Hipster Baseball

Tony Nelson

Marshall McLuhan once observed that baseball is a relic of pre-industrial, pre-assembly-line America. To be sure, baseball players are less specialized than many other athletes. They all share the same basic skill set: how to catch, throw, swing a bat. As befits a pastoral sport, they work with primitive tools made from leather and wood. They pay little heed to that tyrant of the modern world, the clock. And even when they are"working," they're usually just standing around.

Which is all another way of saying that if ever there was a sport suited to the rock lifestyle, it is baseball. This isn't strictly theoretical. For three years running, there has been ample demonstration of the rock-baseball connection on display at a certain baseball diamond in St. Paul.

The Sunday League, as participants refer to it, began as a game of catch between St. Paul's Craig Schultz and a few friends. "We hit the bars pretty hard three summers ago," recalls Schultz, one of the few players who actually look like they belong on a baseball diamond. "We talked a lot back then about how it's too bad nobody plays ball anymore. So we tried to get something going." As it turned out, a lot of guys--and a few women--agreed with Schultz. The afternoons spent tossing the ball around soon became a full-fledged game, attracting a rag-tag group of twenty- and thirtysomething music-scene types.

The Sunday ballers aren't all in bands. There's also a union organizer on the field, a web programmer, a few teachers, and a stonemason. But the majority come from the local music scene. Groups represented on the field include Superhopper, Heads and Bodies, Thunder in the Valley, Malachi Constant, Shoveldance, Koalas, the Vets, the Drama Club, and Die Electric! (the only band present in its entirety).

On one recent Sunday near the end of the season, the conditions are picture-perfect: 60 degrees with a lazy breeze and golden leaves. With their cheeks packed with sunflower seeds and three-quarter-length sleeves obscuring their tattoos, the players swagger up to the plate. They pull their caps down low and squint toward 60-mile-an-hour fastballs. Between swings, batters beat clay from their cleats and take a few well-rehearsed practice strokes. It is a replay of warm-up routines cultivated in the pee-wee leagues of their not-so-distant youth.

There are some differences from the old days. Most of the players smoke cigarettes, sometimes all the way to the plate before taking the first swing. As in the rock world, there isn't much of a premium placed on timeliness. Eric Marsh, guitarist for the Drama Club and utility infielder for Team Minneapolis, shows up about 45 minutes late for the 3:00 p.m. game start.

"Tied one on last night, eh, Marsh?" calls Die Electric! guitarist and Minneapolis first baseman Brian Shuey to his hungover teammate.

"Yeah, it was a great party," Marsh replies. "Where were you?"

Dave Gardner--the owner and chief engineer at Magneto Mastering and the bassist for local punk quartet Die Electric!--organizes the weekly game. Not that it takes much organization. The Sunday Baseball League sports just two teams, one representing Minneapolis, the other St. Paul.

"Most of us quit playing ball in high school because of all the assholes who played ball in high school," explains Gardner. "We're just here to have fun. Sometimes people come out here and they just don't get it. Everyone here gets it." Still, there are some traditions that must be adhered to. Metal bats, for instance, are eschewed. The crack of a wooden bat "just sounds so much better," says Gardner. Leave it to a musician to choose his sporting equipment for its sonic value.

After two five-game series, the two-team league is locked in a virtual dead heat. This game, a rubber match, is a 4-4 tie after six innings. But at the top of the eighth inning, another sound starts popping up: the umpire (usually a bench player for the batting team) calling, "Ball!" Team Minneapolis's pitchers are starting to lose their command of the strike zone, and a series of walks leads to a big inning for St. Paul. By the end of the game, St. Paul is celebrating an 11-4 rout.

"Whatever," grumbles someone from the Minneapolis bench. "We still smoke our cigarettes better than they do."

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