With the recent release of the pretty sweet documentary Baseball Punx, I had the opportunity to interview Steve Sladkowski of PUP and Rob Taxpayer of The Taxpayers. The interview focuses on the similarities between punk rock and baseball, and the general social impact both have on modern-day society.
First off where does your love of baseball stem from?
Steve: It comes from my dad. He played competitively when he was growing up. By the time my parents had me, we were living next door to a baseball diamond. I played pretty competitively as well, up until I was 18, at which point I decided to focus on music and became more of an obsessive fan.
Rob: In my case, “love” is probably the wrong word – it’s more of a healthy appreciation for baseball’s role in shaping our country’s culture, politics, and day-to-day movements. I’m not the kind of person that follows the ins and outs of every season’s statistics, and I probably couldn’t tell you the names of the top five hitters who are playing today, but I do enjoy listening to the occasional game on the radio on a hot, summer day. I grew up in a sports family – my pop was a successful college swim coach in Cleveland, Ohio, and we spent a large chunk of my youth following the Indians both at home and in the stadium. Part of my dad’s job was recruiting top swimmers from all around the world to come to Cleveland (of all places) to swim for him, and part of the recruitment process was taking swimmers from Panama, South Africa, Sweden, wherever, to Tribe games. We would take them up to the bleachers and hang out with John Adams, who my Dad taught how to swim, while John beat his giant bass drum. The swimmers that came from countries without baseball were always so bewildered by how slow the game was, but most of them came around to it, eventually. It helped cement in my mind the fact that baseball – and sports in general – can be a great equalizer, at their best. Something for all people, regardless of race, religion, gender, or ethnicity to rally around.
How did you get involved with Baseball Punx?
Steve: In true DIY fashion, Jak just emailed the band email account and asked if he could film an interview in Athens, Georgia with John DeDomenici (from Jeff Rosenstock’s band) and I said yes!
Rob: I met Jak on a Taxpayers tour several years ago in Savannah, Georgia, where I believe he was going to school at the time. He put on a show for us and a handful of local bands in his tiny apartment, and put us up for the night there. He was very welcoming. It is scary to open up your home to strangers for a show, and I have great respect for anyone that can do it gracefully. Years later I heard from him that he was working on a documentary about the intersection of punk and baseball, and he asked if I’d like to be a part of it in some way, probably because of the Henry Turner character I dreamed up for the book/album “God, Forgive These Bastards”, who was former big-time college pitcher. I told him I was excited to help out however I could.
Steve, being Canadian who is/was your favorite Blue Jay?
Steve: This is a tough question! Growing up, my favourite player was John Olerud. After that, it was Roy Halladay. Of course, José Bautista will always have a special place in my heart for what he meant to the franchise and for the greatest bat flip in the history of the sport.
Rob, who is your favorite MLB team and player?
Rob: Well, as I mentioned, I grew up as a Cleveland Indians fan, with all the pre-requisite confusion that comes with having Chief Wahoo as a mascot. They attempted to stymie the growing outrage about Chief Wahoo when I was a kid in the early 1990’s by introducing an additional mascot named Slider, who is this weird pink, fuzzy alien creature. I’m sure you’ve heard that they are finally fazing out Wahoo for good. My favorite player growing up was Kenny Lofton, the Indian’s center fielder, whose sneaky ability to steal a base from right under a pitcher’s nose dazzled me as a kid.
Over the years punk rock has progressed from angry aggressive form of music into a more inclusive expression of alternative lifestyle. Do you see baseball as the punk rock of the sports world in that regard? Becoming more inclusive, and diverse.
Steve: This is a tough question. I think a lot more can be done to welcome marginalized groups across all major sports. Having LGBTQ+ nights is a step in the right direction, as is the recognition of different ethnic groups that have meant a lot to the communities these teams represent, but I think that a lot more work needs to be done to unlearn the sort of aggressive and macho attitudes that are exhibited by players and often mimicked by sports fans.
