Charging the Mound

AltRock veterans take a swing as The Baseball Project

Sep 14, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Cincinnati Reds history will be made when The Baseball Project (Steve Wynn, Scott McCaughey, Peter Buck and Linda Pitmon) makes its first appearance at the Southgate House on Saturday night.

No, these venerable, veteran Alternative Rock musicians — better known for their work solo (Wynn) and with such bands as Minus 5, R.E.M., Young Fresh Fellows, Miracle Three, Dream Syndicate and Gutterball (Wynn again) — won’t be announcing they’re buying the Reds and changing their name to The Sex Pistols. Instead, they plan to use the local date to publicly debut their brand-new song “Pete Rose Way,” written by McCaughey and recorded earlier this week for the upcoming Baseball Project Vol. 2 album.

The first album, Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, came out last year and became a surprise hit, by indie standards, with its rockin’, literate and often philosophical songs about the careers of Satchel Paige, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Harvey Haddix, Sandy Koufax and others. (The opening song, “Past Time,” which questions whether baseball’s glory days are behind it, mentions in passing Rose’s famous slide into Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game.)

The members of the quartet now consider The Baseball Project the name of one of their numerous bands — and it's receiving equal billing on the Southgate House gig with Minus 5 and Wynn, both of whom have new albums out. Before this tour, The Baseball Project had played live just a few times, including at Wynn and Pitmon’s wedding and on The Late Show with David Letterman.

Speaking by phone from Portland, Ore., where The Baseball Project is recording its new album, McCaughey describes the Pete Rose song as “not slow but pretty quiet.”

And he continues: “I haven’t been to Great American Ball Park, but I’ve been to Riverfront and remember seeing that street, so I started making up a little song about it. It’s sort of double entendre, about that road and also about the Pete Rose way of playing baseball, but it’s a sensitive song.

“It doesn’t come down on Pete; it’s actually a favorable song. I don’t take him to task for betting on baseball and being a liar. It’s more a reflection on the kind of player he was and that there’s a lot to be learned from that. And also that there’s something to be learned from the mistakes he made, although that’s referred to very lightly.”

Actually, Wynn explains in a separate phone-call interview, there might be a second Cincinnati Reds-related song when Vol. 2 appears. “I’m reading The Long Season by Jim Brosnan, so that may creep into some songs,” he says.

(Brosnan, a relief pitcher traded to the Reds in 1959, wrote about that season in what is considered one of the first books by a baseball player that was candid and truthful.)

Wynn, 49, and McCaughey, 54, have been lifelong baseball fans. And Wynn, growing up in California, did sportswriting as a teenager and thought that would be his career.

“Then I saw the Sex Pistols play Winterland (in San Francisco) and that was the end of that,” he says.

His first band of note, L.A.’s Dream Syndicate, channeled the Velvet Underground’s prickly, shadowy, idiosyncratic Rock & Roll with uncanny intuition. How did he get from that to baseball, the all-American national pastime? He sees a natural connection.

“Baseball is such a game of eccentricity and individualism,” Wynn says. “You can be an absolute freak, a malcontent, out of your mind and still excel as an individual regardless of how good your teammates are. It’s a game of the oddball individuals, and that appeals to a Rock & Roll fan or musician. It’s not a jock mentality: 'Live and die for the team, rah rah rah.’ It’s where an out-of-shape pitcher can strike out a bonus baby or where a guy can pitch a no-hitter on acid.”

That last reference is to the late Dock Ellis, the Pittsburgh Pirate who claimed he pitched a no-hitter on LSD in 1970. Alas, Wynn explains, The Baseball Project does not have a song about him — Todd Snider, Barbara Manning and Chuck Brodksy already have written ones.

“I don’t want to be the third or fourth person to write a Dock Ellis song,” Wynn says.

The Southgate House show will consist of two sets, with the four band members mixing up material throughout from The Baseball Project, Minus 5’s new album Killingsworth and Wynn’s latest solo album Crossing Dragon Bridge, plus songs by Young Fresh Fellows, Dream Syndicate and Gutterball.

“It’s like a music festival with just four people,” McCaughey says.

Besides the Rose song, there will be another important baseball-history event at the Southgate House show. Marcia Haddix, widow of Harvey Haddix, is coming from Springfield, Ohio, to see the group play “Harvey Haddix” live. The song, written by Wynn, is a bittersweet account of how Haddix, a Pittsburgh Pirate, pitched 12 perfect innings in a 1959 game — 50 years ago — against the Milwaukee Braves only to lose in the13th.

Although some have called it the best game ever pitched, Major League Baseball in 1991 declared it isn’t even formally considered a no-hitter, much less perfect, because he lost. Haddix was still alive at the time; he died in 1994. The song argues that Haddix should be added to the select list of pitchers (including the Reds’ Tom Browning) who “officially” have thrown perfect games.

“She loves the song and has become a regular e-mail pal of mine,” Wynn says. “She decided she wanted to come with her two daughters and their husbands for this show. We’re blown away.”

THE BASEBALL PROJECT performs at The Southgate House Saturday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.