Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Baseball Project rounds 3rd and scores

Major League Baseball's all-star break is upon us, and most players were able to take some time away from the game if they weren't in Minneapolis for Monday's home run derby and last night's game. Five very talented players of a different kind from The Baseball Project also took a few days off, but will step back up to the plate with a July 17 show in Washington, D.C. as part of the band's five-week tour of the United States.

Baseball junkies and singer/guitarists Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, The Minus 5, R.E.M.) and Steve Wynn (The Dream Syndicate, Gutterball) formed The Baseball Project in 2007 as a means to pay tribute to their favourite sport through song. Drummer Linda Pitmon (Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3, Zuzu's Petals) and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills have since come on board, and the five of them are on the road supporting their appropriately titled third album, 3rd, which follows 2008's highly enjoyable Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails and 2011's Volume 2: High and Inside.

The latest record picks up where its predecessors left off and features 17 original songs before concluding with the time-honoured classic, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." With the rock and pop pedigrees of this musical lineup, it should come as no surprise that 3rd swings and features few misses.

"From Nails to Thumbtacks" chronicles the rise and fall of Lenny Dykstra. "Hola America!" honours the personal sacrifices made by Cuban ball players forced to leave their families behind to pursue their MLB dreams. "13" provides a harsher look at Alex Rodriguez, an all-world talent who enhanced what he already had through steroids. Dock Ellis is best known for throwing a no-hitter while on LSD, but "The Day Dock Went Hunting Heads" tells a lesser known tale about when he tried to hit all of the members of the Cincinnati Reds. Perhaps my favourite song on the LP, "To The Veteran's Committee," makes a short, sharp power pop-filled appeal to have former Atlanta Braves slugger Dale Murphy inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

"They Don't Know Henry" delves into what Hank Aaron had to overcome on his way to becoming baseball's home run king. The Oakland A's have had their ups and downs as a franchise, but have usually had their share of colourful players, and you'll hear about a few of them in "They Are the Oakland A's."  Robin Yount gained fame and fortune with the Milwaukee Brewers while his brother wasn't so fortunate, as you'll find out in "Larry Yount." "A Boy Named Cy" focuses on the man that had pitching's greatest award named after him. "They Played Baseball" provides glimpses of a range of (often unsavoury) characters from the annals of the sport who had a lot of different traits but shared the quality expressed in the title.

"Box Scores" and "The Baseball Card Song" may not deal with specific players, but they show how obsessive fans can become about things related to the grand old game.

The Baseball Project puts on great shows, and the folks making that music are genuine. If you need more convincing to pick up 3rd or see a show on the tour, I've included reviews and interviews I originally wrote for MSN that are no longer accessible online below. You'll likely relate to the songs more if you're a baseball fan, but you can still enjoy them if you know little about the sport.

Watching a game with The Baseball Project (from 2011)

Perhaps my biggest regret in skipping March's South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas after attending for the previous seven years was the opportunity to see more than a dozen performances by The Baseball Project.

The sporting supergroup composed of Steve Wynn, Scott McCaughey, Peter Buck and Linda Pitmon released one of my five favourite albums of 2008: its "Volume 1: Frozen Ropes And Dying Quails" debut. This year's "Volume 2: High And Inside" hasn't struck me quite as hard, but I'll take it over peanuts and Cracker Jacks any day.

The quartet's September 2009 performance at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern was one of the top shows of my year, and I've been looking forward to its return to my hometown ever since. That moment arrived on Wednesday, with Buck's R.E.M. bandmate Mike Mills coming off the bench to replace him on bass.

The Baseball Project played such favourites as "Past Time," "Ted F*cking Williams," "Jackie's Lament," "The Death of Big Ed Delahanty" and "Harvey Haddix" from the first album and "1976," "Panda And The Freak," "Don't Call Them Twinkies," "Ichiro Goes To The Moon" and "The Straw That Stirs The Drink" from the new one.

