Some people use the weather or traffic to move through the early stages of conversation. For me, with certain friends and family, it’s baseball. Sharing lines from favorite announcers (Vin Scully: “Bob Gibson pitched like he was double parked”). Marveling over favorite players (Henry Aaron, Rickey, Fernando, Ichiro). Bemoaning lousy teams (the Mets) and trades that never should have come to pass (Why did the Red Sox trade Mookie Betts?).
Adjust the lens slightly and baseball can open portals into other perspectives, too. Growing up as a Dodgers fan I read everything I could about Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, and Fernando Valenzuela. Learning about Black, Jewish, and Mexican American ballplayers nudged me down a path beyond the echo chamber of assumptions baked into the nearly monochromatic community (predominantly European-American and Catholic) of my childhood.
As their name implies, the Baseball Project write songs about baseball. The group’s founders and primary songwriters are indie rock all-stars Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5) and Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate). They’re backed by drummer Linda Pitmon (Zuzu’s Petals), and the string section of Peter Buck and Mike Mills (R.E.M.). Their new album, Grand Salami Time, is their first in nine years. It also marks their debut for Omnivore Records and first with producer Mitch Easter. A fresh start, in a way, for familiar voices.
Baseball songs get bogged down in novelty or sentimentality. And when a musician does uncork a good baseball song, it’s usually a one-and-done proposition. John Fogerty is an all-time favorite, but even he only released one baseball song. The Baseball Project possess next level dedication. They’re drawn to the colorful personalities and compelling narratives across time, geography, race, and culture, among other factors, spotlighting the humorous, the tragic, and all points in between. And they do so to great effect on Grand Salami Time.
Dominic Smith is a player who often surfaces in those friends and family conversations. He was one of the Mets best hitters in 2019 and 2020, and their most outspoken player especially after the police murder of Jacob Blake. Dom knelt during the National Anthem the next day. At a press conference following the game, he opened up about being an African-American ballplayer. He wept. “It was a long day for me. I kind of wasn’t there mentally…I think the most difficult part is that people still don’t care. It just shows the hate in people’s hearts.” When asked what he thought about whether or not teammates would kneel with him, Smith responded, “it’s not for them.”
The next day he led the team on the field when the Mets and Marlins players collaborated to boycott that day’s game. The players stood in silence for 42 seconds–in honor of Jackie Robinson’s uniform number–then jogged to the dugout, leaving a BLM t-shirt on home plate. Smith was the last player on the field.
We still talk about that. Even as Dom’s hitting skills faded. Even as he was traded to Washington. Issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion are intertwined with baseball. They always have been. Players like Dom help me see it more.
Grand Salami Time opens with a terrific 1-2 combo at the top of the order. Sweet backing vocals rain down on the title song, which exudes pure optimism. The drums stomp out the quarter notes and the band glides along. It’s time to celebrate a day at the ballpark as Scott McCaughey weaves a tapestry of home run calls from baseball announcers across the ages. Even Ken Harrelson’s “He gone!” call, so grating in reality, gets pulled into the festivities. The clincher is the ribbing of Yankees announcer John Sterling in the coda: “It is long…it is fair…it is gone! But caught.”
Sonically “The Yips” is cut from similar cowhide, a mid-tempo number buoyed by the infectious bounce of Pitmon’s toms during the chorus and Wynn’s kickass guitar shredding (at least I think it’s Wynn–not easy to decipher with three talented guitarists in the band). Lyrically, though, “The Yips” pulls in a different direction as it delves into the inexplicable fall of players like Pirates pitcher Steve Blass. He had banner seasons in 1971 and ‘72. Then the bottom fell out. He couldn’t find the plate in ‘73 (his ERA skyrocketed from 2.85 to 9.49), pitched one miserable game in ‘74, and retired. Hence the chorus:
“Everything that came so easily before / Why can’t I do it again?”
Sure, it’s about a baseball player struggling to confront the sudden loss of fundamental skills. But being able bodied is temporary, so these are questions most of us face at some point.
My friend Mikel Fournier and I publish a baseball zine, Zisk. In many ways, the zine is celebratory and irreverent, rooted in the ways we talk about the game. Mike and I also write for Razorcake, a non-profit DIY punk zine that continuously opens our eyes to different perspectives. In turn, Razorcake informs the baseball zine. Zisk still celebrates the ridiculous, but our scope has expanded. In recent issues, Ever Vasquez wrote about dropping pro-trans protest banners during the 2018 World Series. Todd Taylor chronicled the forcible removal of Mexican-American neighborhoods in the building of Dodger Stadium. jimmy cooper dove into “the relationship between gay men and sports.” Another contributor, Rachel Hyman, wrote about her fear of being a fan in the wrong ways, which inspired us to revise our slogan: So many ways to be a fan.
