April is upon us and that means the return of Major League Baseball. To preview the new season, Billboard.com spoke to a panel of baseball fans from around the music world for a team-by-team preview of their favorite squads. The second day of “Play Ball” features a pair of native Minnesotans — The Hold Steady’s frontman Craig Finn and Baseball Project drummer Linda Pitmon — previewing their beloved Twins.
The musicians: The Hold Steady singer/lyricist (and occasional guitarist) Craig Finn is a native Minnesotan whose fandom goes back to the team’s World Series wins in 1987 and 1991. He recorded a Twins-centric take on “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and teamed with the Baseball Project for a rousing Twins anthem called “Don’t Call Them Twinkies.” The Hold Steady just released their sixth studio album, “Teeth Dreams,” last week.
Linda Pitmon is the drummer of the national pastime-aficionado Baseball Project, for which she plays alongside her husband, Steve Wynn, also of the Dream Syndicate. She grew up in Minnesota with a baseball-obsessed family and spent her high-school and collegiate years as a punk rocker with an affinity for sports like baseball and diving.
The team: The Twins are in the early stages of a lengthy rebuilding project. Since making the playoffs in 2010, the’ve lost over 90 games in each of the past three seasons. Most managers would have been sent packing after such a painful dry spell, but not the well-tenured Ron Gardenhire, who has led the Twins to six first place finishes since 2002. Help could be on the way. The small market club uncharacteristically dropped some cash this off season, on free agent pitchers Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco, who will try to shore up what was 2013’s worst rotation. They’ve also got some of baseball’s best prospects in the pipeline: outfielder Byron Buxton, third baseman Miguel Sano and, to a lesser extent, starting pitcher Alex Meyer. Just about the only reminder of past glory on the Twins’ roster is face of the franchise Joe Mauer, who will probably benefit from a move from catcher to a less physically-demanding spot at first base.
What was it like growing up and being a punk rocker who was into baseball?
Linda Pitmon: “Once I was in high-school, you kinda get pigeonholed into being a jock, a freak, a nerd, whatever, I was like, “That’s not all I’m into!” I was listening to punk rock and working at a record store in high school. It was kind of weird for them to see someone with this stupid new wave haircut also doing sports.”
“I went to Game 1 of the 1987 World Series, even though I was a punk rocker and it wasn’t considered very cool to like baseball. A friend of mine very sheepishly asked, “I have these tickets to the World Series. I don’t know if you wanna go…” And I was like, “Absolutely!” She was one of the first rockers that I finally let it out to. I think baseball is one of those sports that artistic people and intellectuals gravitate to. If we’re only into one sport, it’s usually baseball.”
How do you think the Twins will fare in relation to last year?
Craig Finn: “I think we’re going to be better, but that’s not a grand statement. We lost 96 games last year. I think we could lose 90 and that would be an improvement, but it wouldn’t exactly make me happy. But, it feels like they’re doing the right things. I like them moving Joe Mauer to first base. They made a couple of reasonable free agent signings — Phil Hughes and whatnot. It’s a small market team. We have to compete how we can, but I’m hoping we can get back to being competitive in the next couple years. We’ve got some great prospects coming up.”
Craig Finn sings “Please Don’t Call Them Twinkies,” backed by Pitmon and the Baselball Project:
What do you think about guys like outfielder Byron Buxton and third baseman Miguel Sano?
CF: “On Buxton and Sano, I don’t know enough at that level but what you read gives you reason to hope.”
Former Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes was one of the Twins’ big offseason acquisitions. How do you think he’ll do in his new surroundings?
LP: “He was a pretty massive disappointment (in New York). But he is definitely no slouch. It’s so mysterious to lose all that speed and he seems like a little bit of a head case. I’m curious to see how he’ll do, being in a smaller market, without all that pressure. He could be their number one starter if he pitched with his back to the plate, at this point. He’s gonna be a help, no matter what.”
How far away do you think the Twins are from contending?
LP: “A lot of them are unproven and some of them might surprise people, but I think they still have to acquire more talent. They’re unlikely to score a ton more runs than last year. They’re likely to stop the bleeding with better pitching, but I don’t see a whole lot. Hopefully they’ll spend a little money, because it doesn’t seem like they’ve had much luck bringing people up from the farm system, which has always been their tactic.”
What do you think of the recent performance of manager Ron Gardenhire? Normally teams don’t stick with a manager through so much rebuilding.
LP: “He definitely inspired the Twins for many years. It was obvious that he had a way with the team a few years back. I’ve been curious the past few years, wondering if that was still happening; Maybe it wasn’t just the players. Maybe they were lacking a connection with him. Maybe he’s burned out there. There’ been a lot of changes with the younger Pohlads (family that owns the Twins). A lot of that trickles down to player morale. I have a few little ins in that world and a lot of the people that work within the organization are potentially not as happy as they were a few years before. But I hope not — because I love the Twins and I love the new stadium so much. I hope I can get back a few times this summer.
Throughout the first decade of the 2000s, the Twins had some success in getting to the playoffs, but they always had issues getting past the first round, especially against the Yankees.
CF: “They really seem to have a hangup with the Yankees. Hopefully if they get back into the playoffs, they don’t play the Yankees or they get over it. They have a big hangup with the Yankees in the regular season, too. They just can’t beat the Yankees. I just think that’s a small town-kind of thing.”
Final thoughts on how they’ll do this year?
CF: “I’m optimistic for the future, just maybe not this year. At 42, you have enough perspective to take a 5-year plan.”
Check back on Billboard.com tomorrow, when “Play Ball” enlists Arizona native/Jimmy Eat World drummer Zach Lind to talk Diamondbacks.