From walk-up songs to seventh-inning stretches, music and baseball are inextricably interwoven. The Spin Rate is a look at the stories behind the bands and artists who share a love for the sport, and the songs that draw inspiration from the annals of baseball lore.
Ozma – “Baseball”
You don’t need this column to tell you there are a litany of songs that reference baseball; the sport evokes its fair share of musical inspiration—in hip-hop and in rock ‘n’ roll, in tender folk and driving punk. But few songs brave taking up the eponymous mantle of “Baseball,” and few capture the fervent highs, pensive lows, and aching nostalgia of the national pastime quite like Ozma’s contribution to the game’s songbook.
I caught up with Ozma vocalist and bassist Daniel Brummel for this edition of The Spin Rate with an interview about fond Dodgers memories, a youth ball career as “Mr. Contact,” and the origins, inspirations, and AOL instant messaging sessions behind “Baseball.”
Q: How did baseball first come into your life? Did you have a favorite team growing up, and if you did, what made you latch onto them as a fan?
A: Baseball was always a part of my life, as far back as I can remember. It’s the greatest game; none of the others even come close. I’m a third-generation Los Angeleno, and so a love of the Los Angeles Dodgers was passed on to me naturally, mainly through my father, his brother and three sisters, and his parents.
My dad was born in 1947, and so he recalls the excitement he felt as a 10-year-old when Walter O’Malley moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. My own youth is chock full of fond Dodger memories, as well. The standout, of course, is the ending of Game 1 of the World Series on October 15, 1988, exactly one month after I had turned seven years old. Dad and I were watching the game and finishing dinner in our TV room when it sure looked like the Dodgers were going to lose Game 1, down four runs to three in the bottom of the ninth with two outs.
Kirk Gibson was hurt in both legs and limping and hobbling around, but Tommy Lasorda still brought him up off the bench to pinch-hit against closer Dennis “Eck” Eckersley of the Oakland Athletics, which lets you know just how much of a clutch hitter he really was. He fouled off four pitches, took three balls outside, and the count went full. How much more dramatic can a pitch get?
I love Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola’s call of what happened next:
“All year long they looked to him to light the fire, and all year long he answered the demands, until he was physically unable to start tonight, with two bad legs, the bad left hamstring, and the swollen right knee. Talk about a roll of the dice? This is it. If he hits the ball on the ground, he’d be running at 50% to first base. The Dodgers are trying to catch lightning right now. He was complaining about the fact that with the left knee bothering him, he can’t push off. Well now, he can’t push off and he can’t land! He’s gotta use all arms. He’s a threat now, even with two strikes. Gibson’s so banged up, that he was not introduced. He didn’t even come out. No wheels! He almost has to talk to his legs and say, hey let’s go, we gotta get outta here. It’s one thing to favor one leg, but you can’t favor two, and that’s what he’s trying to do. Gibson’s shaking his left leg, making it quiver like a horse trying to get rid of a troublesome fly. And a high fly ball into right field … she is … GONE!”
My dad literally jumped out of his seat on our couch and screamed at the top of his lungs, just like Lasorda did. I remember being physically scared of my Dad in that moment, because I had never seen such a massive outburst from him. It was the loudest sound I had ever heard a human being make up close, and in the first microsecond before I realized what had happened, I didn’t know what to make of it. Then I realized we had won the game, and I celebrated too.
“In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened,” Vin said. It truly was my archetypal “shot heard ’round the world,” on par with Bobby Thomson’s October 3, 1951, walk-off homer to win the NL pennant for the New York Giants against the Dodgers when we were still in Brooklyn. It altered the space-time continuum for me forever, and cemented my love of the Dodgers and of baseball in general as a young player.
Gibson was only the second player ever to get a walk-off hit in a World Series game in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, after Cookie Lavagetto in 1947. It has only been done once since, in 2020 by Brett Phillips.
Q: Did you play baseball in your youth? If you did, what position did you play, and do you have any favorite memories from your playing days?
A: Yes, Dad was eager to see me play and got me into tee-ball as early as he could, when I was 5.
It was in the East Pasadena Little League (now dissolved) that played at the beautiful Victory Park across the street from Pasadena Alternative School and Pasadena High School, which I attended from kindergarten through eighth grade. I progressed from tee-ball through the various divisions of farms, minors, and majors, plus one year of PONY ball when I was 13. I played eight seasons in all.
In the minors, they called me “Mr. Contact” because I got the bat on the ball with frequency. I moved around and played quite a few positions, initially settling in as a third baseman and then moving to first and getting a bigger glove.
In the majors, my team was the Dodgers for three years under a great coach named Jerry Levin. Jerry trained me up as a catcher, so I went out and got a jock strap, cup, and all the pads and protectors. I caught for a very strong pitcher, Mike Andric, who could throw heat of about 85 mph at the time and also had a mean breaking ball, which made him essentially unhittable for the age range. I caught a no-hitter for Mike, and I still have the game ball. I also definitely took a couple of his fastballs to the nuts. Fun times!
I always felt a connection between baseball and music. I mean, come on: the sport has an official song that the entire stadium sings together during the seventh-inning stretch.
I grew up with the sound of the great Nancy Bea Hefley on the organ at Dodger Stadium, before she passed the baton to Dieter Ruehle. I remember writing out lyrics to “Time of the Season” by The Zombies in the infield dirt with my cleats during boring games.