The group members also reached into the catalogues of their other bands and delivered The Minus 5's "Aw Sh*t Man" and "Lies Of The Living Dead," a scathing rendition of Dream Syndicate's "That's What You Always Say" and a performance-closing run through that group's "The Days Of Wine And Roses." The most pleasant surprise, however, was when Mills stepped to the microphone and delivered R.E.M.'s "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville" to a small but enthusiastic crowd that eagerly joined in on the chorus.

As good as the show was, however, I may have got more of a thrill from attending the Blue Jays-Cleveland Indians game at the Rogers Centre with the group beforehand. The ever-gracious Dave Hodge had invited us to view it from the TSN box, and it doesn't get much better for me than spending time among friends, watching baseball and eating and drinking for free.

I'd talked to McCaughey, Wynn and Pitmon after shows before and found them to be among the friendliest musicians around. I hadn't met Mills before, but he seems to be cut from the same cloth.

So while the Jays were getting pounded and were down 12-0 after three innings of the sparsely attended game, I figured I'd turn on my recorder to capture some of our conversations since there was no risk of them being drowned out by crowd noise. The only time this wasn't the case was when the Jays hit three consecutive triples (making it the first time to do so since the Montreal Expos in 1981) when I was chatting with Mills.

Here are some excerpts from our baseball banter:

Me: What's wrong with the Twins this year?
Linda Pitmon: I couldn't give you any more insight than what the DL will tell you. If you look at the disabled list, that will tell you most of it. But as far as Justin Morneau and Delmon Young and why they're not hitting, it will be interesting to see if Morneau's concussion problem is a long-lasting thing throughout his career or if he's just got to get back into playing shape.

Me: Why do you like the Rogers Centre?
Pitmon: It's close to the water, which is always a plus. It's a nice location. I like the fact that you can walk up and buy a ticket at the last minute. That's never an issue. It's cheap if you decide you want to catch a game at the last minute. And you have to love the retractable roof and all of that. Anytime I've been here, there's been beautiful weather, so that wasn't an issue. But in Minnesota, where I'm from, Target Field for some inexplicable reason was built without a retractable roof. There are going to be years when that's a disaster. You guys have a great park. You should be happy to have it. The Jays are a solid team, so come on out and support them. We need more of you here. The seats are empty.

Me: The Giants won the World Series last year with probably one of the least potent offences to do it, and now Buster Posey's probably gone for the whole season. What are the team's prospects?
Scott McCaughey: Not very good. Even if Posey hadn't got hurt, I still wouldn't see their prospects as being very good simply because it's hard to repeat. The Giants simply don't have a lot of run-scoring power. The pitching is great, but you never know when one of those guys is going to go down during the year. They've been pretty lucky with keeping their starters healthy. I think they can still win the division, but it's going to be tough, and losing Buster was really rough. But now that they've brought Brandon Belt back up again, maybe he'll suddenly be the rookie who takes off like Buster did last year.

Me: Does the McCourt divorce help their chances?
McCaughey: I never mind when things are going badly for the Dodgers, let me say that. I'm not a big L.A. fan in general, growing up in San Francisco like I did. I hate the Lakers and hate the Dodgers. I feel a little bit badly for those players, but they'll still get paid.
But less competition for the Giants is great. I love that the Rockies are stumbling right now, too, but they could get hot in August and September like they often do. I don't think the Diamondbacks will stay up there. It's not a powerhouse division, so the Giants could still do it.
In all of baseball, most of the teams are a little bit mediocre. I've been looking at Cleveland's lineup and wondering how they could have the best record, because their pitching isn't that great. It's hard to figure, but that's parity, and that's what we want.
I was filling out an all-star ballot last night at Comerica Park and I was amazed at how many positions I was saying, "I don't want to vote for any of these guys. None of them are having good years." There are a few positions like National League first base where you could easily vote for three or four, but there aren't a lot of obvious choices at other positions where you would say that this guy deserves to be an all-star this year. It's kind of weird.

