball lingo in song. Of Red Sox Manager John McNamara, he sings: “If he’d hit Baylor for Buckner and yanked the first baseman / For his by-the-book late-inning defensive replacement / That ball would’ve been snagged if it’d ever been hit / And Mookie’s last name would now be ‘’86.’”

But that amounts to little more than clever wordplay. Where McCaughey really shines is in taking the long view, approaching existential issues of baseball immortality: “If even one man doesn’t do one thing he does / We’d all know Bill Buckner for what he was: / A pretty tough out for the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Cubs.” But he finally concludes that the ground ball hit by Mookie Wilson that went through his legs might be the best thing that happened to his song’s subject: “And your 22 years playing ball might be forgotten / Maybe Bill Buckner was lucky his luck was so rotten.”

“Buckner’s Bolero” appears on the Baseball Project’s new album, whose existence is a pleasant surprise given that the group’s 2008 debut had the whiff of a one-off lark. “It might be a little surprising to us, too,” McCaughey said in a phone interview last month. “We didn’t really know it was going to be a band necessarily.”

First, all the songs were (of course) exclusively about baseball. Second, the players – songwriters McCaughey (the Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus 5) and Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate and Gutterball), guitarist Peter Buck (R.E.M.), and drummer Linda Pitmon – all have impressive résumés and busy schedules. Third, in support of that debut album, the Baseball Project did precisely one gig: The Late Show with David Letterman. “We played one song,” McCaughey said. “That was our live output the year the record came out ... .”

But the record came with a promise in its title (Volume 1: Frozen Ropes & Dying Quails), and when the Baseball Project toured in 2009, “we kind of felt like we were a band then,” McCaughey said. Last year the all-star group wrote and recorded a song per month for ESPN during (and about) the 2010 Major League Baseball season. Then came Volume 2: High & Inside on March 1.

McCaughey and Wynn hatched the idea for the Baseball Project at a party before R.E.M.’s 2007 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and “Steve actually remembered” the conversation, McCaughey said. “So the next day we started putting it in motion.”

He said he’d tried to write baseball songs with Young Fresh Fellows, but “I never really was satisfied with them. ... When Steve and I started throwing them back and forth, it sort of raised the bar, and we were able to start coming up with some good ones. ... It was just kind of like ‘Anything goes.’ You could do any kind of music, any kind of song. It could be serious, it could be funny, it could be sad. It just opened up a bigger world somehow.”

And they didn’t want to stop after the first batch of songs. “We had so much fun, and we had so many more ideas, we just figured: Let’s keep going,” McCaughey said. “It felt to us like we still had a lot of things we wanted to write about.”

Many of Volume 1’s subjects are expected; greats Ted Williams, Satchel Paige, Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson, and Willie Mays get their own songs, as does Curt Flood, a key figure in players’ quest for free agency. And Volume 2 features tracks about more-modern legends Reggie Jackson, Roger Clemens, and Pete Rose.

Yet the songs don’t settle for easy recitations of historical highlights. Some are pure celebrations – such as the punky “Ichiro Goes to the Moon” – that exude a love of the game through their understanding of it.

But most of the songs are more complicated. “Ted Fucking Williams” and “The Straw That Stirs the Drink” (about Jackson) are primarily concerned with mammoth egos. “Pete Rose Way” uses a street name to lionize the player’s reckless style (“The perfect chaos when he slid / The way he made you pay”), and it doesn’t need to address the hit king’s betting on baseball; that’s present by implication and through collective memory. Similarly, “Twilight of My Career” articulates Clemens’ determination and longevity while skirting the issue of performance-enhancing drugs; ultimately, by not mentioning those substances, the song becomes about the pitcher’s self-delusion.

As AllMusic.com wrote in its review of Volume 1: “This isn’t a set based on nostalgia, exactly, but is instead a full-blown piece of jangly modern folk-pop, and each song plays like it’s an individual piece cut from the same quilt. The songs are witty, varied, and full of more authentic baseball detail than a month of Sunday sports sections, and McCaughey and Wynn are also keenly aware of the broader sociological impact baseball has on the American psyche.”

There’s also a healthy does of tragedy and melancholy. “Here Lies Carl Mays” concerns the pitch that killed Ray Chapman in 1920. “The deeper I looked into it, the more I realized what a crazy, messed-up story it was,” McCaughey said. And “I found out that Carl Mays was buried in Portland, where I live. So I went to his grave. I said, ‘I’m not going to finish this song until I go sit around at his grave for a little while.’”

McCaughey admits that the band has occasionally frustrated him, but not because of boredom with its subject: “For a while, I was getting mad at myself because I couldn’t write a song about anything but baseball. ... You don’t want that to be your complete life ... .”

But while the songs might not directly be about their authors, “they still feel like personal songs in a way,” McCaughey said. “Steve and I write a lot of songs from the perspective of characters.”

The Baseball Project works, in large part, because it mines the human aspects of the sport. It’s not the games so much as the people playing the games and their idiosyncrasies and their lives beyond and because of baseball.

The sport lends itself to song, McCaughey said, because of “the characters. And the stories. ... Because it’s a lazier game in a way – or a slower game, I should say – than basketball or football or hockey or anything like that, it allows you a little more time for rumination. And it allows the characters, the players, to become a little more familiar to you, I think.”

The Baseball Project will perform on Thursday, June 9, at RIBCO (1815 Second Avenue in Rock Island). The show starts at 8 p.m. and also features a set by Kerry Tucker. Advanced tickets are $10 and available from RIBCO.com.

For more information on The Baseball Project, visit TheBaseballProject.net.

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