For the sports fans reading this, the onus is as much on us to help create a more inclusive and welcoming environment at arenas and ballparks, rather than show our support for a t-shirt giveaway and specific themed night and act as though that’s doing enough for the year. Not that those specific nights aren’t great for community building and raising awareness but it’s the type of work that needs to be done all the time, you know?
As far as baseball itself being the most punk rock of the sports world, I sort of think the NBA is actually the leader of the four major sports in that regard. There is a significant conservative bent to baseball that, while seeming to run counter to the attitudes of many of its players, is given a lot of airtime in the media. Just think about some of the insane reactions to Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell kneeling for the anthem versus the way in which LeBron James and the Miami Heat led the response to the death of Trayvon Martin. Baseball has some work to do internally regarding the way it allows players to express their beliefs.
Rob: That is an interesting and generous way of looking at it. Baseball has sometimes been barely at the forefront of integration efforts, if only by a few years, ahead of other sports like football and basketball. Still no female players, although that may change very soon. I have some additional Cleveland pride for Justine Siegal in that arena. We’ll see what happens.
Rob, do you feel like there’s a place for sports in the world of Punk Rock? Why?
Rob: Certainly. Punk Rock is a big umbrella; if it weren’t, most of us wouldn’t be involved in it. If DIY punk can make a place at the table for everything from Wizard Punk to Afro Punk to Steam Punk to Cyber Punk Goof Punk, then it can absolutely make room for the sports nerds. DIY punk is built for people who like to nerd-out and obsess about their favorite things.
Steve, there are many parallels that can be drawn between punk rock and baseball. Why do you think these two thing intertwine so well?
Steve: I think a big part of the intertwining is the community aspect of it. It’s so easy to go to a baseball game, the same way one might go to a punk show, and spend three hours immersed in a communal experience with a group of strangers. People look out for each other in a mosh pit the way they look out for each other when a foul ball goes screaming into the streets. You could be perfect strangers to the people sitting behind you at a game, or standing behind you at a show, and find yourself at a bar around the corner after it’s done talking about everything you just saw. It’s pretty special in that regard!
Rob, where did the inspiration for “Atlanta’s Own” come from?
Rob: “Atlanta’s Own” is a part of a larger story about the life of a character named Henry Turner in that album I mentioned earlier, “God, Forgive These Bastards”. Early on in creating the story, I always imagined that a lot of Henry’s later resentments came from his time as a failed baseball player. It then became necessary to explain exactly where Henry’s life began to take a dive for the worse, so I pieced together this idea about a college game where Henry was the star pitcher, with Major League scouts present and hoping to sign him, only to see him permanently injure his arm on the last pitch of the game, dashing his Big League hopes permanently. It was tough to find a way to tell that narrative, until the idea popped up of having 2 different announcers tell the story of the game as it is unfolding. It was the trickiest song for us to put together on the album, with all the different time signatures and changes. I wish there was some kind of documentation of the countless hours we spent trying to piece it together in the basement of the Glitterdome, which was the house we practiced in at the time. It was really satisfying when it finally clicked. It is probably my favorite song that the Taxpayers have recorded, to date.
If you could choose any punk to play on your softball team. Who is your first pick? Whats your team name?
Steve: If Joey Ramone can write a song about beating a brat with a baseball bat, I’m gonna hope he can hit a curveball too. The team is called the Toronto Big Boppers, after the seminal all-ages punk venue that the city lost to the increasing tide of development and gentrification still washing over it to this day.
Rob: First pick is Joan Jett, who I hear is a big Orioles fan. There is a an old picture of her in ’70’s holding a baseball bat and sneering, looking like a complete badass. Team name…shoot, is “Last Place” taken?
Well there you have it, a couple of punk rockers’ thoughtful views of not only the MLB landscape but also the social and punk rock landscapes. Be sure to check out Pup’s latest release “The Dream is Over” released in 2016. Also check out Rob Taxpayer’s Song of the Week Club here.