The Baseball Project Captures Glory in Cambridge, MA

Two-hour-plus show marks another home run for the American supergroup

The Baseball Project (L-R: Mike Mills, Linda Pitmon, Peter Buck, Steve Wynn, Scott McCaughey) (Image: Marty Perez)

You want to talk about narrowcasting? The Baseball Project may be the most narrowcast band in rock ‘n’ roll history. 

OK, all right, maybe the Surf Punks get that title – all their songs were about you-know-what – but they weren’t around for long.

And the Baseball Project has. In fact, it began to take shape in 2007, when it was the germ of an idea hatched between longtime baseball fans singer-guitarist Steve Wynn and R.E.M. auxiliary singer-guitarist Scott McCaughey. They got to talking late one night after R.E.M was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Baseball-themed rock songs? Hmmm… 

A year later, with some key additions, the Baseball Project released its first album, Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails.

The band features some familiar names who’ve made marks in alt-rock / mainstream circles from the 1980s onward – aside from Dream Syndicate’s Wynn, there’s R.E.M.’s bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck, the Young Fresh Fellows/Minus 5/R.E.M.-er McCaughey and Zuzu’s Petals/Filthy Friends drummer Linda Pitmon. (Wynn and Pitmon are married.) They’re touring right now, playing small-to-medium size clubs, but they’re not, by any means, slumming it.

They played the National Anthem in Washington, D.C. before a Nationals-Red Sox game Aug. 17 and then hit Cambridge, Mass and played the Sinclair club two nights later with a two-set, 26-song, nearly two-hour show. If you’re wondering the male-to-female ratio at the club was – it’s worth a thought – it was pretty much the same as in the band: 4:1.

The Baseball Project live in Cambridge, MA (Image: Brian Sisitzky)

And, if you’re wondering, part 2: In concert there are rarely songs from other bands these folks have played in. No “Days of Wine and Roses,” no “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” This is baseball rock, baby. For that matter, there are no covers, not even Warren Zevon’s plaintive “Bill Lee” which I wish they’d play.

In the beginning, there was no master plan, no pre-marketing. “We didn’t think about it,” says Wynn. “It was an amusement, a labor of love. When we recorded the first record, we didn’t even know it was going to be a record. We didn’t even have a name. We talked about it and said ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do a record about baseball?’ and it snowballed. We were so enthusiastic about it we started writing songs really quickly. We’d e-mail back and forth, making each other laugh. From that spark to having a record, to putting it out, to being on the Letterman show was about six months.”

“We didn’t think there was that much of an audience for it,” continues Wynn. “Peter’s told me there were times when it was uncool – liking sports for an indie rocker or a punk rocker and I’ve felt that way, but it never kept me from liking baseball. This project has shown us there are a lot of very cool, rocking baseball fans who also play in great bands out there. We meet ‘em all the time.”     

So, yes: As their moniker declares, they are a band that writes songs exclusively about baseball players and baseball-related issues. Although formed 16 years ago, they have not always active (they all have other bands, McCaughey had a serious illness, then there was the COVID-19 lockdown). They’re currently touring behind their album The Grand Salami – baseball for a “grand slam,” referencing the four runners scoring on the home run while relating to this being their fourth album. 

Now, do you have to love baseball to dig the BP?

I might not be the one to ask because I do love baseball so this is in my wheelhouse, but my qualified answer is: No, but it helps. If you’re familiar with the kind of rock ‘n’ roll these people have turned out over the past several decades, you’ll find yourself in a musical comfort zone: pop-rock songs with hooks, little twists and turns, a few blistering guitar breaks, a no-frills, workingman attitude and no showbiz shtick. A bit of the Neil Young ragged-but-right mindset. 

In terms of baseball and rock, Wynn says, “I think most of our fans are those people, fans of our musical history.” He was raised in Los Angeles, a Dodgers fan, but he’s a longtime New Yorker and Yankees fan. “But the ones who like baseball get extra excited.”

On an album or in concert, you’ll hear a boatload of story-songs, kinda like Harry Chapin but less about taxi drivers and aging DJs and more about baseball players, some that you recognize, some that may have never even heard of. People were worked, and suffered and struggled for fame, some who succeeded, some who suffered in vain. I couldn’t help the lyric lift from the Kinks’ “Celluloid Heroes.” Really, that song in some ways is almost a blueprint for the BP ethos.

