So there won't be a baseball strike. The question is, does anyone care? As contract talks dragged on during the last week of August, I can't honestly recall hearing anybody but newscasters talk about it. Among my sports-oriented friends, I heard more chatter this summer about the World Cup than about the travails of the sport that still sometimes has the nerve to call itself the national pastime. The most recent near-trainwreck has been averted, but the damage was long since done. Baseball has been on the decline in the U.S. for years now, and it's hard to think what will turn it around. Its desperate emphasis on ever-more-impressive shows of power, the maniacal pursuit of records and homeruns and 100 mph fastballs, has by all accounts produced a miserable group of steroid-addled athletes and cash-addled owners.
It's no wonder that as rock 'n' roll subject matter, baseball has been used in recent decades primarily to evoke nostalgia, faded youth and lost innocence -- Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days", John Fogerty's "Center Field", and so on. Chuck Brodsky's new CD is likewise backward looking. The Baseball Ballads is a collection of songs celebrating little-remembered heroes and goats, a smorgasbord of bizarro baseball history that serves as an affectionate antidote to the game's current ills. You have to be a real baseball fan to make an album like this, and maybe you have to be at least a former fan to fully appreciate it. But Brodsky's mix of comedy, tragedy, and sentimental storytelling will make a lot more sense even to a neophyte than the recent rounds of salary demands and profit-sharing negotiations.
Brodsky, who is probably best known for his biting road-rage anthem "Blow 'em Away", lives and records in North Carolina. But he grew up in Philadelphia, and it was there in the 1960s that he acquired his baseball jones, sitting next to his father and cheering himself ragged for a hometown team that almost always lost. That kind of dedication to hopeless causes is part of what real baseball fandom is about (just ask people in Chicago or Boston), and it inculcates an appreciation for the absurdity of sports and life alike.
Brodsky turns his eye for irony on the whole of baseball history, and comes up with some spectacularly improbable stories: the only white player ever to play in the segregated Negro Leagues ("The Balled of Eddie Klepp"); the only pitcher known to have thrown a no-hitter while tripping on LSD ("Dock Ellis' No-No"); the only Major League catcher to serve as a Cold War spy ("Moe Berg: The Song"). He also recalls watching Dick Allen, the Phillies' first black player, endure the constant boos of a racist hometown crowd ("Letters in the Dirt") and pays tribute to longtime Phillies broadcaster Whitey Ashburn. And on the album's most carefully researched song, "Bonehead Merkle", he manages to make the arcanities of a 1908 rulebook controversy both comprehensible and comical.
In short, Brodsky (who has an amiable Dylanish twang) sings about baseball the way it used to be: unpredictable, colorful, somehow laden with moral force. I suppose that's why a few years back he became the first folksinger to perform at the Baseball Hall of Fame-like that Cooperstown institution, he enshrines a game that mostly exists in memory. And given the choice between spending time with his winsome album or watching whichever hyper-bulked millionaires happen to make it to the increasingly misnamed World Series, it won't be a hard call for me.