Dock Ellis felt his Pirates teammates were intimidated by the Reds. In turn, he thought the Reds disrespected the Pirates. On May 1, 1974, Ellis decided to do something about it.
Taking the mound to start the game against the Reds at old Three Rivers Stadium, Ellis plunked the first three batters, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Dan Driessen. With the bases loaded, Tony Perez had detected a pattern as he strode to the plate. Wary of being hit himself, Perez avoided four inside pitches, walking to force in a run. After Ellis fired two pitches at Johnny Bench‘s head, manager Danny Murtaugh came out of the dugout to remove him. Newspaper photos showed Murtaugh silently studying Ellis’s face.
Ellis’s baseball career was full of controversies. These included pitching a no-hitter while on LSD, being sprayed with mace trying to enter Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati and wearing hair curlers in the bullpen. How many fans remember the night he set out to mow down the Reds?
“This bird has flown.”
Remember how much fun it was to watch Mark Fidrych pitch in 1976? Or how sad you felt in 2009 when you learned of his untimely death at the age of 55? Nicknamed “The Bird,” he was the biggest sensation in all of baseball in ’76. That’s when he finished 19-9 with a major league-leading 2.34 ERA and an American League-leading 24 complete games, winning the Rookie of the Year award. However, it was his persona more than his pitching that took baseball by storm.
With his long, blond curly hair, Fidrych was an innocent, peaceful hippie in cleats, baseball’s version of Jonathan Richman. He would drop to his hands and knees and landscape the pitching mound. He would talk to the baseball, sometimes even pointing to where he wanted it to go. Oddly, telegraphing his pitch location in this fashion never seemed to help the hitter. If Fidrych came along today, his entertainment value would be the strongest argument against a pitch clock.
On April 13, 2009, Fidrych was found dead beneath his 10-wheel dump truck. He was working on the truck when his clothes got caught in a spinning truck part, suffocating him. It was sad, not only because of the obvious tragedy of a life lost so young, but because we found the players of his era so relatable compared to today’s players. Can you image Alex Rodgriguez owning and repairing his own dump truck? Me neither.
The Baseball Project
Remember Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park? Remember Pascual Perez getting lost on his way to Fulton County Stadium when he was scheduled to pitch?
The Baseball Project remembers all of these things and more. The Baseball Project are a “supergroup,” comprised of members of The Dream Syndicate, R.E.M., Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3, The Minus 5 and Filthy Friends. They are Peter Buck (six- and 12-string electric guitars), Scott McCaughey (guitar and keyboards), Mike Mills (bass), Linda Pitmon (drums) and Steve Wynn (guitar). All of their songs are about — you guessed it — baseball.
For those of you who like to categorize music, The Baseball Project might be described as indie rock or alt-rock. Because of the importance of the stories within, their songs are a tight three-to-four minutes, bereft of screeching vocals and long instrumental jams.
On August 23, they performed a 22-song set at The Thunderbird Music Hall and Cafe in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville section. Lawrenceville is a community of modest homes where, along with adjoining Polish Hill, Polish immigrants first settled when they descended upon Pittsburgh. The area has since been gentrified thanks to the music venues, coffee shops and art galleries strung across Butler Street. Those immigrants couldn’t afford these humble homes today. The Thunderbird itself was remodeled, taking out the second floor to create a music hall with a capacity of 380.
“This song is about baseball.”
On this night, a near-capacity crowd eschewed the Republican primary debate and turned out for the show. Once the opening band Rex Tycoon concluded its brief set, fans stood planted for fear of losing their spots when the headliner emerged. The Baseball Project took the stage and went to right to work with a raucous version of “Erasable Man,” featuring the first of many blistering guitar solos by Wynn. Wynn and McCaughey shared lead vocal duties on this night, except Mills sang “Stuff,” a song inspired when a major-league pitcher told him 75 percent of the pitchers in the majors were doctoring the ball, and Pitmon sang “Pascual on the Perimeter” followed by enthusiastic applause. I used to think Ringo Starr, Levon Helms and Nick Zeigler (Google him) were the only drummers who should sing. Pitmon is quite good herself.
I was struck by how heavy their sound was in a live concert, compared to their records. This had the feel of a Dream Syndicate concert. Buzzsaw guitars sped along, augmented by the new wave keyboard sound I loved in so much early 1980s music. One doesn’t even have to be a baseball fan to enjoy their music. Indeed, I spoke to a few fans who don’t follow baseball. Many told me they were Pirates fans in the ’70s, but not so much since.
Occasional comic relief was provided by Mills with his “dad” jokes and McCaughey, who introduced one song by deadpanning, “This song is about baseball.”
It’s hard to pick a highlight from this evening. McCaughey said Pittsburgh was the only stop on tour to greet “The Day Dock Went Hunting Heads” with wild applause. I would add it was well deserved. Other high spots were “1976,” a lament about the passing of Fidrych, and “Harvey Haddix,” which names every pitcher to throw a perfect game. As you know, Haddix isn’t one of them, although he did it for 12 innings.
Of course, The Baseball Project also performed songs about baseball’s superstars, too: Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Shohei Ohtani, Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams. They know of what they sing. Ardent fans as they are, they expressed dismay from the stage when a fan informed them of Ohtani’s injury earlier in the day.
The set list for the show is here. I highly recommend seeing this band when they stop by your town. Photos on this page by yours truly. Steal them at your own peril.