“People say we either sing about old dead players or obscure players’ said Wynn from the stage at the Cambridge show. While this is oft true, Wynn was introducing a shift in course: “New Oh in Town,” about superstar Japanese transplant, the Angels’ Shoehi Ohtani, the 21st century Babe Ruth (hits like a monster, pitches the same). The old “Oh”? Well, baseball archivists will remember Sadahuru Oh, the pitcher-turned-slugger (1959-1980) who played only for the Yomiuri Giants in the Japanese baseball league, never the MLB. He hit 868 home runs and is the most honored ballplayer in Japan.

In the song, “They Don’t Know Harvey,” Wynn sings about where the band comes from: “We’re drawn to tragic stories/They’re the one that suit us best.” But this one wasn’t that exactly – it was more a statistical tragedy and an argument for inclusion. In 1959, the Pirates Harvey Haddix pitched a 12-inning perfect game, kept going, gave up a hit in the 13th and eventually lost the game and never got credited for the perfect game, the Baseball Project arguing he should be on that list alongside Cy Young, David Cone, Jim Bunning, Don Larsen and others.

The trick, especially in concert, as a lot of lyrics will get tangled in the music, is picking out the story from the sound. The vocal mix at the Sinclair was rough – tough to follow the lyrics, especially if you didn’t know ‘em, and that does take away some of the resonance. Still, if you can’t do that, I’d argue, there’s pleasure in grasping what you can and getting bits of the story if not the whole story.

The Baseball Project shuffle songs about particular players, situations, issues and plays – “Uncle Charlie” is about the curve ball, “Monument Park” is about Yankees centerfielder (and jazz musician) Bernie Williams, acid-taking Dock Ellis is the star of “The Day Dock Went Hunting Heads.”

On stage, McCaughey and Wynn are the main lead voices, Mills and Pitmon sing harmony (Mills taking lead on “Stuff”) and Buck exists mic-less, kind of in his own world, stage right, pretty po-faced, staying behind the more vocal members, ratcheting it up for the glorious three-guitar jam bits. (None of the other instruments he plays – like the mandolin – shows up. This is straight up rock ‘n’ roll.) Buck, Wynn says, is the least baseball-obsessed band member and a fan “of whoever he finds most interesting at the time, usually the Washington Senators.” (Yes, the long defunct Senators.)

Let’s go to tragedy: Key line, penned and sung by McCaughey: “I guess everything has to happen for some sort of reason/And there must be a tragic end to every long season.” That’s from “Buckner’s Bolero,” a song the Baseball Project hadn’t been playing on this tour but, well, this was Boston and this is where it all took place: When Mookie Wilson hit a roller to first base in the sixth game of the 1986 Mets-Red Sox World Series that led to a Mets victory and cast a pall over Game 7. And the life of Buckner, the superb veteran first baseman (2715 career hits, .289 batting average, 174 home runs) who became a scapegoat. Now, manager John McNamara’s habit was to replace the aging Buckner with the younger Dave Stapleton in the late innings but didn’t do so here, presumably wanting Buck to be on the field when the Sox won their first World Series since 1918.

It’s a damn brilliant song, in part because it correctly notes all the other what-ifs that coulda/shoulda happened during the game, lamenting that despite Buckner’s stellar career, this was what he became infamous for. It puts the whole play in context and allows us to view late Buckner as the great player he was for 22 years, not the guy who made an inopportune error.

The Baseball Project salutes the spectacular season (and tragic life) of the Tigers idiosyncratic (he’d talk to the baseball) pitcher Mark Fidrych in “1976.” That was Fidrych’s brilliant one season and the band sings, happily/mournfully, “It’s always 1976.”  In “To the Veterans Committee,” Mills states a strong case for his Braves hero Dale Murphy to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Yankees fan Wynn salutes Bernie Williams in “Monument Park.” (Buck is generally agreed to be the least baseball-obsessed of them all – my take is that he likes the sound, like the camaraderie and continues, even at age 66, to dig life on the road.)

Mills also sang and wrote one of the night’s best songs, “Stuff,” a hard, blusey dirge that explodes into a rocker. It’s a tallying of the tricks of the trade pitchers have used to load/doctor the baseball – sometime to make it behave oddly, other times just to get a better grip – and it was drawn directly from a conversation Mills had nine years ago with former Red Sox pitcher/current NESN analyst, Lenny DiNardo. The latter spilled some beans and Mills wove ‘em directly into song, what kind of “stuff” was used, where the stuff was tucked away on the pitcher’s person. (Nowadays, of course, all this is a huge no-no, and anyone caught is will be suspended and/or fined. Different era. Maybe a better one.)

