Wednesday, March 25, 2015

TMFW 81 - We're Born Again, There's New Grass on the Field

In TMFW 29, in honor of Opening Day I walked through a few favorite baseball songs, then promised "[m]aybe I can save some for TMFW 81, right in time for Opening Day 2015."  I was being facetious and thought then that by week 81 there was no way I'd still be writing weekly music posts.  Surprise!  We are here, and baseball is back again.  (Well, my math was off by over a week - it's back April 6 when the Cardinals will start their quest against the hapless Cubs for their fifth National League Championship Series appearance in a row.)  So as promised 52 entries ago, here's the second post in what is now a baseball-related music series.
Rather than highlight some favorite baseball songs, this week we feature a whole baseball band, and (like the Masked Marauders of TMFW 27) it's a "supergroup" at that.  Calling themselves "The Baseball Project," the band is made up of ex-REM members Mike Mills and Peter Buck, Young Fresh Fellows frontman (and frequent REM contributor) Scott McCaughey, and the husband-and-wife team of Steve Wynn (ex Dream Syndicate), and Linda Pitmon.
The band has made three records so far - 2008's Vol. 1 - Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, 2011's Vol. 2 - High and Inside, and last year's 3d.  The striking thing about the albums, to me, is that they are somehow both tongue-in-cheek and fully earnest.  Their lovingly-made and free-to-listen website is testament to that, as is the wide variety of subject matter that they choose to highlight from baseball history. 
Among many other stories, the group pays respect to the mythology of Babe Ruth ("The Babe"), imagines how Jackie Robinson must have felt having to hold his tongue during his difficult first year in Brooklyn ("Jackie's Lament"), sings a Spanish song for Fernando Valenzuela ("Fernando"), tells of Larry Yount's (Robin's brother) tragic one-time-only major league appearance ("Larry Yount"), reflects on what Luis Tiant and Orlando Hernandez gave up to leave Cuba and join the major leagues ("¡Hola America!"), writes a love song to eating breakfast while reading box scores ("Box Scores"), and makes Dale Murphy's case to the Veterans' Committee for a spot in the Hall of Fame ("To the Veteran's Committee").  The band is fun - watch them play a half hour set for KEXP last year or see them on Letterman and that's evident - and the songs sound good.
So there's your TMFW for today: the non-Stipe REM guys made a band about baseball with some of their friends, and it's pretty good stuff.   We'll see you for round 3 of baseball music trivia in TMFW 134; until then, go Cardinals.
BONUS FACT:  Mike Mills is an ex-REM guitar player who fronts The Baseball Project.  Mike Mills (a different one) is an ex-minor league pitcher, too.  Michael DeWitt Mills played seven seasons of ball, from A to AAA.  His AAA line is not so great: 4.1 innings over 6 games, with an ERA of 22.85 (for those sabermetricians out there, his WHIP was 4.385).
BONUS FACT 2:  The Baseball Project's drummer Linda Pitmon got her start playing for the Minneapolis band ZuZu's Petals, which is named (of course) after George Bailey's happy discovery in It's a Wonderful Life. 
BONUS FACT 3:  There's no music part of this fact, but it's a delightful story.  Much like the "Curse of the Bambino" did to the Red Sox (for 84 years until broken in 2004) and the "Billy Goat Curse" is doing to the Cubs (70 years strong!), the Hanshin Tigers of the Japanese baseball league suffer a curse too.  It's the Curse of the Colonel, cast by the ghost of KFC founder and mascot Colonel Sanders (really!).  
The Tigers have been perennial losers in Japanese baseball, so in 1985 when they won their first Japan Series title their fans went crazy.  Celebrating on a bridge over a canal, the fans chanted the names of each of the team's stars, and then a person thought to resemble that player would take a celebratory leap from the bridge into the canal below.  (Apparently this made sense in the moment.)  That worked fine for most of the roster, which was overwhelmingly Japanese, but the crowd needed to improvise when it came to their American star slugger Randy Bass.  Bass lead the team with a .350 average and 54 home runs that year - in just 126 games - so he was a critical part of the celebration.  
Not having a suitable American doppelganger to jump off of the bridge, the crowd took a life-sized statute of Colonel Sanders from a nearby KFC and chucked it into the water.  (Oh wait!  Here's a music tie-in!  In 1992, Kurt Cobain hung out with one such statute on a trip to Singapore.)  That must have been something great to witness, but unfortunately the act of disrespect to the Colonel also unleashed a curse.  30 years later, the Tigers have been back to the Japan Series three times, and they have endured three defeats.

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