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Mixing national pastime, music

Baseball Project still finding plenty of musical inspiration

By Jim Harrington, Bay Area News Group
Published: April 4, 2024, 6:02am

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Any baseball fan knows that music and the great American pastime overlap a bit. There are walk-up songs, after all, ballpark DJs and an organist playing pump-up tunes. And then there’s The Baseball Project, a guitar-centric quintet whose all-star musicians include half of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame act R.E.M. — five die-hard baseball fans who write, perform and record irresistible original songs inspired by their favorite sport.

Their debut album, “Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails,” hit it out of the park in 2008 with 13 engaging tracks offering up such songs as “Fernando,” about iconic Los Angeles pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, “Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays” — arguably the most beloved San Francisco Giant of all time — and “The Death of ‘Big Ed’ Delahanty,” which addressed the short life, but brilliant career of this early-era baseball power hitter.

Three albums later, the Baseball Project is still going strong, finding plenty of musical inspiration in a seemingly endless supply of decades-old stories and modern-day tales about the game.

“We are really big baseball fans,” said vocalist-guitarist Steve Wynn, who is best known for his work in the L.A. rock act Dream Syndicate in the ’80s. “We really do follow the game every single day of the season. It’s not even like where you’d think we’d have to say, ‘OK, time to put aside a little time to think about baseball.’ We think about baseball pretty often.”

That passion leads to an abundance of ideas for song topics. You’ll find “The Voice of Baseball,” about Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, “Screwball” and “Journeyman” on the band’s fourth album — “Grand Salami Time!” — which was released last summer

“There is never any shortage of ideas or material for things to write about,” Wynn said. “I wish all my other projects were that easy, because it is pretty natural and effortless with this band.”

Wynn is one of five all-stars in this three-guitar-driven rock outfit. The other members include vocalist-guitarist Scott McCaughey (the Fresh Young Fellows, the Minus 5) and drummer Linda Pitmon (Filthy Friends) as well as half the original R.E.M. lineup — guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills.

It’s a group with strong Bay Area ties, too: Buck was born in Berkeley; McCaughey grew up in Saratoga and Wynn is a UC Davis alum. So their performance at Menlo Park’s Guild Theatre in September — part of a 27-city national tour to support the new album — was a homecoming for the band, with plenty of local fans on hand for the show.

“I moved (to the Bay Area) in 1963, became a Giants fan instantly and then became an A’s fan, when they came in ‘68, too,” said McCaughey, who attended Saratoga High School before moving to Seattle to start the Young Fresh Fellows. “I liked having both teams there. They are still my teams.”

He talks warmly about some of his earliest experiences watching baseball here.

“I saw some great Giants teams in the ’60s, but they were always frustrated in the end,” he said. “But that was a great team to root for when you were a kid — Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry.”

Those Giants teams couldn’t quite get the job done, but the new guys who moved into the ballpark on the other side of the Bay quickly began hanging championship banners.

“That was good timing,” McCaughey said of the A’s move to the Bay Area. “I went to a couple of World Series games in ’72 and ’73. They won (the World Series) three years in a row which is amazing.”

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Wynn grew up in L.A., but favored the Reds and A’s over the Dodgers in his formative years — even before landing at UC Davis as a freshman in 1977.

“I went there with the full intention of being a sports writer,” he said. “Like Scott, I was into rock ‘n’ roll in high school and played guitar and wrote songs. But I did not think I was going to end up playing in a band professionally for the next 50 years. That didn’t seem like an option. Sports writing felt like the way I was going to be going.”

Wynn became sports editor at the college newspaper, but found the Bay Area’s thriving punk rock scene impossible to resist. He started spending much of his time driving back and forth to Berkeley and San Francisco to buy records and go to shows.

“I was seeing all those great shows in the Bay Area,” said Wynn, who lives in New York now and follows the Yankees. “My punk rock education was going to the Old Waldorf, Mabuhay Gardens — just whatever shows that were happening around there. After three years in Davis, I think I was still a sophomore, because all I wanted to do was DJ at the radio station, play in my new wave band Suspect — which was a forerunner to the Dream Syndicate — and go to concerts.”

Sports writing’s loss was the music world’s gain. Wynn delivered multiple memorable albums with the Dream Syndicate and other outfits as well as during his own solo career.

It was R.E.M. who brought the Baseball Project together — or rather, it was their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007 that did the trick. The musicians were celebrating the band’s honor at a party in New York, when McCaughey — an auxiliary member of R.E.M. who recorded and toured with the band for years — got to chatting with Wynn about this idea of recording some songs about baseball. The excitement grew as the conversation went on, and when they parted company, it was to begin writing new material.

“We both immediately dashed off three or four songs and were like, ‘Wow, these are really good. This is going to be cool,’” McCaughey said.