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For one Jewish rock ’n’ roll legend, loving Sandy Koufax and R.E.M. is not a contradiction

With The Baseball Project supergroup, Steve Wynn has found a way to embrace his two passions

“It used to be that you either liked sports or you liked music,” says Steve Wynn. “But something has happened in the last 15 years, where it seems like all of a sudden every musician loves baseball. Of course, all of them always did, but you just didn’t hear about it; as Peter Buck says, we were trained to believe that jocks were the enemy. But now things have changed — and I think The Baseball Project takes full credit for it.”

Though he delivers the above punch line with a tongue-in-cheek chuckle, Wynn isn’t entirely kidding; no band has ever done a finer or more committed job of fusing baseball and rock ’n’ roll than The Baseball Project, an alt-rock supergroup featuring Wynn (Dream Syndicate), his wife Linda Pitmon (Filthy Friends, Zuzu’s Petals), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows/Minus 5) and R.E.M. members Peter Buck and Mike Mills.

On their long-awaited fourth album, Grand Salami Time (Omnivore Recordings) — their first since 2014’s 3rd — The Baseball Project continue to do what they do best, saluting baseball legends like Josh Gibson (“Erasable Man”), Jim Bouton (“64 and 64”) and Vin Scully (“The Voice of Baseball”) with witty, hook-filled, guitar-heavy songs. Produced by the legendary Mitch Easter (Let’s Active, R.E.M.) at his Fidelitorium Recordings studio in Kernersville, North Carolina, Grand Salami Time is the band’s strongest outing yet, one you don’t even need to be a baseball fan to really enjoy.

“I’m very proud of all our three previous ones,” said Wynn, “but this is kind of a different record. Maybe it’s the playing, maybe it’s the production, but it just feels like more of a band record. The other ones were more like projects, where we found a good team to sing the songs. But this one is by a band that’s now played together a lot; and even though we sing about various sides of one subject, we are a rock ’n’ roll band. And think about how many bands we all love where you don’t know what the hell they’re singing about. I’m sure people have varying interpretations of R.E.M. songs because Michael Stipe’s very cryptic in the way he writes; we’re just being cryptic about this weird alternate universe where people hit a round ball with a round bat.”

Baseball Project songs also aren’t just about specific players or luminaries. On Grand Salami Time, the subjects range from the really granular — like the Mike Mills-penned “Stuff,” which is about the different ways pitchers doctor the ball — to the big-picture, like “Having Fun,” an elegy for the days when players actually seemed to be enjoying (and expressing) themselves on the field.

The members of The Baseball Project at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Courtesy of The Baseball Project

And then there’s “Disco Demolition,” which examines one of MLB’s most infamous promotions: the detonation of a mountain of disco records between games of a 1979 Tigers-White Sox doubleheader at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, which resulted in a fan riot and a White Sox forfeit of the night’s second contest. (An animated video for the song, created by James Blagden of “Dock Ellis & The LSD No-No” fame, drops July 12, the 44th anniversary of the infamous event.)

I spoke to Wynn — the Baseball Project’s lone Member of the Tribe — about the band’s origins, his journey through baseball and music fandom, “Disco Demolition,” and the insertion of a certain Yiddish word into one of the new album’s songs. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s go back to the beginning of The Baseball Project — what inspired you folks to put this thing together?

R.E.M. was getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, and they threw a really great party the night before at a fancy Manhattan restaurant; it was totally catered and open bar, and they invited all their friends and family and people they knew from all over the years, and that included me and Linda. I’ve known all of them for a long time, but Peter and I have been especially good friends over the years. And so we were there at this party, it was great time, and at the end of the night — as has happened many times since then — the last three holding up the bar were me and Linda and Scott. [laughs]

I never really knew Scott, even though we’d been doing the same circuit and had a lot of friends in common. We were fans of each other’s music, but we’d never actually hung out. But we got into baseball talk and yakking about this and that, as baseball fans will do. And at some point I just said, “You know, Scott, I have always wanted to write an album centered around baseball.” And he said, “Me too!”

So we said, “Let’s trade some songs” — and typically when you say that, it’s like saying, “Let’s do lunch.” But we were both so excited about the idea that in the following week we started sending each other songs rapid-fire, like three a day. I always knew I wanted to write a song about Sandy Koufax, about Fernando Valenzuela, about Curt Flood, about Ted Williams, but I hadn’t actually written the songs. It might have been the same for Scott, but that was definitely the catalyst we needed. And then Peter joined in because he and Scott do everything together, and then Mike subbed for Peter at our first real show, which was a big festival in Spain; Mike’s a huge baseball fan, so he was kind of in the fold from then on.

You gave a couple of ballplayers a shoutout on “Song for the Dreamers” from The Lost Weekend, the 1985 album you did with Dan Stuart of Green On Red as Danny & Dusty. Was that your first song to include baseball references?

I guess so, yeah! It mentions Ryne Duren and Ryne Sandberg, and I’m not even sure why — we wrote that album in like two seconds — but they’re in there for some reason, along with Al Capone and Fred Gwynne. And then on my first solo album, Kerosene Man, the title has a verse about Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial and a guy batting .360 in Birmingham. So those were the test runs for what came later.

When did you first fall in love with baseball?

