ARCHIVES: Frozen ropes, dying quails, good music and dying ballparks

This pre-Franorama World post ran on the Fresno Beehive Aug.6, 2008, 7:50 p.m. PDT:

So it was 35 years ago Monday — Aug. 4, 1973 — that my Uncle Bill took my brother Jim and me to our first big-league ballgame: 10 stops down the No. 7 line from his apartment in Queens to Shea Stadium. When Fresno’s greatest athlete was still the beloved ace of the Mets’ staff, Yogi was managing and Tug was starting to tell everyone “Ya gotta believe!” When Shea still had those cool blue-and-orange squares and rectangles on the outside that screamed ’60s as loudly as the girls inside screamed for The Beatles those two legendary nights.

We sat in the upper deck in foul territory in short left. And I got to see the beginning of a second Mets miracle. And it began with a loss.

The Cardinals (back when Joe Torre rocked those muttonchop sideburns) were in first in the National League East; the Mets were in last, I think nine games out. It was Jerry Koosman against Bob Gibson. And the Cards won the battle, 4-3, but lost the pennant that sunny Saturday afternoon. Gibson singled with one out in the second. The next batter — I believe it was Ken Reitz — hit a sharp liner, but it was right at Teddy Martinez, the shortstop. The mighty Gibson ripped up his right knee trying to get back to first. He eventually got up and went to the mound to test the knee, but collapsed in a heap. By the time he returned in mid-September, St. Louis had faded from the race and the Amazins were on their memorable run toward the seventh game of the Series in Oakland.

I also wanted to see Willie Mays. I figured, at 42, it was gonna be his last year, and I wanted to see him play once. He didn’t. The consolation prize was heading back to the train and seeing a swarm of kids in the Shea parking lot crowding around a pink yacht of an Imperial with a black vinyl roof — and black California plates: SAY HEY.

I forgot about the anniversary … until I got in a little summer listening this past week and heard Scott McCaughey sing a trippy, wistful bit of nostalgia titled “I Dream of Willie Mays” on the most excellent new album by The Baseball Project, “Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails.”

There have been precious few rock songs about the game: John Fogerty’s ubiquitous “Centerfield”; Bruce Springstone’s “Take Me out to the Ball Game”; Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days”; The Skeletons’ wacky one-note-off rendition of “Take Me out to the Ball Game” (I want to become famous so I can sing that version at the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley and goof on everyone’s heads); the SF Seals’ excellent and warped “Baseball Trilogy” 7-incher (a cover of Les Brown’s “Joltin Joe DiMaggio” on one side, songs titled “Denny McLain” and “Dock Ellis” on the flip). But that’s not enough to field a team, let alone an all-star team. This new alt-rock hipster collection fills out the starting lineup and a couple of the reserves.

This disc is the brainchild of McCaughey (of The Minus 5, and R.E.M. and The Young Fresh Fellows before that) and Steve Wynn (of The Dream Syndicate fame), with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Wynn’s drummer, Linda Pitmon, along for the ride. It’s not perfect — the alt-country/rock sound doesn’t quite fit a song about Jackie Robinson, and, as colleague and fellow baseball fan/ex-music writer Don Mayhew points out, the vocal mix is very muddy, meaning you have to listen through at least a couple times. But it stands just as well as a collection of music as it does a group of baseball songs — on third, with a legged-out triple.

It’s as crafty as Nolan Ryan, Phil Niekro or Hoyt Wilhem. Lots of tunesmithing and wordplay here, as well as passion for the game and its history. The opening tune, “Past Time,” is a little sludgy yet catchy in a mid-’80s R.E.M. way. But the fun is in the name-dropping, starting with “When Campy Campaneris played all nine positions in a game” and carrying into “the sideburns of Pepitone and Oscar Gamble’s Afro.” It’s a virtual museum of baseball oddity, a middle-age rockers’ answer to Terry Cashman’s long-played-out “Talkin’ Baseball.”

Some of the tunes are of a serious nature. They deliver the ominous, hard-edged “Gratitude (for Curt Flood),” a guilt trip-barbed remembrance of the forgotten Cardinals star who gave up his career for free agency and the ability of Manny and others to make 20 mil. The light, acoustic-appointed pop tune “Broken Man” sharply points out, without mentioning him by name, the hypocrisy Mark McGwire faces because of his performance enhancement (“No one seemed to care when it brought back the fans”). “Jackie’s Lament” addresses Robinson’s having to keep his mouth shut the first couple years as a Dodger. Sandy Koufax also isn’t mentioned by name, but “Long Before My Time” deals with him having to face retiring early because of his arthritic elbow. And “The Death of Big Ed Delahanty” relates (with a mysterio ’60s Farfisa sound) the unsolved 1903 demise of one of the early game’s big hitters.

Some of the material is lighthearted in both lyric and spirit, such as the downhome “Satchel Paige Said” and the Mexican-flavored “Fernando,” about Fernando Valenzuela, sung en espanol. McCaughey takes cheeky, guilty pleasure in the legend of “The Yankee Flipper” — according to him, he, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and Dennis Diken of The Smithereens got Cy Young-winner/guitarist Black Jack McDowell stinking drunk just before the appearance when he gave his Yankee fans the finger. And “The Ballad of “Harvey Haddix” (about the Pirates pitcher who threw 12 perfect innings against the Milwaukee Braves and lost in the 13th in 1959) is not only folksy and rootsy and bouncy and a lot of fun, it cleverly works in all 17 pitchers of perfect games.

Of course, with these children of the dawn of punk, it figures that the most poppy, catchy, anthemic, roll-down-the-window-and-sing song on the whole album is the one with the title and refrain that preclude it from family newspapers and radio: “Ted —-ing Williams.” (Nothing gratuitous and everything historical about the f-bomb: So the legend goes, he would step into the batting cage before games and proclaim, “I’m Ted —-ing Williams and I’m the greatest hitter in baseball!” And, of course, no one could argue that.) The song — a backhanded response to “Talkin’ Baseball” — has the romp-stomp of a Gary Glitter hit, combined with Grand Funk’s version of “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Helen Wheels” by Wings. And I’m sure Red Sox fans are having a ball with it. (And I have a feeling Ted would have roared with laughter.) But you won’t hear it on commercial radio, that’s for sure.

Anyway, this lets me get in a memory (among many) about the doomed Shea before the deluge starts — and to let you know about an album that will delight rock and baseball fans alike. I don’t dream of Willie Mays, but I do dream of recording a disc this clever one day. I’m just hoping, though, that this album is a one-season phenom and that they don’t try to make Vols. 2 or 3 — after all, it wouldn’t have been much fun if Bill Veeck made the White Sox wear shorts or sent Eddie Gaedel to pinch-hit every day …

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