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The old ballgame

Music | The Baseball Project adds to its impressive lineup of albums about America’s pastime

Issue: "2014 Books Issue," June 28, 2014

The Baseball Project is a uniquely American alternative-rock supergroup made up of the Young Fresh Fellows’ Scott McCaughey, Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn, plus Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3’s Linda Pitmon, and R.E.M.’s Pete Buck and Mike Mills. They write and perform affectionately witty and catchy songs about baseball—its players and fans, heroes and villains, winners and losers—sometimes in the same song. Internal monologues are their specialty.

When they debuted in 2008 with Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, many fans regarded the “Vol. 1” as a joke. “Past Time,” after all, name-checked over a dozen famous players. And there were whole songs devoted to Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, Harvey Haddix, Curt Flood, Fernando Valenzuela, Jack McDowell, Big Ed Delahanty, Mark McGwire (or was it Barry Bonds?), and Ted Williams (the language of which would’ve had an ump ejecting them). Surely, The Project had emptied its bullpen.

Only it hadn’t. If the subsequent 16 tracks of “real-time commentary” collected in 2010 as The Broadside Ballads was the musical equivalent of a batter’s staying alive by fouling off pitches, Vol. 2: High and Inside (2011) was an extra-base hit for sure.

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Getting McCaughey, Wynn, and Co. to first base was the addition to the group’s insightfully, even poignantly, fleshed-out roster of Ichiro Suzuki, Tony Conigliaro, Reggie Jackson, Bill Buckner, Mark Fidrych, Roger Clemens, Carl Mays, Pablo Sandoval, Tim Lincecum, Denard Span, Pete Rose, Sal Maglie, Ryne Duren, Don Drysdale, and Bob Gibson. Earning them a double was even hookier and harder-rocking hooks than they’d rolled out the first time.

And now there’s 3rd (YepRoc). It may not be a homer, but it improves The Project’s already impressive slugging percentage.

Coming in for admiration and/or sympathy this time are Luis Tiant, Dale Murphy, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Larry Yount, every beloved player with a lousy personality or a rap sheet (“They Played Baseball”), and—among the bonus cuts—Prince Fielder. Coming in for disapprobation and/or sympathy: Lenny Dykstra, Alex Rodriguez, Pascual Pérez, and—among the bonus cuts—Melky Cabrera. Just plain celebrated are baseball-card collecting, Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park, and the meditative properties of pouring over box scores.

The music ranges from folk-rock to power-pop, the singing from McCaughey’s and Wynn’s sports-nerd whimsy to Pitmon’s ball-girl charm. Both vary in intensity along with the humor-to-analysis ratio (which remains about 50-50).

But what best brings all of the band’s qualities together is “The Day Dock Went Hunting Heads.” Dock is Dock Ellis, the charismatic, multitalented, and notoriously unpredictable Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who was the subject of Donald Hall’s masterly sports biography Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball. The song mentions Ellis’ most notorious accomplishment, throwing a no-hitter on LSD, but focuses on the day he attempted to jump-start the slumping Bucs by hitting every Cincinnati Reds batter that he faced before getting pulled in the first inning. Thirty years after the fact, the incident—and now the song—still possesses inspirational properties.

The official version concludes with a Ramonesy, one-minute, three-second version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” It’s the kind of closer that suggests three strikes may be all the members of The Baseball Project have in them.

But in baseball there often are extra innings—a fact for which one can only hope Roberto Clemente, Marv Throneberry, Brooks Robinson, Ted Kluszewski, Joe Garagiola, Frank Howard, and Roy Campanella are on deck for a cleanup-batting Vol. 4.

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