Why Almost Every Song About Baseball Is Terrible

Baseball fans will wear their favorite player's name across their back, as adults, before and after Halloween. They will fill their bookshelves with histories and biographies and fantasy guides the size of the yellow pages, and they will keep them long after the actual yellow pages have been recycled or stacked up in hoarders' living rooms.

They will almost always avoid baseball music, though. Because baseball music is almost always terrible.

Baseball and music get along very well in the abstract; before it was a really good way for drunks to embarrass each other "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" was a novelty tune about a baseball fan who tells her boyfriend to drop the date stuff and escort her to the ballpark, so she can yell at the umpire.

All the standing around between innings allows for the kind of musical interlude that in faster sports is limited to people slapping their knees for 15 seconds while "Cotton Eye Joe" plays during a TV time-out.

But "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" aside, the baseball-song canon has remained remarkably thin. It's not for lack of trying--in fact, it's mostly because of all the trying.

No national metaphor could survive unmolested from Walt Whitman to Bruce Springsteen, and baseball is no exception; in the 130 years since Whitman connected "base-ball" to our divine guts it's been drained of blood, sweat and specificity by generations of greeting-card caricatures of the sport as innocence lost or a pretty good way to spend Father's Day.

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Baseball the sport is filled with enough characters to populate the combined discographies of Tom Waits and The Hold Steady, which leaves all the players who weren't shambling Christ-figure derelicts to be divided up among a bunch of other bands. Baseball's first professional, Jim Creighton, took money under the table, invented the fastball by sneakily flicking his wrist, and died swinging the bat so hard he ruptured an internal organ. Ed Delahanty, the finest hitter at the turn of the 20th century, wandered out of a train and fell over Niagara Falls, and nobody knows why.

"We're born again / there's new grass on the field." Oh, because it's spring, I bet. Thank you, John.

Most songs do not need to be gritty short stories about shambling Christ-figure derelicts, but most baseball songs aren't about anything at all -- they're a thought-terminating cliche wrapped around the kind of one-word themes you'll find on posters beneath a motivational picture of a guy in a suit climbing a mountain.

The Baseball Project, playing Friday at the Oriental Theater, walk the narrow path between baseball as a dead metaphor and baseball players as larger-than-life heroes. If they're writing a song connecting the passage of time to baseball they're going to show their work--their lyrics feature specific old veterans playing out the string, not some ür-baseball-game in a watercolor twilight.

They're old veterans playing out the string themselves -- if you had an '80s college rock fantasy draft you might end up putting them together by accident -- so it was probably on their mind to begin with. But instead of coming to baseball from the outside, dropping it into the SYMBOLISM blank on their mad lib, they start with Mark Fidrych's dead arm and work outward.

They get baseball, and they get their own lives, and they've got a pretty good idea of the way those two narratives have connected. I've weaned myself off t-shirt jerseys, and my fiancee would just as soon I consolidate my Baseball Prospectus back issues, but I'll keep the Baseball Project around for the long months between October and March.

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