Me: What are your favourite ball parks?
McCaughey: As much as I like a lot of the new ball parks, I hate the destructiveness of saying, "That one served its purpose, let's get rid of it and build a new one. We'll blackmail the public into paying for a new stadium." I really, really despise that.
This stadium is perfectly serviceable on a night like this. When the roof is open, it's really pleasant. I don't have any great problem with it. I went to so many games at the Kingdome when I lived in Seattle, and this is much better.
Of the newer ball parks, I really like AT&T in San Francisco. It's amazing. Old parks that I loved that are no longer with us are the original Comiskey Park. It was fantastic. Tiger Stadium was great. I loved Comerica last night. It's really, really nice. Dodger Stadium is beautiful, as much as I hate to say it. I've never been to Camden Yards, but I've heard it's great. The new one in Philly is really nice. Coors Field is actually really nice when it's not 38 degrees.
I haven't seen a game in the Pittsburgh park, but I've walked around it and it looked absolutely phenomenal. I'm dying to go to a game there. I haven't had the opportunity yet, but I've looked at the stadium really closely.
The new one in Chicago for the White Sox is not great, unfortunately. Wrigley and Fenway, of course, have their own thing. They're both a lot of fun to go to.
Citi Field is nice. I wouldn't put it up there with AT&T or some of the newer ones that I like. Out of all the newer ones that I've been to, I can happily say that I like the Giants' stadium the most.

Me: What do you know about the Blue Jays this year?
McCaughey: I follow baseball in general. I don't just follow my team. I play fantasy baseball, which helps me keep up with a lot of things. The Jays are a team that's capable of scoring a lot of runs.
The year Jose Bautista is having is incredible. I don't think I'm alone in saying that I'm surprised at how good he's been this year. I think a lot of people thought that after he hit 54 homers last year that it was just a fluke, but he's a much better hitter this year. I'm absolutely stunned by how good he's been this year.
I thought their pitching was going to be a little better this year, but I know they're going to score runs. I thought that Kyle Drabek might really step up this year, but he wasn't too good tonight.
I liked the game that Brandon Morrow pitched last year, a one-hitter with more than 15 strikeouts, but he hasn't had a really great game yet this year. He strikes out a lot of guys, but he's giving up a lot of runs. He obviously needs to learn how to pitch a little better. I want him to do well. He was on the Mariners for a while and I followed him before he got traded to Toronto for Brandon League. Brandon League is doing well. He had one really rough patch a few weeks ago where he blew like four saves in a week and got rocked, but since then and before then he's been spotless. So he's done well. I think it was a fair trade.

Me: The Yankees are getting old and the pitching's questionable. Can they win the World Series this year?
Steve Wynn: At the beginning of the season I picked the Red Sox like everyone else. But the Yankees right now remind me of the Yankees in the late '90s, where they had some over the hill veterans getting one last chance to win. I like that. As a guy who's been playing music for 30 years, I like when a guy like Bartolo Colon comes along after people have written him off and he surprises everyone. So I think they could do it.

Me: Do you think Colon's secret surgery in the Dominican Republic might become like the new steroids to improve performance?
Wynn: People are talking about that, but it was some sort of stem cell thing, and whatever it takes to get healthy isn't the same as steroids. So I think it's okay.

Me: Have you been following the Blue Jays at all this year?
Wynn: The whole division's been see-saw the whole year. But they're a good team and I have Brandon Morrow on my fantasy team. He'll get me a lot of strikeouts, but he's pretty bad on the WHIP.
This is the second time I've been to a game here and I've had a great time. People knock the stadium as being the last of the '70s and '80s type of stadiums, but I came here on a Sunday when I was in town about three years ago and I loved that I could walk up and buy a ticket 10 minutes before the game and be in my seat before the national anthem. I grew up as a Dodger fan, and you had to drive to all of those games. And now I'm a Yankees fan and take the subway to games. But I love a city where you can walk down the street in the heart of downtown to see a ball game.

