BY JONATHAN VALANIA The knock on rock music since, well, time immemorial is that there’s nothing new under The Big Rock Sun, that it’s all been done before and everything after is just a distant echo of the big bang that ended on or about 1969. The Baseball Project puts the lie to all that. I submit to you that they are doing something that’s never before: An indie rock supergroup that writes catchy songs about the lore and the legends of America’s pastime. If there is an ur-text for the Baseball Project, it’s “Take Me Out To The Ball Park.” The BP is comprised of REM’s Peter Buck, the Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey of Young Fresh Fellows/Minus Five fame, who’s current day job is sideman for REM. Rounding out the line-up, and crashing this sausage party, is Linda Pitmon, formerly of Golden Smog and currently a member of Steve Wynn’s Miracle Three. If all this sounds insufferably gimmicky, rest assured it is not. The BP’s two extant albums — 2008’s Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes And Dying Quail and the just-released Vol. 2: High And Inside — will invariably light up the brains of the people who read box scores like they are haikus, as well as tickle the fancies of people whose favorite baseball team is the Washington Redskins. The Baseball Project will play Penn’s Landing tomorrow as part of WHYY’s Connections Festival. With this in mind we got Scott McCaughey on the horn to answer a few questions supplied by Phawker sports editor/Scrapple News sports anchor Mike “Hot Carl” Wolverton.
PHAWKER: How many of you have baseball-playing backgrounds? If so, what position and why did you never go pro?
SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: I played catcher and the occasional outfield in my four years of Little League. I wasn’t very good really. Actually I was good at the lower levels and weak when I made “the majors”. Realized I wasn’t going to make a career out of it and started concentrating more on the Beatles and Jefferson Airplane. Later played quite a bit in organized softball leagues but quit eventually because people took it too seriously and got too aggro.
PHAWKER: Is Reggie Jackson really a member of Mensa or were you just looking for something to rhyme with credenza?
SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: Steve came up with that. I think it might be true. In any case it’s a brilliant rhyme. Take that, Cole Porter!
PHAWKER: You sing about the American Pastime instead of the usual sex and drugs rock lyric themes, but still have to have a parental advisory sticker because of the song “Ted Fucking Williams.” If you ever play birthday parties, you could change it to “Ted Frozen Williams,” a reference to the fact that Williams’ son had him cryogenically frozen. Your thoughts on this?
SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: We have indeed sung “Ted ‘Freaking’ Williams” a few times. It’s just not the same, so we usually lean towards profanity except in extreme all-ages situations. The whole cryogenic thing is too bizarre, especially when these photos started circulating of his frozen head perched on a tuna can pedestal. Did you know Ted’s mom was Mexican? An unrelated but interesting fact.
PHAWKER: You’ve got songs about some of the more famous players — Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Satchel Paige. Do you worry that if you keep making Baseball Project albums you’ll eventually end up with songs with titles like like “The Ballad of F.P. Santangelo”?
SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: Absolutely. There certainly must be mediocre players that lead incredibly interesting lives. Johnny Lemaster definitely deserves a song.
PHAWKER: You guys are surely the first to use the word “Delahanting” [in “The Death of Big Ed Delahanty”]. Did you know he had four brothers who all played in the major leagues, making the Delahantys the largest collection of siblings to reach the Bigs?
SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: Yes, indeed. We played a show in Louisville that was attended by a Delahanty descendant. The weird thing is he looked like Big Ed, generations later. So four brothers is the record, huh? Wasn’t that tied by Felipe, Matty, Jesus and Zeppo Alou?
PHAWKER: I love that there’s a song about Harvey Haddix, who threw 12 perfect innings in a 1959 game but took a loss in the 13th inning. I remember going to the Hall of Fame as a kid and looking for the Harvey Haddix plaque, only to find he wasn’t there. But at least he’s got this song. Any thoughts or anecdotes that go with this?
SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: Harvey’s widow Marcia befriended us, and confided that Harvey would have loved the song, as it was “his kind of music.” That made us unbearably happy, as you can well imagine.
