Just in time for the start of baseball season comes the March 25 release of the Baseball Project's new album, ingeniously titled "3rd." Here are nine reasons -- like innings or players on a line-up card -- why you should care.
1. Their co-leader Scott McCaughey may be the best utility player in rock.
He's not a household name, but singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Scott McCaughey has racked up some impressive stats during his three-decade-long career, beginning with a stint leading '80s indie rockers the Young Fresh Fellows. Since then, he's served as an R.E.M. sideman from 1994 through 2011, co-founded the Minus 5, and played with and on records by Robyn Hitchcock's the Venus 3, Tired Pony, John Wesley Harding, Tuatara, former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck's two vinyl only solo albums, and others. Like a true utility player, he never hogs the spotlight and his contributions often go unappreciated by casual fans of the game, but those in the know realize he's a key ingredient in making whatever team he's playing for a success.
2. They include two former official members of R.E.M. in their lineup.
The seeds of the Baseball Project were planted during R.E.M.'s 2007 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in New York City by McCaughey and Steve Wynn, perhaps best known as the frontman of the Dream Syndicate. Throwing a curveball from the start, they invited R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck to play bass in the group. When Buck was sidelined with other obligations, they brought Mills into the lineup, but now both are members of the band.
"Mike played almost all the bass on the new record," Wynn says. "And Peter is playing tons of guitar, 12-string, banjo, and feedback and all kinds of guitar stuff. We recorded a good portion of the album as a five-piece together and it was so much fun. That's why I like this record so much. It just sound like what we sound like as a band. It's less of a concept record or a project and more just a really good rock band."
3. The title of their new album is partly inspired by Big Star.
Their latest effort is titled "3rd," a nod to Big Star's legendary "Third / Sister Lovers," and a bunch of baseball-related things. "Three is such a big number in baseball and on this record," Wynn explains. "Third base, three outs, three strikes; there are two songs that mention Babe Ruth on the record and he's on the cover [wearing his number three jersey], and yes, we're all Big Star fans. That's pretty funny as well. In fact, one of our members [Mills] is essentially in Big Star as well [performing in the Big Star's "Third" tribute shows around the world]."
4. They include one of the best love batteries in rock.
With Thurston Moore recently trading veteran indie rock goddess Kim Gordon for a younger player on the literary scene, we nominate Wynn and his wife Linda Pitmon as the coolest couple in rock. She holds down in bottom behind the kit in the Baseball Project as well as Wynn's band the Miracle Three. In baseball, the pitcher-catcher duo is known as a battery, and since Wynn and Pitmon are a couple, let's call them a love battery. Pitmon, by the way, was once in the Zuzu Petals, a band that also included guitarist Laurie Lindeen, who is married to Paul Westerberg of the Replacements. We'd like to see the former Zuzu gals drag their husbands into some sort of indie-rock version of ABBA -- satin jumpsuits and all -- but we doubt that would ever happen.
5. They know their stuff.
In his teens, Wynn worked as a journalist covering high school sports for a local paper, so he knows his way around a box score and baseball diamond. Yet Wynn says that Mills might be the band's biggest baseball fan. "He's got season tickets to the Braves," he says. "He goes to more games than any of us."
5. They're not just a group of homers.
Sure Mills, who spends a lot of time in R.E.M.'s home base of Athens, Georgia, is a big Braves fan, but the Baseballl Project isn't necessarily a group of homers who cheer for no one except for their hometown team.
Wynn, who first gained notice on the Los Angeles club scene fronting the Dream Syndicate, has a photo of Dodgers legendary ace Sandy Koufax as his Facebook profile photo, but he's since switched his allegiance to his adopted home town of New York. "I'm a big Sandy Koufax fan," Wynn says. "He's my favorite player, but I'm primarily a Yankee fan and I know that upsets a lot of my L.A. friends, because I'm an L.A. native, but I've lived here [in New York] for 20 years now. When I moved here, I took on the Yankees, so I could be behind a New York team, but they were terrible then. I'm always quick to point that out. Then they started winning and that was a lot of fun, but I still like the Dodgers."
The band's bio also lists their favorite teams along with their duties in the band. For the record, McCaughey's pick is the San Francisco Giants, Pitmon likes the Minnesota Twins and Buck's is the real head-scratcher -- the Washington Senators, not the Nationals, but the now defunct team that moved to Texas in 1971 and became the Rangers.
6. The new album features an actual ballpark organist.
Fenway Park organist Josh Kantor plays on a few songs on "3rd" and has played live with the Baseball Project in the past. Kantor went to college with current Dream Syndicate/Miracle Three guitarist Jason Victor and Wynn knew him as a keyboardist in various bands and then he eventually landed the gig as the official organist for the Red Sox. "He's had that job for 10 years and he's never missed a game," Wynn marvels. "He's a musician version of Cal Ripken [the Baltimore Orioles great who holds the record for playing in 2,131 consecutive games]."
7. The band made their official debut on "The Late Show With David Letterman."
"Our first real show, the first time we really played was on the David Letterman show, that's weird enough as it is," Wynn says, "and our first real full set was a festival in Spain. For a baseball band to play their first show in Spain was strange, but on top of that, Peter wasn't available, so Mike played that show."
8. They're the one band that should play a baseball stadium.
Every since the Beatles historic 1965 show at Shea Stadium, rock 'n' roll and baseball stadiums have become uneasy bedfellows. Sure, a promoter can pack tens of thousands of fans in for a single date, but few would argue that a baseball field is the ideal place for a rock concert. For the Baseball Project, however, there's not a better place for them to play.
9. They write great songs.
The new album is filled with tuneful tributes to America's favorite past-time from "The Day Doc Went Hunting Heads," a tale about the Pittsburgh ace's wild pitching, to the wonderful "Extra Innings of Love," which extends the baseball-as-sex metaphor into a lovely pop gem. There are also tales about other legendary players ("The Babe," "A Boy Named Cy," and "They Don't Know Henry") unsung heroes ("Larry Yount"), teams ("They Are the Oakland A's") and stadiums ("Monument Park"). In short, it could serve as your soundtrack to the entire 2014 season and beyond.