Me: Are there any players or moments that you haven't got around to writing a song about yet, but you'd like to?
Wynn: There are so many that it's endless. We have so many songs that we can write that we'll never run out. We have hit a lot of our favourites. From the get go, I knew I wanted to write about Sandy Koufax, Fernando Valenzuela, Reggie Jackson and Curt Flood. Scott knew that he wanted to write about Willie Mays and his favourites. We've managed to do those, but there are so many more. There's no Hank Aaron song. There's no Joe DiMaggio song yet.

Me: Do you rely mostly on your own knowledge or do you go back and read books and do research? Can you fudge the truth a little bit in the songs?
Wynn: We're pretty accurate. I've always been a baseball fan and I love the game, and I know my baseball. But when you're in a band that sings about baseball, people want to challenge you, and there are people who know a lot more than I do. So if we write a song, we will check our facts. The hardest one was "Harvey Haddix" because we had to get the names of all the pitchers who'd thrown perfect games in there and couldn't leave any out. But I'm really keen to keep on making records and finding more out about players. We're playing shows, seeing ball games, singing about baseball and having a blast.

Me: How often do you get invited to throw out an opening pitch or sing before or after a game or during the seventh-inning stretch at games?
Wynn: A lot this year. When the first record came out, we barely made our way into the baseball world. Now the all-star program has written about us along with others, so with this record it's been happening a lot. We spent a week in Arizona during spring training and played at a bunch of games out there. We met a lot of the players and it was a lot of fun.
This season we've done things with the Twins, the Brewers, the Cubs, the Tigers, here, and with the Red Sox and Phillies still ahead — although tonight we're just hanging out and having a good time. But we've sung "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," and I'd love to do more of that. I really enjoy that. Of all the gigs and interviews I've done over the years, and all the other things that are part of my job, throwing out the first pitch at Miller Park the other day made me more nervous than anything. I was more nervous than I've ever been on any stage.

Me: Did you throw a strike?
Wynn: I threw a strike. Both Scott and I stood on the mound and on the rubber. We went all the way. They said that if we wanted we could go to the front of the mound, but we said, "No way. We want to be on the mound."
That was a great feeling and so exciting. I think we were both terrified of bouncing the ball. No matter what I did, I didn't want to bounce it. But we both did well. I wanted to really gun it in, but I was timid the first time. I've gone to carnivals where you throw a pitch and they tell you how fast it was, and I gave it everything I had just to hit 55. It's very humbling.

Me: That's Tim Wakefield's style.
Wynn: Yeah, that's right.

Me: How much bigger of a baseball fan are you than Peter Buck?
Mike Mills: It's not a comparative thing, but certainly it's a bigger part of my life than his. I've been a Braves fan since '66, when they moved to Atlanta. I don't think Peter ever played competitive sports, but I played a lot of things as a kid, but baseball was always my favourite. I played Little League when I was 10 or 11 years old. I was pretty good for a kid.

Me: When you go to games, do you always bring your glove?
Mills: Not always, but when I remember to I like to bring a glove if I think there's any shot at catching a foul ball. But it almost never happens. I just like having it with me. I think it's more out of self-preservation than anything else."

Me: What do you think of the Braves this year?
Mills: They're a good team. Hitting has been their problem forever, basically. They haven't had good hitting since Torre and Murphy back in the '80s, but you got to figure that they'll put it together at some point. They've had good pitching and that's sort of been their trademark for the past 15 or 20 years, but they've got to find a hitting coach if they're going to get it done.
I thought they had a shot to beat the Phillies at the beginning of the year, but I don't think they have the hitting to do it. I really thought they had a chance to win the division before the season started, but they don't seem to be getting it done on the field.
Heyward's hurt, but even if he wasn't I don't know if they'd have enough juice to get it done. But maybe Jordan Schafer will come on in centre field. He's got a lot of talent. And if Heyward comes back, anything can happen.

