Q&A with Steve Wynn of the Baseball Project

I had the good fortune last week to talk with Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate, Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3) about his newest group: The Baseball Project (see previous post).

We talked music and baseball – what could be better? – and about the origins of the group, which includes Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, the Minus 5), Peter Buck (R.E.M.) and Linda Pitmon. The Baseball Project’s debut, Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, is better than thumbing through The Baseball Encyclopedia – it’s full of sharp wit, colorful storytelling and wonderfully crafted songs that strike a perfect balance of criticism and romanticism of the game.

So Much Silence: How’d the project come together?
Wynn: “The thing is Scott and I had both been thinking about doing a record about baseball for years. I’ve been talking with him for about five years. Linda, my wife and drummer in the band, she kept telling me to shut up and stop talking about it or someone would steal the idea. We got together at the R.E.M. party (pre-Hall of Fame induction) about a year ago and realized we both had the idea. It kick-started both of us to get going. Having a partner made it a lot more fun. We started e-mailing mp3 files of songs we were working on … and I was thinking, ‘Man, that’s pretty good.’ It was a friendly competition of writing something we care about and that made it happen in no time.”

SMS: You and Scott split songwriting duties, right?
Wynn: “We were intending on collaborating, but we wrote everything on our own, except for (bonus track) Blood Diamond. We have full intention of doing this for years, writing 50 volumes until we’re 110 years old. And we’re excited about writing songs with other musician baseball fans. We’re finding out about a lot of people we had no idea who were baseball geeks like we were.”

SMS: Like who?
Wynn: “Ira Kaplan from Yo La Tengo, Craig Finn from Hold Steady, Joe Pernice from Pernice Brothers, Steve Malkmus, Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie.”

SMS: Have you talked to them?
Wynn: “Before we made the record, we were going to involve input from a lot of other people. We did talk to Ira and Joe Pernice and Craig Finn and Barbara Manning. Some were busy … and we got so much momentum on our own we didn’t feel like waiting around. It went pretty fast. There is no shortage of stuff to write about.”

SMS: Was there a lot of research involved in writing?
Wynn: “The basic structure of the songs were from our own memories. But we had to fact-check a little bit. Harvey Haddix took a lot of research. I wanted to list all the people who have thrown perfect games, but I admit I don’t remember them all.”

SMS: How do you approach a project like this without letting the songs become sort of cheesy rah-rah anthems?
Wynn: “That’s easy. We don’t write that way. We’re not that kind of people. Scott and I have always written kind of dark, ironic – not sinister – but between-the-cracks kind of songs. We’re more drawn to write about people like Curt Flood or Ed Delahanty or Jack McDowell’s bender. We’re not geared toward writing rah-rah songs. We didn’t have a mission statement to write about more of the freaks, but that’s what we gravitate toward. There’s not a lot of happy stuff on there … not a Centerfield in the bunch. That’s a great song but not what we were doing.”

SMS: A lot of the songs are really great history lessons. Do you hope younger fans learn about the game from the album?
Wynn: “In fact, it’s funny because when This Week in Baseball ran the Harvey Haddix montage, I was watching and wondering, ‘Man, I wonder if some 12-year-old kid is watching this right now and wanting to look this up.’ And that’s what baseball is all about. I’ve got a nephew and when he was 10 we would talk about baseball and he would talk with complete authority. That’s the great thing about the game – it’s a mental scratching post to get out all these numbers in your head.”

SMS: Do you feel like you have to be a baseball fan to enjoy the album?
Wynn: “Not at all. And that was the point. It’s obvious we’re big fans and have been for a long time. All the songs are universal. Like the Curt Flood song. It’s a song about sticking your neck out on the line and blazing a trail for other people and them profiting from something you pioneered. Or the Jackie Robinson song … the pain of being the first to do something and having to shut your mouth. … These are all subjects that can fit to anything. The reality is once you explain the basic concept of a song it works for many different subjects.”

SMS: What about baseball lends itself to songwriting?
Wynn: “More than any other sport, it’s a game of individuals. You can’t say about any other team sports that you can excel even if your teammates suck. When you’re at bat, your teammates might not be able to hit, but you can still hit it out of the park. Being a game of individuals, a lot of the them are flamboyant, loud-mouth, cocky precocious players. And it makes for great individual players.

“Plus, the pace of the game allows you to talk to a buddy about the history and stories. It’s a real talking game. If you’re watching English football during World Cup, you better shut up. Baseball’s not that way. It’s about telling stories and having more obscure, more arcane reference points than next guy.”

SMS: There’s some pretty rich characters in the game.
Wynn: “Oh, yeah. There’s so many it’s incredible. We each knew people we wanted to write about. For example, we both wanted to write about Curt Flood. But Scott let me write my song. I took the reins on that one.”

SMS: Did you guys keep track of how many players you mentioned in the album?
Wynn: “A lot more were mentioned before we toned it down. On The Closer we had about 20 different relief pitchers named. Linda was our geek-meter … she kept us in check and would say, ‘You guys are going into the list-making arcane.’

SMS: Would another sport even have the same appeal, the same tradition if someone wrote an album about it?
Wynn: “I don’t think it would. Obviously, you can write about anything. If Sufjan Stevens can write a whole record about Illinois … That’s why I’m amazed at how few really good songs have been written about baseball. It’s such an American tradition and so ripe for Americana picking. I’m glad we got to it first. I can name baseball songs I really like on one hand. Dock Ellis (Barbara Manning), Catfish by Bob Dylan, Bill Lee by Warren Zevon. Those are great baseball songs.

“Now there’s probably 50 guys out there saying, ‘I was meaning to do that!’ I’m glad that person isn’t me.”


SMS: I want to hit you with a lightning round of sorts about topics baseball fans like to argue about.

SMS: Designated hitter.
Wynn: “Anti. Even though I’ve become more of an AL fan, I grew up in Los Angeles watching the Dodgers. I like strategy. I love the double switch. I love having to decide whether to let the pitcher hit.”

SMS: Interleague play.
Wynn: “Not that into it. It’s a lot of fun to have the White Sox play the Cubs or the Yankees play the Mets. But I liked it more when teams in the World Series hadn’t seen each other. I’m an old crusty traditionalist.”

SMS: Wild card.
Wynn: “Well, the only good thing there is you get more baseball. The postseason lasts longer. I kind of like that.”

SMS: All-Star Game determining home field for World Series.
Wynn: “Yeah, I don’t like that one very much either. I really love the All-Star Game, but I feel it should be more of an exhibition for fans than something that should determine postseason play.”

SMS: Should Pete Rose be in the Hall of Fame?
Wynn: “He should be in the Hall of Fame. For sure. Absolutely. I think Shoeless Joe Jackson should be. Rose blew it repeatedly where he could have been forgiven and that’s his thing. Same thing with Barry Bonds.

“But I went to the Hall of Fame last year and there’s so little in there about Rose. That’s wrong. He’s one of best hitters in the history of baseball.”

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