Trips to the mound are no big deals in baseball, as they happen all the time. Trips on the mound, well, that's a different story, one that left-field troubadour Todd Snider relays so well with America's Favorite Pastime , an easy-breezy folk ode to the late Dock Ellis, from Snider's first-rate, country-blues flavoured new album The Excitement Plan .
As legend has it, Ellis, an iconoclast like Snider, pitched a gem under the unforeseen power of LSD for the Pittsburgh Pirates against the home team San Diego Padres on June 12, 1970. The game's box score will show halos, as in zeros, under the hit column for the Padres - no swatted balls for them went for singles, doubles, triples or big flys. Better baseball through chemistry? Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez - modern ball players, alleged steroid users all - have nothing on the quirkily outspoken Ellis, the rare athlete who was a counter-culture crossover hero.
Dock Ellis didn't think he was pitching that day back in 1970/ When he and his wife took a trip to the park a little bit differently . The idea for Snider's song came to him while he was backstage at a jam-band hippie-style festival. One of the performers intended to play his show with the help of hallucinogens, which got Snider to thinking: "What if other people did that before they had to work?" Snider, a baseball fan, did a little bit of research - "I pulled up the box score, I got my innings right" - but mostly "it just sort of fell out," he says from his Nashville home.
America's Favorite Pastime isn't the first song about Ellis's nutty no-no (San Francisco indie-rocker Barbara Manning, with her baseball-referencing band S.F. Seals, wrote one, as did singer-songwriter Chuck Brodsky), but Snider's ball-diamond ditty is more than just a recap. The chorus - "You can't judge a book" - has to do with the snap evaluations people make on the drug-taking youth of the world. "I never understood that," says Snider, not always clean and sober himself, "so I'm sticking up for all those 20-year-olds who get [messed]up at festivals."
By the time he mowed the last man down, he was high as he'd ever been/ Laughing to the sound of the world going around, completely unaware of the wind . Since his acclaimed debut Songs for the Daily Planet in 1994, Snider has been something of a long-haired Will Rogers - a plain-spoken philosopher, a drinking companion, a wry social commentator, a common man's champion. He sees Ellis, a reformed alcoholic who died late last year of cirrhosis of the liver, as an "ill-prepared type of person." Does he see LCD as a performance enhancing drug? "Well, Dock Ellis did just fine."
(In his account of the game, the maverick pitcher himself later could only remember euphoria and pieces of the game, recalling that "sometimes the ball was small and sometimes it was large, and that sometimes I saw the catcher, sometimes I didn't.")
Ellis worked with future U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall on a book, Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball , published in 1976. In it, Hall wrote, "In the country of baseball, the magistrates are austere and plain-spoken. Many of its citizens are decent and law-abiding, obedient to their elders and the laws of the community. But there have always been others - the mavericks, the eccentrics, the citizens of independent mind. They thrive in the country of baseball."
Hall was speaking of Ellis, of former Montreal Expo Bill (Spaceman) Lee, of author-pitcher Jim Bouton, of Dick Allen and of outfielder Curt Flood, who took Major League Baseball to court for its labour policies. The irreverent Snider thrives, too. With his Dock Ellis song, he's hit another one out of the park.