I also remember April 8, 1994, the day the news reported that Kurt Cobain had died, three days after he had committed suicide; I went to baseball practice in my Nirvana “In Utero” shirt, and the other players looked to me for a response, because they knew I loved his music and was already dreaming of getting involved in alternative rock myself. One kid on my team (Zack Acker) and his three brothers sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” in solid four-part harmony before the All-Star games, which I made the cut for a few times.
I hit for a strong average, but I couldn’t exactly hit for power. I hit a lot of line drives, doubles when I was lucky, but was a bit chubby and didn’t have the speed to regularly turn triples.
My greatest moment as a player, though, was when I was 12 years old during my last year on the Dodgers in the Little League majors. We had made the playoffs, which meant we started to play the champs from other Pasadena area leagues, like Pasadena American Little League (which is still around). They were three-game series, and in the first round we were tied at one game apiece with a team called the Trojan Battery, named after their sponsors.
In Game Three, down by one run, I finally connected and hit a two-run homer over the fence to put us up by one, and we wound up winning the game and the series. It was the only homer I ever hit, but it came when it really counted — in the clutch, like Kirk Gibson.
We continued on to the next round, but we lost the first game of the next series, and the second game was scheduled at the same time as my audition for the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. My coach was very understanding of how much music meant to me, and he let me take the game off to try out for LACHSA. The team lost the game, ending our season, and I always felt personally responsible.
It was a turning point in my young life, in which I decided to pursue music more seriously than baseball. In this way, baseball and music were always intertwined for me, and perhaps tied only with video games as the great diversions of my youth.
Q: Can you walk me through what the songwriting process looked like for “Baseball?” Where in the timeline did the song come together during the making of “Rock and Roll Part Three?”
A: Ozma formed in September of 1995, and “Baseball” was a rather early song for us.
Just prior to Mother’s Day in May of 1996, I had sketched out a song for my mom on my Casio MT-100 and recorded it my Fostex XR-5 four track. Originally being about love of family and home, it began with the line “When I feel the morning grass, I let down my guard, because love comes from the dirt in my own backyard.”
I played it for my mom on that Mother’s Day, which was one of only two times I remember my music making her cry. (“The prodigal son returns,” she would say seven years later as I’d pull back in to their driveway on the tail end of a rock ‘n’ roll tour.)
Ryen Slegr and Jose Galvez were co-writers on the song, and we finished the chorus lyrics over AOL Instant Messenger, with the rhymes “Can you still remember/April to November/You and I were members/The best team in baseball.” I remember my Dad remarking that the line “Every time I think I finish being young, I catch myself having fun” was a feeling that people of all ages could relate to.
We finished writing the song in time to make it a staple of our early live sets, and I engineered a full-band live recording in the Henry Mancini Electronic Music Laboratory at LACHSA, which made it onto our first CD, “Songs of Inaudible Trucks and Cars,” which was not exactly a proper album but a hodgepodge mixed collection of home demos, studio tracks, and live recordings.
“SOITAC” recently saw a cassette re-release on Ororo Records in Indonesia — they still love it over there! Then we recorded a proper studio version with producer Bruce Witkin for “Rock and Roll Part Three.”
Q: Where did the inspiration come from to write a song using baseball as a central metaphor?
A: Somewhere along the line, in one of Ozma’s songwriting sessions, the morning grass and dirt of my parents’ backyard morphed into the outfield grass and infield dirt of the ballfield. We were very into experiments in wordplay at the time, and I got excited about the possibilities inherent in framing a song around my favorite sport. (“The cross is in the ballpark,” said Paul Simon in “The Obvious Child.”)
Pretty much all of Ozma’s songs from that era were either about unrequited love or romance gone wrong, and “Baseball” was no exception. The bridge was about Amy Hurst, one of the first girls I had ever kissed. We met at the California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA) in July of 1996. Her nicknamed was “Gorilla” because the Michael Crichton book and movie “Congo” were out at that time, which are centered around a gorilla named Amy. (Ozma’s song “Rain of the Golden Gorilla” was also about her.)
After summer school, Amy went back to Redding and I went back to Pasadena, which explains the line “So I drive straight up I-5 to let you know I’m still alive.” Between the Mother’s Day melody, the lost girlfriend, and the ballfield, the song covers a lot of ground.
Q: When the song was released, and looking back on it now, how do you feel about “Baseball” and its place in the Ozma discography?
Great question. I began to write the song when I was just 14, so it certainly qualifies as juvenilia, but so does most of our early work. Hopefully that naïveté is what some people find endearing about it.
When we wrote and released it, I think we were pleased to have an epic, cinematic closer as a singalong to end our live set; “Battlescars” was the other early song that fit that mold.
The chorus groove and chord changes (1-4-5-4) are suspiciously close to “Undone (The Sweater Song)” by Weezer, but they can’t claim to have originated those changes either: “Louie Louie” by Richard Berry, “Wild Thing” by The Troggs, “La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens, “Stand” by R.E.M., and many others use the same pattern.
“Baseball” certainly served its purpose for us, and it’s a known fan favorite. I would struggle to listen to it now, and cringe at certain aspects, but looking back on it I’m glad it exists. It encapsulates a special time for me.
On Father’s Day 2020, my family got together and watched Field of Dreams. I had to hold back tears the entire time, thinking of playing catch with my Dad and the baseball-themed birthday party my parents threw me when I was eight years old.
Baseball and rock ‘n’ roll are America’s two greatest pastimes. I’m glad I was able to bring them together in a song.
(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Photos by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire & Dorien Monnens on Unsplash | Adapted by Michael Packard (@artbyMikeP on Twitter & IG)