Commentary

'High and Inside' pitch right on target

Originally Published: February 23, 2011
By Jim Wilkie | ESPN.com

Opening Day is more than a month away, but baseball fans should be doubly excited because The Baseball Project's second album, "Volume 2: High and Inside" will be released March 1.

[+] EnlargeMark Fidrych
Tony Tomsic/Getty ImagesMark Fidrych, forever The Bird like he was back in 1976.

Steve Wynn, Scott McCaughey, Linda Pitmon (Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3, Golden Smog) and Peter Buck (R.E.M.) -- and special guests, such as Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie and The Decemberists' Chris Funk and John Moen -- serve up another gem with reverence and irreverence for America's pastime and some of the game's notable and notorious characters.

As reliable as New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning, songwriters Wynn (Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3, The Dream Syndicate, Gutterball, Danny & Dusty) and McCaughey (The Minus 5, Young Fresh Fellows, R.E.M.) deliver clever, catchy songs that range from the fun "Panda and The Freak" to the tragic "Here Lies Carl Mays."

From the album's first song, "1976," you know you're in for something deeper than usual when Wynn takes a heartfelt look at former pitching phenom Mark "The Bird" Fidrych and turns it into an introspective look at one's own mortality.

The camera lies and the mirror plays tricks.
So many things that the years won't fix.
Always 1976, always 1976.

"On both records I think a lot of the songs are obviously about the player we write about or the interesting stuff we write about, but they're also kind of about bigger things as well," Wynn said in a phone interview Friday. "And '1976,' sure it's about Fidrych and about his magic year and also about him dying young, but also at the same time it's about the way many people, most of us have that glory moment in their youth and in some ways in a lot of people's eyes you're forever defined by that. And then life goes on. For a lot of people, each of the people of The Baseball Project might be defined by the first record we made, by 'Days of Wine And Roses' for me, 'Murmur' for Peter, or [the] Young Fresh Fellows record for Scott. And people might say, 'Well, that's how I will remember you forever, the first time I saw you play.' But then the fact of the matter is you move on, you go through life and hope that people keep paying attention, which has been the case for us luckily enough.

"But for Fidrych it wasn't. For Fidrych, if you had to close your eyes and think of Mark Fidrych, you saw The Bird, you saw 1976 and that's all you can see. You had no chance to see him get older; it wasn't like Willie Mays or Hank Aaron where you saw him as a rookie and then finally you saw him at Hall of Fame games like that. Fidrych was forever The Bird."

Amidst the annual excitement over baseball's return aligning with the warming of spring, rebirth and a renewal of hope and optimism, "Volume 2" veers a little to dark material such as beanballs in "Chin Music," Tony Conigliaro's unfortunate career spiral in "Tony (Boston's Chosen Son)," Denard Span's wayward foul ball on "Look Out, Mom" and Roger Clemens' post-Red Sox days in "Twilight Of My Career."

"That's the running theme on this record," Wynn said. "It was unintentional but we really realized as the songs were coming along, 'Man, we've got a lot of songs about people being hit by baseballs, whether it's Ray Chapman or Tony Conigliaro or Denard Span's mother, people are getting hit with baseballs left and right. And then 'Chin Music' is all about intentionally trying to hit people with baseballs, so it really is there's a whole lot of, I don't know it's kind of the dangerous second record: the 'Baseball Is A Dangerous Sport, Part 2.' "

[+] EnlargeTony Conigliaro
AP PhotoThe tragic Italian opera of Tony Conigliaro is told in "Tony (Boston's Chosen Son)."

McCaughey said the tragic content just sort of happened because they were stories that appealed to them. All the characters and the ups and downs they and the game have had over the years make baseball history so interesting, he said.

"As much as we totally, obviously love baseball we don't really do the rah-rah, you know like Terry Cashman 'Talkin' Baseball' or whatever. That's just not really what we do," he said. "We can write some songs that just really celebrate baseball, and we do on occasion, but we don't make a habit of that."

Romantic notions of baseball lore such as Willie, Mickey and The Duke have their place, but Wynn, McCaughey and Co. choose a different course of baseball history.

"The tragic Italian opera of Tony Conigliaro. You know it's funny, too, another thing about being in The Baseball Project, after that first record, people come up to you all the time and say, 'Oh, you guys have to write a song about ….'You know, 'blah, blah, blah' about any number of players," Wynn said. "But one that always kept coming up, one that I kept on hearing was Tony Conigliaro. People say, 'Oh, you gotta write a song about Tony Conigliaro.' And I said, 'Man, that was written days after we finished the first one.' "

McCaughey just happened to be watching the exhibition game on TV last year where Minnesota Twins outfielder Span hit his mother in the chest with a line drive. Researching into the facts about Ray Chapman's death after getting hit by a Carl Mays pitch in 1920 led to McCaughey learning about more strange stories of people getting injured at ballparks.

"We could have gone with it and made a whole record probably," McCaughey said with a laugh. "But we thought that would have been a real downer, so we were gonna put those four songs sort of as a suite at one point -- the 'High and Inside' suite, you know, and put them together. But then just for sort of flow of the album we decided not to do that.

"Yeah, there's some tragic stories in there, but hopefully it's tempered a little bit by songs that are pure fun like 'Ichiro [Goes to the Moon]' and, … 'The Straw That Stirs The Drink,' most of them are pretty fun. But you know the sort of sad and wistful stories sort of appeal sometimes."

McCaughey's baseball knowledge and lyrical genius are at their best in "Buckner's Bolero" about Boston's favorite whipping boy from the 1986 World Series collapse. Bill Buckner's error at first base was the most famous gaffe of the series, but there's a Beantown roster full of mistakes and other what-ifs that McCaughey works wonderfully into song.

