In a recent interview with Cowbell Magazine, Mountain Goats songwriter John Darnielle says, "I grew up a geek, so I wasn't good at sports. A lot of us maintain those biases, but those biases are silly. Sports are awesome."
Darnielle doesn't appear on the new record by The Baseball Project, Vol. 2: High and Inside — which makes him one of the few sports-loving indie-rock luminaries who don't. The band — comprising Steve Wynn of The Dream Syndicate, Scott McCaughey of The Minus 5, Linda Pitmon of Golden Smog, and Peter Buck of R.E.M. — already has a star-studded Left of the Dial lineup, but it also has guests Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, Chris Funk of The Decemberists, and Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo pitching in contributions to the album.
What else besides the great American pastime could bring so many melodic rockers together? All 13 songs on the album are odes to baseball, and like the band's first outing, Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, Wynn, McCaughey, Pitmon, and Buck don't just stick to the big names and stories. With obsessive eyes for detail, they display an encyclopedic knowledge of the miscreants who play the game, the ballparks where it's played, and the myriad tragedies and comedies that color the sport's history.
It may sound like The Baseball Project is a band for die-hards only, but that's hardly the case. Like the game's best commentators, these performers don't solely spew stats and figures; they offer drama and pathos. The name of Indians shortstop Ray Chapman may not immediately stir feelings of sadness to the uninitiated, but it's impossible not to be drawn to the story of how he was accidentally killed by a pitch from Carl Mays, who narrates the song "Here Lies Carl Mays," detailing how that "killer pitch" haunted him the rest of his life, even as he went on to win the pennant for the Yankees.
Most of the songs here aren't that morbid or somber, though "Tony (Boston's Chosen Son)," with Tony Conigliaro's "grotesquely swollen eye," comes damn close. The Baseball Project is first and foremost a killer bar band, and its songs alternate among the kind of power-pop, Byrdsy-jangle, classic rock boogie, and rustic Americana you want to hear after your team wins — or loses.
"Ichiro Goes to the Moon," about McCaughey's belief that Seattle right fielder Ichiro Suzuki is secretly building a space ship, blasts off with Beach Boys-gone-punk abandon. "Fairweather Fans" opens with the couplet, "As a kid in Arizona, we didn't have our own team," and proceeds to detail the band's respective loyalties as they change ZIP codes over bouncy Motown clipped guitars. On "Don't Call Them Twinkies," guest Craig Finn takes lead vocals, and his diatribe about the disrespect afforded the Minnesota Twins sounds like a lost cut from The Hold Steady's last album, with Finn intoning, "I prayed more in the dome than I ever did at church."
As much fun as songs like "Look at Mom" ("Look out, Mom, I never want you to be another foul ball fatality") and "Panda and the Freak" (about Pablo Sandoval: "He's kind of like Bruce Lee if you cross Bruce Lee with a buffalo") are, it's the opening track, "1976," that really sells The Baseball Project's idea. Over chiming guitars, Wynn details the rise and fall of Detroit Tiger rookie Mark "The Bird" Fidrych. "What does it say for the rest of us when our heroes die and leave us alone? / What does it say for the rest of us when we wake up and find this bird has flown?"
As he writes in the liner notes (which really ought to end up in this year's Best Music Writing or Best American Sports Writing anthologies), "nostalgia is a funny thing."