If we’re lucky, a new Baseball Project album includes at least one unexpected curveball. In this case it’s “64 and 64,” a pop art homage to pitcher and writer Jim Bouton. The track starts slow and seems to stay there yet also twists and evolves. (If atoms can be in more than one place at the same time, pop songs can be more than one way.) Against a tapestry of guitar noise and eerie keyboards, McCaughey’s voice reaches and creaks. Then we hit the bridge which references a scene from Bouton’s brief acting career, a role in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye:
“Shot dead by Elliot Gould
Shot dead by Elliot Gould
Shot dead by Elliot Gould
Shot dead by Elliot Gould”
It took several spins to dial into this one, most likely because I didn’t know where to file it. What to do with all that unresolved angst? For reasons not yet clear to me, John Cale’s Paris 1919 eventually came to mind (tonally more than lyrically given that references to the national pastime on Cale’s melancholy opus have yet to be unearthed).
Even after decoding most of the lyrics I was confused by the title, “64 and 64.” I looked up Bouton’s career record which stands at 62-63. But he pitched really well in three World Series games and that record (2-1, 1.48 ERA) balances his career record at half up, half down. Hence the song’s title and the refrain, “You win some and you lose some.” Again, honing in on the specific to reveal the universal.
A couple of years ago, we received a piece about what’s wrong with the current state of baseball. This isn’t uncommon. Most people, myself included, lock into a sense of the game early in life and then watch that version slip away. But this submission was different. I agreed with some of the gripes about rule changes, but strongly disagreed with other suggestions. He criticized MLB’s decision to retire Jackie Robinson’s number across the league. He felt MLB was overreaching and pushing “sociology” at the ballpark. “We do not go for sociology. We do not go to right racial wrongs. We go because we love the game.” It’s not a racist argument, but it’s an assimilationist argument. The sociology, so to speak, is always there. What shifts and changes is the extent to which privilege can cloud one’s field of view and allows many of us the choice of acknowledging the “sociology” of a day at the ballpark. Everything’s okay as long as we don’t talk about that stuff.
Still, it was a good debate to have. Many of the points were antithetical to me, but would Zisk readers know that? When had we ever said such things in print? We ran the piece along with our counterarguments. It was a good opportunity to make our evolving editorial stance more evident. In the next issue Mike revised our call for submissions, “Baseball cannot be fully discussed, understood or captured by white dudes. Diversity makes us a better publication. We’re interested in your contributions – get at us.”
The Baseball Project dip into “sociology” too. Throughout their career, they’ve celebrated the game’s multiculturalism. “Disco Demolition” retells the infamous day in Chicago in which owner Bill Veeck attempted to cash in on the “disco sucks” sentiment coursing through much of mainstream (re: white) America. Fans were offered cheaper admission for bringing disco albums to be detonated between games of a White Sox/Tigers double header. After a relatively straight retelling for the first two-thirds of the song, Wynn shifts perspectives. He points out that records by Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, rich in so many ways but devoid of disco, were also included in the demolition. (I wonder how many copies of the Stones “Miss You” or the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street” were tossed on the heap that day.) For years I considered Disco Demolition Night an amusing anecdote from baseball’s wild ride through the ‘70s. I didn’t see the latent racism and homophobia which Wynn addresses in the closing line: “a fire set ablaze by fear of sex and race / at a time when we should have hung our heads in disgrace.”
“Erasable Man” hits so many sweet spots. Mike Mills’ bass fills harken back to R.E.M.’s Life’s Rich Pageant. Linda Pitmon revists the gleeful beat from the opening track and Steve Berlin from Los Lobos guests on sax. And it’s a tribute to Josh Gibson, celebrating his legend while also calling out the racist tendency of not giving the game’s greatest slugger, and his fellow Negro Leaguers, their due.
“Imagine him if you can
Though it’s easier not to see than believe in an invisible man
One erasable man”
But it’s more nuanced than I first thought. What if you swap out the singular pronouns for plural, “they” instead of “him” and “man”? Is that a Ralph Ellison allusion? A wonderfully catchy song belies an ambiguous, thought-provoking lyrical stance.
To wrap up, an anecdote from one of my son’s recent games. Different scale, but similar DNA. Parents from both teams were perched on the hill overlooking home plate. All of the players were boys except for the girl playing right field on my son’s team. During her first at-bat, she took a couple of close pitches and stepped out of the batter’s box before the umpires stopped the game. I hadn’t seen or heard anything, but one umpire approached each dugout and spoke with the coaches.
Meanwhile the assumptions flew fast and furious among the other parents.
“What the…? They were heckling her?”
“What’s wrong with those boys?”
“Who lets their kid say things like that?”
One group of parents was pissed and vocal. They wanted to be heard. They wanted things to escalate. Meanwhile the other group was quiet. I was ready to join the former. But we were wrong. After the game my son told me the umps had given his teammate a warning for staring down the opposing pitcher after an inside pitch. The boys weren’t heckling the girl. The umps wanted the girl to stop trying to intimidate a boy. There’s always time to check assumptions, let new information in, and consider different points of view–learn from the omnipresent sociology–even at a baseball game.