The Baseball Project – Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

This was an unexpected effort that works much better than it should. My imagination never encompassed an indie/alternative supergroup coming together to play songs about baseball. I remember in the ‘90s, the Goo Goo Dolls played a pretty great version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for an MLB television promo, but even then, I did not contemplate a more robust pairing of these two things that I love. Fortunately, the Baseball Project goes beyond novelty, tying a deep knowledge of and passion for the game to their considerable melodic skills. It helps that I was already a Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey fan, and while I never really cared for the Dream Syndicate, I respected Steve Wynn (I was unfamiliar with Linda Pitmon, who drummed in Zuzu’s Petals).

What I Think of This Album

This is clearly a labor of love (and friendship – I don’t get the sense that Peter Buck is much of a baseball fan). Scott McCaughey and Steve Wynn basically split the writing duties, with Buck (REM) as the super-utility player, contributing on five instruments. In fact, the credits (even before you’ve listened to a single note) are a testament to the teamwork involved. In addition to the usual guitars/bass/drums, the band throws out melodica, organ, accordion, bouzouki, mandolin, sitar, and harmonica.

And the liner notes further underscore the passion behind the project; they are informative, offering historical context and personal connection (what a great idea). Against that backdrop, it’s damn difficult not to be predisposed to like the album, but many a project has failed due to unrealistic ambitions, poor perspective, or fussy perfectionism – it’s not enough to just want something to turn out well. No worries here, as this is a collection of strong songs that go far beyond the surface of casual fandom.

The album starts with the organ-heavy, celebratory “Past Time,” honoring baseball’s rich history with a nostalgic call-out to iconic players and indelible images (“The sideburns of Pepitone / And Oscar Gamble’s afro”). The band then cycles through a series of character studies, before ending, appropriately, with “The Closer.” Standouts include the humorous exploration of jealousy and bitterness in the stomping “Ted Fucking Wiliams,” an acknowledgment of Jackie Robinson’s grace in “Jackie’s Lament,” the folk-ish, spirited argument for luckless “Harvey Haddix” (with some sweet backing “ooohs”), the homespun “Satchel Paige Said,” and a glimpse into the Samuel Beckett-tinted mind of Sandy Koufax (“Long Before My Time”). There is also a deconstruction of the sad irony of Fernandomania, the sacrifice of labor rights pioneer Curt Flood, and Jack McDowell’s middle finger (punningly titled “The Yankee Flipper”).

The market for this is probably fairly circumscribed – if you’re not a baseball fan, I don’t know how much you’re going to care, but the targets of this pitch should be delighted.

Side note – the album was mastered by Kurt Bloch of the Fastbacks and collaborator with McCaughey in both the Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus 5 (in which Buck also plays).

The Best Thing About This Album

“Harvey Haddix” is a lot of fun, and expertly mixes pathos with acceptance (“perfection’s always flawed”). I’ve seen the Baseball Project live twice and it’s a treat to see them update the song with the names of additional perfect game hurlers, trying desperately to fit them into the framework of the song.

Release Date

July, 2008

The Cover Art

Juuuuuuust a bit outside. The black background and the large, game-battered baseball are fantastic, as is the elegant band name centered across the top. But the band members’ names in a cartoonish script ruin the image, and seems crass and arrogant, to boot.

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