Me: How has Chipper Jones been looking after his major injury last year?
Mills: He's doing well. He should be a first ballot Hall of Famer, no question. He's still a very consistent player. When you consider what he's been through physically, it's good that he plays as much as he does. I'm happy that he stuck around for another year. He's a big part of the team and I love the way he plays. But he's getting up there and it's tough on the body.

Scott McCaughey, Steve Wynn, Peter Buck and Linda Pitmon rock my world (from 2009)

While most Toronto music fans were probably sitting at home watching Kanye West make an ass of himself yet again by stealing Taylor Swift's moment in the spotlight on the MTV Video Music Awards, I was joined by about 100 people at the Horseshoe Tavern for one of the best shows of the year.

Considering that a founding member of R.E.M., which can probably be considered one of the world's biggest bands, was one of the four musicians on stage, it's surprising that the crowd was so small. And considering that bassist/guitarist Peter Buck was joined by well-known and respected artists Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate, Gutterball, Danny And Dusty and an enviable solo career), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, R.E.M., The Venus 3, Tuatara) and Linda Pitmon (Zu Zu's Petals, Amy Rigby) were the other three, the lack of turnout almost seems criminal.

The show was billed as The Minus 5, The Baseball Project and Steve Wynn IV, but the repertoire featured a mixture of material from those groups as well as Dream Syndicate, Gutterball and some great covers. Unlike the ego run amok almost constantly displayed by West, this was a show featuring four very talented friends who were interested in making new ones by playing music they love and having fun on stage — no matter if there were 100 or 100,000 people in the audience.

Baseball ranks very closely with music as one of my favourite things, so to hear The Baseball Project's songs about "Ted F*cking Williams," Curt Flood,  Big Ed Delahanty, Harvey Haddix and many other players is just about as good as it gets for me. Anyone reading this column who has an interest in the history of the grand old game should buy "Volume 1: Frozen Ropes And Dying Quails" as quickly as possible. I can hardly wait for the recently recorded "Volume 2."

The Minus 5 is a musical collective started by McCaughey 16 years ago. Over the years, it has included contributions from members of The Posies, Wilco, R.E.M. and many others. "Tonight You're Buying Me A Drink, Bub," "Ambulance Dancehall" and "The Lurking Barrister" were played from the recently released Killingsworth, while the band reached deeper into the catalogue for "Out There On The Maroon," "Cigarettes, Coffee And Booze," "Days Of Wine And Booze" and "Aw Sh*t Man."

Wynn was represented by newer songs "Love Me Anyway" and "Wait Until You Get To Know Me," Gutterball's "Trial Separation Blues" and Dream Syndicate's "Tell Me When It's Over," "Medicine Show," "The Days Of Wine And Roses" and the brilliant "That's What You Always Say."

The immaculate choice of covers included The Standells' "Dirty Water," Neil Young's "Revolution Blues" and a five-song encore of The Sonics' "Strychnine," The McCoys' "Hang On Sloopy," Flamin' Groovies' "Teenage Head," The Beatles' "The Ballad Of John And Yoko" and The Standells' "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White."

I got to spend a few hours with McCaughey (who was rightly called "a lively force of nature" by a representative of his record label's distributor) at a friend's house after the show, and his knowledge of and passion for music shone through brightly. The man just loves music. And from talking with Wynn, Pitmon and Buck both on Sunday and in the past, it was clear that they're the same way.

It's nights like this that reaffirm my faith in rock and roll. It's just too bad that more people couldn't have shared in the experience like Dave Hodge did. The sportscaster is now well into his sixties and still regularly gets his music fix at clubs, arenas and amphitheatres. He inspires me too.

Okay, that's enough gushing.

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