In Richmond, The Baseball Project Cures The Summer Duldrums
The dog days of summer are upon us and with the allure of football coming soon, August is a tricky month for baseball fans who have endured an already long season. But with the pennant race tightening, it’s also a reminder that the best baseball to be played is still ahead of us.
Thanks go to the Baseball Project whose stop in Richmond at the Broadberry (touring behind Grand Salami Time!) reinvigorated this fan and hundreds of standing others. The band blazed through two sets of songs inspired and themed around the national pastime and lauding legends old and new.
Since they were formed in 2007, the Baseball Project has been an on again and off again and evolving group which features guitarists/vocalists and frontmen Steve Wynn (formerly of Dream Syndicate) and Scott McCaughey. The band is powered by drummer Linda Pitmon and book-ended by two of R.E.M. ‘s founding members, Peter Buck and Mike Mills, the latter of whom is the band’s latest recruit.
The semi-retired Buck and Mills still toil in their rock and roll passions and anchor the two sides of the stage with their Rickenbacker guitars. The lineage to rock and roll past is evident from the stage by the case displayed by Buck’s amp that is emblazoned “R.E.M. Athens, GA.”
There were no songs from any of the band members’ former groups. Nor was there a nod to R.E.M.’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Hall past. It is said that the idea for the Baseball Project was first hatched at the R.E.M. induction ceremony in 2007. Many seasons have passed since then and as Steve Wynn noted, the band’s first show was in Richmond fifteen years ago and they hadn’t been back here since.
The band’s thematic baseball coming out as the PA system played “Joltin Joe DiMaggio” by Les Brown and His Orchestra. Wynn and compatriot McCaughey had their own band-themed baseball card packets which they dangled from the stage and awarded during trivia contests. McCaughey was astute to acknowledge the Richmond Squirrels, the local minor league affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, before donning a Giants cap whose orange colors played off his Misfits t-shirt and orange pants. Not to be outdone, bassist Mills, who hails from Georgia, chimed in that the Richmond Braves were once the town’s marquee minor league team. In sympathy to the home crowd, he disparaged their move to Gwinnett County in Atlanta.
As for history, Buck is old enough to remember the Washington Senators who McCaughey announced was Buck’s favorite team. (They’ve been the Texas Rangers since they moved in 1971.). When the band played Buck’s “Journeyman” about a specialist who moves from team to team and town to town, it had echoes of R.E.M. ‘s “Driver 8” and could have just as easily been about a rock and roll lifer.
The band’s two sets provided thrashing commentaries built around baseball legend including Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Fernando Valenzuela and Ted Williams (“Ted Fuckin’ Williams” listed on the set list as “TFW”). When the band launched into the chant about Angels pitcher and hitting phenomenon Shohei Otani, it was like being at a massive pep rally celebrating baseball’s greatest contemporary player.
Introducing the song “Stuff,” Mills presented his own field research that emanated from a trip to Spring Training. Assuming that 25 percent of pitchers were cheating with their pitches, Mills was told by one flamethrower that it’s closer to 75 per cent. Mills’ biting sarcasm drove the hilarious song that was built around his thumping bass and dry delivery about the evils of spitters and greased balls.
The band’s melodic “Always 1976” paid tribute to Detroit Tigers phenom Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. Coming out of “Uncle Charlie,” Wynn said the Baseball Project was like hearing Dave Davies with the Standells. Buck, a student of rock history, at times riffed like he wanted to delve into the Monkees’ songbook. Watching his knee bends as he riffed and threw his dangling hair back gave flashbacks to images of his older band’s glory years that are ingrained in our memories.
All night I was transfixed by Pitmon’s drumming and in modern baseball parlance, her launch angle as she came off the snare. I’m not sure if baseball bat speed has a rock equivalent of drum stick speed but her playing felt like it had the effect of Keith Moon mixed with her agile athleticism.
The band’s predisposition for astute commentary was in play during “To The Veterans Committee” which lauded the forgotten Dale Murphy who slugged for the Braves but was overlooked for the Hall Of Fame. Wynn’s translation of “Fernando” about Dodgers Fernando Valenzuela was a morality tale about a pitcher who was a cultural phenomenon but seemed forgotten to history and anti-Mexican sentiment whene he once inspired nations. (Hopefully the recent retirement of his number by the Dodgers puts him back in his rightful place in history as he truly transfixed a continent during his time )
All night the band peppered their set with baseball metaphors. “Erasable Man” was their “lead off single.” Toward the end of the set it was the “bottom of the ninth.” Coming back for encores, it was “walk off time.” Wynn’s comment disparaging the extra innings ghost runner drew boos in unison from the purists in the house. Wynn’s introduction about steroids-era pitcher Roger Clemens drew a similar round. Wynn said he tried to be sympathetic in the first few verses but quickly lost it.
It would be interesting for them to cover other baseball songs. Hey Steve, what about Bob Dylan’s “Catfish” or Warren Zevon’s ”Bill Lee”? And then there’s the theme song from the New York Mets, “Meet The Mets.” (Just sayin’.)
By virtue of their observances and history the Baseball Project might make a worthy appointment as an advisory committee to Commissioner Rob Manfred. But I suspect that Major League Baseball is too much focused on sabermetrics and analytics to embrace the intelligence of its super fans like the Baseball Project. MLB’s Park Avenue office might just be a dead letter office for such a worthy proposal. For now these rock and roll emissaries will stick with their day job observing the national pastime in verse and song and hopefully coming to a venue (or ballpark) near you.
Find tour dates here: http://baseballproject.net
Enjoy our interview of Steve Wynn here: Interview: Steve Wynn Reissues Solo Albums, Reuniting with Dream Syndicate, Talks the 90s, Identity, and Americana