PHAWKER: Some Hall of Fame voters won’t include anyone who’s been linked to performance enhancing drugs. Is there any player that you refuse to write a song about?
SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: Not really, although I’m currently lacking inspiration for a J. A. Happ tune. A. J. Burnett isn’t working for me either. Must be the initials thing.
PHAWKER: “Broken Man” addresses the Steroids Era. Do you think the treatment of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and the rest has been fair?
SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: I think it’s been a big waste of time and resources. How about prosecuting murderers in New Orleans? That might be a bit more constructive. Oh, yeah, and putting away G. W. Bush and his cronies, who caused thousands and thousands of unnecessary deaths, would be nice too. Cheating in baseball is way down the list, and harder to prove.
PHAWKER: Why pair Ichiro Suzuki with surf music? How much of the time does the player inspire the style of the song?
SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: I didn’t know it was a surf song but I’ve heard that a lot from people. I thought it was a punk pop song, you know, like… All. And I know a lot of Japanese bands who play that kind of music, so maybe that infiltrated my not-particularly-thoughtful approach to the song.
PHAWKER: I love “The Closer.” How long before we get a song about the LOOGY (Lefty One-Out Guy)?
SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: That will be the b-side of “Crafty Left-hander.” By the way, crafty left-handers apparently don’t make good closers. Although maybe when Jamie Moyer comes back next year the Phillies will give him a shot at it.
PHAWKER: In “The Ballad of Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson” you tell the story of two Yankees pitchers who traded families [wives, children and even dogs] in 1973. The song suggests that a situation that shouldn’t have been that big a deal was treated like a huge scandal, with the press suggesting the pair had “brought the game to its knees.” Baseball has long been accused of being behind the times on social issues. Should this be taken a criticism or is it part of the appeal? Also, I hear that a major motion picture (as in Matt Damon major) is slated to cover this incident. Has anyone contacted you about using the song?
SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: We heard that the Damon/Affleck team were interested in bringing the story to the big screen. Their people have as yet not contacted our people. I’ve heard that not all the parties involved are excited at the prospect of the film, so I’m not sure it will actually happen. “Bob Carol Ted & Alice” is however available on Netflix. It too was controversial at the time.
PHAWKER: Baseball may be behind the times on social issues, but it seems Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum has gotten a free pass after getting busted for weed, and this gets a send-up in your song, “Panda and the Freak.” Does this wink-and-nudge suggest baseball is coming around on weed or social issues in general?
SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: Big Time Timmy Jim did not get a free pass. He got off easy because it was his mother’s bong that he had in his car. Baseball players in general these days are pretty squeaky clean — some would even say bland. That’s why having guys like The Beard and The Freak is so damn refreshing. That being said, they are hardly trouble-makers, and probably not even politically or personally that radical. Bill Lee and Jim Bouton are still probably the coolest in that regard. Which is a little sad considering how long ago they played.
PHAWKER: Our Fightin’ Phillies seem underrepresented. What Phillies stories might be best suited to The Baseball Project?
SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: Well, I’ve just written a Lenny Dykstra song, “From Nails To Thumbtacks.” And Steve came up with the Roy Halladay tune last year. The Phillies are a great team these days, with a beautiful ball park that is sold out every game. And they let us sing “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” there this year. We probably should start kissing some Philly ass. I could get it up for a Raul Ibanez number. Maybe if they lose in the playoffs this year, a sad country song — “The Flyin’ Hawaiin Is Cryin'”?
PHAWKER: “The Yankee Flipper” suggests that some members of your band may have been involved in a chain of events that ended with Yankee pitcher Jack McDowell giving the finger to a packed house at Yankee Stadium. Do tell. True story? If so, details please.
SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: Ah, but the details (as much as the fog of alcohol and memory allow) are all there in the song. Jack is OK with the song and doesn’t harbor any ill will towards his compatriots of that night. His only concern is explaining it to his young children if they ever hear it in the distant future.