It’s weird. I’ve been a music fanatic — geek, historian, you name it — since I was about 6 years old. I’m 63, so I grew up in that great era of AM Radio when it was all like Motown and Beatles and Stones, blah, blah, blah, and I wasn’t a sports fan at all. But something clicked around the early ’70s, and I started going to Dodger games; all of a sudden, my attention started shifting a little from music and more towards baseball with every year. My best friend, his dad had season tickets behind home plate at Dodger Stadium, so maybe that was what triggered it a little bit. But I fell for it hook, line and sinker. I went from playing guitar, writing songs and dreaming of playing ’em in some garage band to wanting to being a sportswriter almost overnight. By the time I was 13 or 14, it was all baseball, all the time.

I was on the fast track to being a sportswriter. I was the sports editor for my high school newspaper, but I was also writing sports for a local newspaper called the Santa Monica Evening Outlook. I was pretty good at it, and I went to college thinking, “If I could end up writing for Sports Illustrated, that would be the dream achieved!” But I started college in 1977, the year punk broke, and that changed everything for me. It was just like, “Sports is fine, but gimme some Sex Pistols and The Clash. That’s what I’m looking for!” And that got me full-on back into music, into being obsessed with it and playing it and wanting to be in bands again.

Sandy Koufax plays in an ‘Old Timer’s Game’ on July 22, 1979 in Los Angeles. Photo by Getty Images

As a Jewish kid growing up in Los Angeles, were you aware of Sandy Koufax? Or was that just a little too far before your time?

It was before my time, and I didn’t connect to Sandy Koufax in that way until later. He’s probably my favorite baseball player of all time, but for a lot of reasons — obviously the Jewish connection, but I also loved the arc of his career and the mythic way that he went out on top, you know? It’s kind of a “better to burn out than fade away” thing, but without the tragic ending. But no, I didn’t have that connection. I was bar mitzvahed, I went to Hebrew school, the whole thing; but as a music fan, I didn’t think, “Oh, I’m gonna identify with Bob Dylan.” And I didn’t identify with Leonard Cohen or Lou Reed, because I didn’t know about them back then. I didn’t have any kind of Jewish connection to music or baseball till later on. Since then, I’ve learned to really appreciate Hank Greenberg and everything in his career — and Sandy Koufax, of course.

On “Having Fun,” you give a nod to your Jewish heritage by working shpilkes (nervous energy) into a couplet: “We all end up on the autograph circuit/All those shpilkes, were they really worth it?”

I’m very proud of that. That’s probably one of my favorite lyrical things I’ve ever done, getting shpilkes into that song. [laughs] You’re the first person to pick up on that, which makes me very happy.

Let’s talk about a bit “Disco Demolition,” which takes a pretty even-handed approach to recounting that night and how it got out of hand, but also doesn’t shy away from offering an opinion on what happened.

That song is a good example of what’s really fun about this band, but also challenging. You’ve got three verses to explain the concept, to tell how it all went down, and then make some kind of statement about it. In a way it’s getting back to what I was doing in sports writing — “What’s the angle? What do you want people to take away from this? Don’t get too convoluted or confusing, and then wrap it up and put a 30 at the end and we’re done.”

And in the third verse of “Disco Demolition,” I very much wanted to say that it wasn’t just a wacky thing. At the time, we all sort of said, “Oh, isn’t that crazy? Can you believe that happened?” But over time, a lot of us have realized that it’s a very ugly thing to be singling out a specific kind of music, and that there was definitely a racist and homophobic undercurrent with the whole thing. And as I’m saying in the song, it wasn’t just people saying, “We hate disco!” — people were bringing Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder records and blowing them up, too.

But at the same time, we’re not saying “Bill Veeck’s a bad guy, Steve Dahl’s a bad guy, the White Sox are a bad team,” etc. Ok, Steve Dahl hated disco, but so did a lot of rockers back then; that in itself wasn’t a horrible thing. I just think that Dahl unwittingly struck some kind of nerve without thinking about the ramifications, and what happened happened.

The infamous Disco Demolition Night, held at Comiskey Park on July 12, 1979, is the subject of one of The Baseball Project’s songs. Photo by Getty Images

The success of The Baseball Project has enabled you to cross paths with a lot of folks from the baseball world. Have you had any particularly memorable MLB encounters?

That’s a good question. We always wish more players would be fans of the band, though we definitely have a few. Lenny DiNardo, who pitched for the Red Sox in the aughts — he’s a fan of the band and he’s the inspiration for “Stuff.” We were hanging out with him at a ballgame, and Mike asked him, “What percentage of pitchers do you think actually doctor the ball?” And Lenny said, “I’d say about 70%.” It was like, Holy Cow — what a revelation from the inside!

We’ve been really championed by Len Kasper, who’s a broadcaster for the Cubs [and now the White Sox]; he’s actually had us up in the booth, and fun stuff like that. We’ve met Larry Yount, who loves the song that I wrote about him; and Harvey Haddix’s widow Marcia loves our song about Harvey, and she wrote us some nice letters about that.

But I’d say my favorite of all is Jack McDowell, who has become a friend and a fan. He likes the song “The Yankee Flipper” that Scott wrote about him [giving Yankee fans the finger], but he’s also kind of embarrassed about it. We did a show in San Diego, where he was living at the time, and we got him to come on stage and do an intro for the song. He was very sheepish about it, like, “So, this thing happened. I’m not proud of it.” And we were like, “Come on, Jack. Own it. Lean into it!” [laughs]

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