What happens when two great songwriters decide to focus their talents upon their favorite sport? You get the highly entertaining debut disc from The Baseball Project, Volume One: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails. The album is the brainchild of Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate, Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3) and Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5, and R.E.M). The two musicians were longtime fans of each other's work throughout the 80s but never met until the early 90s. Wynn recalls, "I honestly think the first time we met was side-by-side at the urinals at the Offramp in Seattle when I played there in 1992." He adds, "Scott didn't try to shake my hand."
After that fortuitous (and sanitary) meeting, the pair quickly discovered that they were both huge baseball fans. The two casually talked about an album of baseball material for a few years, but the idea for The Baseball Project crystallized at a chance meeting in 2007.
"It finally took flight at the R.E.M. pre-Hall of Fame induction party in New York," Wynn remembers. "Everyone was happy. The wine was flowing, the food was incredible and spring training had just started. Scott and I talked baseball until most of the party guests had cleared out. And we actually remembered it the next day."
Soon the pair started working on songs extolling the feats and defeats of players like Curt Flood, Satchel Paige, Ted Williams, and Black Jack McDowell, and convened last December at McCaughey's home in Portland. After a none-too-strenuous week of writing, refining, and rehearsing with Wynn's Miracle 3 drummer Linda Pitmon, they headed into Jackpot! Studios with producer/engineer Adam Selzer (M. Ward, Norfolk & Western), and were soon joined by longtime partner-in-crime Peter Buck.
The end result is an album that impresses not only with its depth of both widely known and obscure baseball lore, but with its melodic sensibility, walls of guitars, and catchy choruses. No, Frozen Ropes & Dying Quails does not require a PhD in pitching mechanics or membership in three fantasy leagues to enjoy on a purely musical level. The joyous chorus of "Ted Fucking Williams" would probably compel Babe Ruth to sing along. "Broken Man" is about slugger Mark McGwire, yet anyone can identify with the semi-tragic tale of being built up and then being humiliated in public in such a brief span of time. And in "Jackie's Lament", Mr. Robinson's trials while breaking baseball's color barrier become an anthemic call to anyone who overcomes life's obstacles.
McCaughey and Wynn admit that the inherent task of including so many names, dates and places required a different mindset than the standard three minute pop gem. McCaughey credits drummer (and Minnesota Twins fan) Linda Pitmon's "keen ear for editing" as a big help in keeping the songs from getting too encyclopedic or list-oriented. He adds, "It wasn't hard to find the inspiration for the songs, but it was hard to fit in the all the lyrics necessary to tell the stories. It really helped to keep the music fairly simple."
Wynn cites "Harvey Haddix" as perhaps the most difficult song to finish. The track makes the case for the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher to be credited with a perfect game (no hits, no base runners over nine innings) after he lost one in the 13th inning. The chorus names all 17 pitchers in history that are officially recognized with the rare feat--alas, the names of Randy Johnson, Addie Joss and Dennis Martinez aren't really found in rhyming dictionaries. Wynn explains, "It was like lyrical Sudoku. We had to somehow fit in all 17 pitchers. The last piece of the puzzle was a visit to Wikipedia and finding that Catfish Hunter threw his for the A's--I knew that already--and that Len Barker threw his against the Blue Jays. I didn't know that, and a natural rhyme was born!"
Wynn and McCaughey also take time to pay tribute to their favorite baseball players of all time. McCaughey's "Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays" blends personal memories of his hero into a psychedelic time-warp. For Wynn, "Long Before My Time" marks the amazing career of Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax, who quit at his peak in 1966. Wynn says, "He had such an incredible five year run and then he just walked away. He was in the Hall of Fame at an age where most players are renegotiating their contract."
Both Wynn and McCaughey's love of baseball and its legendary players made its way sporadically into songs during their distinguished careers. The Young Fresh Fellows named-checked Seattle Mariners slugger Gorman Thomas on "Aurora Bridge" from 1986's Refreshments, while Wynn tipped his cap to Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial in his 1990 solo hit "Kerosene Man."
Wynn also penned the closing song for the 2005 baseball romantic comedy Fever Pitch. "I wrote 'Second Best' when Fever Pitch was meant to be about the futility of being a Red Sox fan," he explains. "The hook line was 'Why do I settle for second best, why is everything a test, just this once can't nice guys finish first and break this curse of always second best.' Then they won the World Series. Maybe I should take credit."
With Volume One in the album title, the question begs to be asked, is there more to come? "It seems inevitable," McCaughey says. "After all, we haven't written songs about (Seattle Mariners star) Ichiro or (innovative owner) Bill Veeck yet." Wynn adds, "Or (the one time midget pitch hitter) Eddie Gaedel!"