Less the non-baseball fan is getting overwhelmed, or just skeptical about this as a valid sub-genre, Wynn adds, “The stories we’re telling are universal stories. You don’t have to know baseball to get the stories we’re talking about. Any subject could be on a Miracle 3 or Minus 5 album – a lot of tales of people who miss their big chance or peak too early.  We have a few songs that only work on one level, but most work on more than the baseball.

“We each wrote songs about things and players we care about, the same way we’d write about anything. You find some universal story that touches us and give a minute detail more importance. We would do that if we happened to be writing about bank robbers or murderers, broken love or whatever.”    

The Baseball Project live in Cambridge, MA (Image: Brian Sisitzky)

So true. Wynn’s “Twilight of My Career” may be the band’s best. It concerns Roger Clemens, the Red Sox 34-year-old ace the team let go, first to the Blue Jays, who later traded him to the Yankees (and finally the Astros). The Red Sox general manager, while appreciating all Clemens had done for the team, opined that the fastballer was heading into the “twilight of his career.” He might have been not far off track, but Clemens had a remarkable second life – his stats and profile rocketed up – and the charges of steroid enhancement suffused him. In the song, the Baseball Project finds Clemens recognizing his pariah status. (Clemens, in real life, adamantly denies wrong-doing despite, shall we say, a massive amount of contrary evidence. Last winter, Clemens and Barry Bonds – MLB’s leading home run hitter – were both denied induction into the Hall of Fame for the tenth straight year.)

Let’s go back to the “twilight” aspect. Wynn and I discussed the universality of this years ago. It’s not just a sports or baseball thought. All of us, at certain point, have probably been considered past our peak. Maybe we had a moment in the two in the sun, but those moments past and we were trying to figure out where we fit post-twilight. Could be a musician, a writer, anyone really. How do we counter or cope with that?

“Journeyman” – music by Buck,  words by Wynn – is another that could apply in the real-world gig economy – to many of us and maybe the guys in the band who have plied their trades in numerous outfits over the years, some high profile, some low. But they’re all workers, all want to be working.

The set’s centerpiece was the explosive “Disco Demolition” about that ill-conceived, beer-soaked promotion in July 1979 led by DJ Steve Dahl It was in Chicago where any-gimmick-for-a-buck owner Bill Veeck’s White Sox played. What happened was people brought disco records to the game and then they blew up stacks of them between games of a double-header. (Note: Some of these records that also included some prominent black non-disco, soul and R&B artists.) At the time there was that rock vs. disco war and many of us thought it just silly and stupid but the ugliness took over and the Baseball Project looks back on it as a time as a “bonfire set ablaze by fear of sex and race / At a time when we all should have hung our heads in disgrace.” The drunken mayhem on the field ensured Game 2 was never played so Chicago forfeited 9-0.

The most fearful song in the Baseball Project’s set Saturday might have been “Yips.” If you’ve ever had them – in baseball or golf, you know the panic they engender. If not count yourself lucky. It’s being unable to make a short easy throw or sink a short putt in golf (original derivation), your body hijacking your mind or vice versa. It’s a psychological disorder and a a profound one. Profoundly embarrassing too. Steve Sax, Chuck Knobloch and Steve Blass were of the infamous three victims. 

The Baseball Project closed with “Ted Fucking Williams,” Wynn explaining that “fucking” was not used negatively. It was Ted’s boast – reportedly the full quote was “I’m Ted Fucking Williams and Jesus H. Christ couldn’t get me out.” The Baseball Project was playing outside of Boston of course, so who better to go out with than Teddy Ballgame salute. It’s a rowdy singalong suited to a bar and an apt set-closer. We are all, for a night, Ted Fucking Williams.

Josh Kantor – Red Sox house organist with a deep knowledge of indy rock and a sometime contributor to both Jon Langford’s bands and The Baseball Project – opened with a short whimsical set of organ-based cover songs and witty, self-deprecating banter. He joined the Baseball Project for the final innings, adding keys to “Buckner’s Bolero,” among others.




Jim Sullivan
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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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