If Bobby Ojeda hadn't raged at Sullivan and Yawkey,
and hadn't been traded to the Mets for Calvin Schiraldi.
If Oil Can Boyd hadn't been such a nut case,
and Jim Rice had twice taken an easy extra base.
If the Red Sox had had a better playoff fourth starter --
instead Nipper served up a big fat slider to Carter.
What would Seaver have done if not for his bum knee?
Would he have taken the ball and exacted revenge on his old team?

"I think Scott's song, 'Buckner's Bolero' is unbelievable, it's such an epic song," Wynn said. "It is … just putting the song in perspective, it's an impressive, mammoth undertaking to just kind of detail all the things that could have changed in that season and that game that would have let Buckner off the hook."

McCaughey said he's proud of "Buckner's Bolero" and "Here Lies Carl Mays," but his favorite song on the new record is Wynn's "Twilight Of My Career."

"I just think that song has such a great feel to it. I love the way it turned out," McCaughey said. "I like that we're able to write compassionate songs about subjects that might not seem to deserve compassion so much. You know, like, for us to write songs about Pete Rose and Roger Clemens and not vilify them so much but look at them as human beings with faults, like we all are. I think that's one of the biggest strengths of The Baseball Project songs, really."

Indeed, "Twilight" is a masterful song about the fountain of youth that "becomes a poisoned well when you fill it up with lies."

Now my time is done and no one dares to speak my name.
Forgotten, a pariah, I'm a ghost that walks this game.
I meant no wrong but wrong I've done. It's easy to forget --
you sell your soul piece by piece until there's nothing left.

"I was a big Clemens fan up until things started getting a little bit dark. And until the steroids thing came out I was really rooting for him because I felt for the guy," Wynn said. "Without knowing the whole story that we all found out eventually, I felt for a guy who was sort of ditched at the old age of 34 and told by his team, 'Thanks for all the good times, but we have no use for you anymore.'

"And the fact that he came back and went to Toronto, went to New York, went to Houston, had those great seasons. I felt like, all right, chalk up one for the old guys, chalk up one for proving those young whippersnappers wrong. You can get older and keep bringing it. Sadly, as we all found out, there was a reason for that, so that kind of tainted it. But while it was going on it was pretty exciting."

Buckner, Clemens and Conigliaro add up to a high percentage of Boston-related songs even though none of TBP's members are Red Sox fans.

"It's crazy. We've written more about the Red Sox, "Ted F------ Williams" on the first record. We've had a lot of Red Sox songs; I have no idea why, none of us like them," Wynn said with a laugh. "I shouldn't say that, none of us are fans of them. I have a lot of fans who are Red Sox fans who are very good people."

[+] EnlargeBill Buckner
Rusty Kennedy/AP PhotoThe Baseball Project's Scott McCaughey remembers Bill Buckner for greater feats than his Game 6 error in the 1986 World Series.

The band members' allegiances are addressed on "Fair Weather Fans," because they are always asked what their favorite team is. Most of them respond with more than one.

"It's so complicated with us because all four of us have drifted around a lot. We all live in other places than what we were born, we've all toured a lot, we all have different connections to so many cities," Wynn said. "So that song kind of addressed the way you can actually like more than one team at a time and not be a traitor or a fair weather fan."

So does Buck really like the Washington Senators?

"That's what he says," Wynn said with a laugh. "If you ask him, his favorite team is the Washington Senators and his favorite player is Boog Powell. I think Peter likes the early '60s, I guess."

This follow-up to their successful 2008 debut album, "Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes & Dying Quails," has been organized more strategically than any Pirates rebuilding plan of the past 20 years. In between their other musical projects, the members of the band got together last year to hammer out the songs during two main recording sessions with an eye on an early March release date timed for spring training.

"It's not like we're working on it all the time," McCaughey said. "We fit it in between all the other things that we're doing. Funnily enough this year now it seems like it's going to be sort of a priority and we're going to fit other things around The Baseball Project, so we'll see how that works out.

"But, yeah, the shoe's always been on the other foot. It comes after R.E.M. and I was doing 'Tired Pony' and 'Young Fresh Fellows' and 'Minus Five' and Steve has his records and various bands that he plays in, of course. So if R.E.M. had been touring this year then I would have had to fit in around that obviously and Peter of course, too, but we're not going to tour so that leaves it open for The Baseball Project to run with it."

Wynn said the band really was just "a project" on the first record: Four like-minded people who wanted to do songs about baseball and kind of made up things as they went along. Since then they've become more of a band as they've toured and hung out together.

"I think you can hear on this record, this record sounds like a cool band with a real rapport, a real sound, just going at it in the studio," Wynn said.

Roger Clemens
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesRoger Clemens, in the twilight of his career.

The Baseball Project begins their tour March 11 in Atlanta before stops in Louisiana and the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, en route to some gigs in Arizona that include shows at five Cactus League games.

"We've been talking for about a year about doing spring training," Wynn said. "We were gonna try to do it last year but it didn't work out. I've never been to spring training, so I'm really excited about it. I always wanted to but it's always prime touring season, so finally I can combine the two things."

From Arizona they head to Los Angeles and up the West Coast for some shows that are yet to be finalized. Then, McCaughey said they plan to hit "all the baseball towns" for shows in the Midwest and East Coast during about six months of touring in all. "We'll be hitting everywhere," Wynn said.

Whether "Volume 2" sells well or not, at least it promises to reap The Baseball Project a fair amount of free tickets to games.

"I think we figured out that we went to about six games last year, essentially because we made this record. And that's a good start, we gotta keep that going," Wynn said with a laugh.


Jim Wilkie is the editor of The Life and can be reached at espnpucks@comcast.net.