It’s a brand new baseball season, and you know what that means: the roar of the crowd, the smell of popcorn and the sound of yet another stadium DJ cranking up John Fogerty’s “Centerfield.” It’s a pretty great song, but there are dozens of other John Fogerty songs you’d rather hear at a ballgame, right? (Like “Born on the Bayou” – damn, now that’s a song, and it could have made a great theme song for Ron “Gator” Guidry.)
So maybe it’s time to give that put-me-in-coach ditty a rest and celebrate the tight connection between baseball and rock & roll. Batter up!
Bob Dylan, “Catfish” (1975)
Baseball stars had style back then, and so did rock stars. Like Dylan, Catfish Hunter was a backwoods boy made good, running off a string of 20-win seasons in the Seventies, smoking cigars and wearing alligator boots as a “million dollar man.” Dylan cut this tribute in 1975, but didn’t release it until the Bootleg Series box in 1991. By then, Catfish was already in the Hall of Fame.
The Baseball Project, “1976” (2011)
This indie super-group (featuring R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and the Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn) has made a career singing about baseball’s folk heroes. Their newest gem is a tribute to beloved Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, who died last year in a tragic farm accident. The Bird ruled the Dazed and Confused summer of 1976 with his long hair, raw power and weird habits (like talking to the ball). To this day, he remains the only baseball star cool enough to make the cover of Rolling Stone. Bird lives!
Chuck Berry, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (1957)
The guitar speeds up as Chuck Berry heads into the climactic final verse, when that brown-eyed handsome man (Willie Mays? Hank Aaron? Jackie Robinson?) wins the game with a home run. Chuck would’ve made a lousy sportscaster (“two-three the count”?) but that just adds to the excitement.
S.F. Seals, “Dock Ellis” (1994)
A psychedelic rock tribute to the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, the only man ever to throw a no-hitter while tripping on acid. On that fateful day in 1970, Ellis had stayed up all night with a groupie, doing drugs and listening to Jimi Hendrix records, when he realized he was scheduled to pitch. But it just added a little windowpane to his fastball, because he not only made it through the game, he made history. They don’t make them like Dock any more.
Beastie Boys, “Sure Shot” (1994)
This was a hit from the tragically strike-shortened summer of 1994: “I got more
action than my man John Woo / And I got mad hits like I was Rod Carew!” Rod Carew was one of the great singles hitters of the Seventies, but he was also a Panamanian black guy who converted to Judaism – which might have had a special resonance for the Beasties.
Darryl Strawberry with UTFO, “Chocolate Strawberry” (1986)
Lots of jocks have tried rapping over the years, from Shaq to the Chicago Bears, but nobody has sucked at it with the unique touch of the Mets’ Darryl Strawberry, who boasts, “Everyone in the stadium screams for me / Strike one, strike two, but no strike three!” He also boasts about his slick baserunning skills (“Looking for third base? Yo, I stole it”) which is especially funny if you ever saw the man play. Mets fans were outraged when they discovered that Straw had called in sick and taken the day off to record his hip-hop debut, but surely the results were more entertaining than a Mets game, right?
The Mountain Goats, “Cubs in Five” (1995)
John Darnielle vows that he’s never going to love you again, not until the Chicago Cubs win the World Series and “Bill Gates will single-handedly spearhead the Heaven 17 revival.” The Heaven 17 revival actually happened, but the Cubs in the Series – that one might still take a while.
Bruce Springsteen, “Glory Days” (1984)
Baseball fans always snicker at this one, just because Springsteen talks about the high school pitcher who would “throw that speedball by you / Make you look like a fool, boy.” There is, in fact, no such pitch as the “speedball.” But he gets points for trying, right? And it’s still a great song about getting older and telling boring stories of how awesome you used to be, which is in a long baseball-fan tradition.
Metallica, “Enter Sandman” (1991)
No matter how much you despise the Yankees, you have to admit this is the greatest relief-pitcher entrance theme of all time. At this point it’s impossible not to hear that long-building Kirk Hammet guitar intro without picturing Mariano Rivera walking to the mound – and he’s the Yankee that even Yankee-haters can’t hate.
Warren Zevon, “Bill Lee” (1978)
A few weeks ago, at a Red Sox spring training game, I spotted the great Bill “Spaceman” Lee in the stands, with a wild white beard and a “Fidel ’59” shirt. He still knows how to piss people off. Lee was one of the first baseball stars to embrace the whole sex, drugs and rock & roll lifestyle, always saying, “I’m a southpaw in a northpaw world.” He got suspended for admitting his fondness for the weed, although he swore he didn’t smoke it – he just sprinkled it on his pancakes. He was a big Warren Zevon fan, prone to quoting “Lawyers, Guns and Money” during high-stress situations, so Zevon repaid the compliment by naming this outlaw ballad after the Spaceman.
Elton John, “Rocket Man” (1973)
Atlanta Braves fan Elton used to dedicate his song to Roger Clemens in concert, saying he was rooting for a Braves-Red Sox World Series. It never happened, and in the wake of the Mitchell Report, it looks like Clemens was shooting up enough dope to make Elton look like a teetotaler. Maybe someday Clemens will convince everybody he wasn’t on the steroids – but I think it’s gonna be a long, long time.
The Dropkick Murphys, “I’m Shipping Up To Boston” (2006)
With its big, melodramatic Irish intro and lyrics written by Woody Guthrie, this Celt-punk rave made perfect intro music for Red Sox reliever Jonathan Papelbon – until he lost his fastball last season. The new Dropkick Murphys album is great, but from the looks of Papelbon in spring training, they might have to find a new closer to soundtrack.
Ultramagnetic MCs, “The Saga of Dandy, The Devil, And Day” (1993)
The Bronx kings give it up to the Negro League days, with Kool Keith, Moe Love and Ced G doing a typically strange hip-hop tribute to the old-school giants of black baseball: Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Leon Day and Cool Papa Bell.
The Tinklers, “Hank Greenberg and Jackie Robinson” (1994)
A wacko indie-rock folk ballad celebrating two of the bravest heroes in baseball history – the Detroit Tigers’ pioneering Jewish slugger and the Brooklyn Dodger who finally defied major-league segregation. It’s about the moment when Jackie, in the middle of his arduous rookie season, got a little pep talk from Hank Greenberg, who was in his final go-round.
Kid Rock, “Paid” (2000)
The Kid boasts, “I’m hittin’ home runs like Rusty Staub / I’m kinda anal ‘cause I ain’t no fuckin’ slob!” For the record, Rusty Staub hit only 292 homers, more than House of Pain’s man Wade Boggs (who hit 118), but not as many as the Beasties’ man Sadaharu Oh (who hit 868 in Japan). But Rusty Staub always looked cool, and sometimes that’s the important thing.