Talking Sports With The Baseball Project’s Steve Wynn

Lenny Kaye

By Lenny Kaye

on 03.28.14 in Features

It might not seem so at first blush, but the parallels between music and sports are plentiful. Both offer the rare feeling of community and comradery that come with pledging loyalty. They provide the opportunity to celebrate a shared mythology, complete with colorful characters, great feats and epic tales of battles won and lost.

The Baseball Project began in 2008, when Steve Wynn, once of the Dream Syndicate and currently of the Miracle 3, and Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus Five, discovered their mutual love of baseball. With the lineup rounded out by Linda Pitmon on drums and R.E.M.’ers Peter Buck and Mike Mills, they recorded Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, which featured such sporting paeans as “Fucking Ted Williams” and “Satchel Paige Said,” along with the moving “Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays.” 2010’s High and Inside continued the tributes, saluting Darryl Strawberry and Pete Rose, all delivered with respect and affection.

3rd continues that storied tradition, offering accounts of Lenny Dykstra’s rise and fall, Luis Tiant’s tale of escaping from Cuba to star in the big leagues, and a memorial to that “giant among men,” “The Babe.” There are inside jokes (“Pascual On The Perimeter” takes us back to the Atlanta Braves and 1982), and arcane references galore, but the music never takes a back seat: the album is full of clever arrangements, which complement its pointed and perceptive lyrics.

There are 18 songs — two for each inning — and even a seventh-inning stretch, when Josh Kantor’s pipe organ allows the action take a breather. The album closes with a Ramones-inspired romp through “Take Me Out To The Ball Game,” which reminds me of a sunlit summer afternoon I spent at a New England rock festival talking Red Sox with Johnny Ramone before they took the stage.

All of this was on my mind when I caught up with Steve Wynn to talk about the places that baseball and music intersect.

What drew you to baseball as a sport?

My first love was music, but not having much access to cool stuff in the early ’70s, when I was about 13, I started to slide away from music. I went from playing guitars in bands and wanting to be a rock star and all that, to realizing I couldn’t be in ELP or Genesis. So then I decided to try something else, and went hog-wild into baseball hoping to become a sportswriter, before punk rock saved my soul.

Did you ever think of playing sports yourself, or were you more of an observer?

I can whack a ball around a little bit, but probably, of the five members of the Baseball Project, I’m the least athletic.

Can you find parallels with your life as a musician and what would it be like as an athlete or otherwise involved in the sporting world?

It’s funny, you do lead the same type of life — going on the road, staying in hotels, staying out late swapping stories. Not having been a professional baseball player, I think it’s amazing what they do, the presence of mind, the focus and attention to a million things around you, and the casual way they approach it all. And then I realize, that’s what we all do. You’re on stage, you’re hearing what you’re playing, you’re hearing everyone around you and trying to get a rhythmic thing going, and at the same time you’re aware of the people in the stands. There’s a chemistry happening around you, and when that chemistry is going your way, there’s nothing like it.

In that sense, would you say a band has the same dynamic as a team?

I think so. It’s just an awareness of each other, a dependence on each member’s strengths and weaknesses. And having said that, I think there’s one thing about baseball that sets it apart from other sports, that makes it a good subject for songwriting, is that it’s really a game for the individual. Unlike basketball, or football, or hockey, or even a great rock and roll band, a baseball player can, for the most part, excel on his own, regardless of his teammates. He can be Segovia, instead of the Allman Brothers. When a pitcher is facing a batter, of course, you have your team behind you, but for the most part it’s one guy, with all his history and all his experience, facing another guy with the same thing, and matching wits. It’s exciting. That’s why it’s easier to write about baseball than other sports, because those individual dramas, that moment where things might go right or wrong.

It does seem as if you get into the psyches of these players. I’m thinking of the Bernie Williams cut on the album, “Monument Park,” where he’s measuring himself against other Yankee greats and realizing he’s not going to be the best centerfielder ever on the team because he’s up against Joe DiMaggio, or Mickey Mantle. It’s really quite poignant.

Scott and I have different approaches when it comes to writing our baseball songs. Scott’s strength is in telling a classic baseball story, how something went down, making you feel you’re living it right then. I generally try to use a piece of baseball history to show an underlying truth. “Monument Park” is about Bernie Williams, but it’s also about knowing you might never be the best at what you do, and knowing that even if you’re third best, or fourth, you’re still part of the game.

I especially liked the songs about statistics and box scores, the ephemera of baseball.

There’s a similarity to being a close-reading baseball fan, and a below-the-surface music fan. You can love the game for the sake of the game, or the music, but you can get caught up in which Beatles album is the best, or why they left this cut off the American release, or the intricacies of their discography. Why did one guy become a reliever when he could’ve been a starter? Why did Babe Ruth, who could’ve been a great pitcher, become an outfielder instead? It’s like wondering why Ron Asheton is playing bass in the second version of the Stooges. Comparing Ron Asheton to James Williamson is like comparing Sandy Koufax to Walter Johnson [laughs].

You also have a good sense of idealism about the sport. You want your baseball to be pure…

Writing a song about baseball in the last several years, the giant elephant in the room is steroids. It’s as much a drag to write about it in song as it is to talk about it; but it plays into what’s going on. So talking about the A-Rod thing, showing how much I don’t approve of him, that’s about as close to editorial comment as you’re going to get on this record.

I know much of the Baseball Project’s live work is on a fan circuit removed from the familiarities of rock and roll. You’ve played in stadiums before games, to audiences who perhaps don’t know your individual histories.

It’s different. It’s wild playing gigs before games to people who don’t know us. When we’re on the rock circuit, people are aware of us from the bands we’ve played in, but in stadiums they’re just digging it for the music and the references on their own.

Have you ever thought of extending the concept to another sport?

We joke about this. All of us are fairly popular in Europe, and there’s no way the Baseball Project could be accepted over there. We cannot bring this band overseas. So once we thought to overdub soccer names over the baseball names, Diego Maradona instead of Babe Ruth, George Best over Hank Aaron…

One of my favorites on the record is “Extra Inning of Love.” Is there a particularly sensual appeal of baseball that this song attempts to bring out?

Scott came up with that. He was trying to write a song like the Intruders’ “(Love Is Like) A Baseball Game,” a ’70s soul number. At first he was kind of sheepish about it, but we thought it added a nice touch to the album. It’s cool because the band is about baseball, but beyond the lyrics, we also try to make songs for people who don’t care about baseball. We tell them, don’t be scared, it’s just a rock band.