The Outfield – “Play Deep” (1985)

It’s a bit odd that a band from the UK would name itself after a section of a baseball field, especially if they weren’t fans of the game to begin with. The trio originally recorded a demo under the name The Baseball Boys, a reference to the baseball-themed gang in the movie The Warriors (1979), (♠) which makes a bit more sense, and despite recognizing the need for a better name they still ended up with something baseball related. Why The Outfield in particular? Well, according to an interview the band did with the Los Angeles Times in 1986 they simply came up with a list of 10 possible names to replace The Baseball Boys, and The Outfield was the one they liked the best. As fans we’d like to think there was something more to it, but there it is.

The baseball theme continues with the name of The Outfield’s debut album, 1985s Play Deep. While somewhat of an oversimplification, “playing deep” in the context of the outfield indicates that either (1) the batter at the plate has a reputation for hitting the ball far, and/or (2) that runners are in scoring position and the manager has decided he’s more concerned with preventing a ball from going over the fielders’ heads than he is with one of the baserunners scoring on a single to the outfield. Does “play deep” have any meaning as it relates to the 10 songs on Play Deep? I sincerely doubt it as none of the songs appear to have any ties to the game. The Outfield flirt on and off with the baseball theme in later album titles as well, specifically Diamond Days (1989) and Extra Innings (Unreleased) (1999), plus the comps Playing the Field (1992) and Big Innings (1996), but I don’t think they ever recorded a song that had anything to do with the so-called National Pastime. Come to think of it, there aren’t a lot of baseball songs out there with the notable exception of John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” and to a lesser extent Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” and Meatloaf’s “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” (the latter is only metaphorically about baseball, though it does include Baseball Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto as the play-by-play guy, so bonus points). (♣)

By the time Play Deep came out and “Your Love” made an unsuccessful run for the top of the charts my baseball career, such as it was, had ended. I played two seasons of Little League for the Fortune Personnel team (named after our corporate sponsor… capitalism digs its claws into you early in the US) in, I believe, 1982 and 1983. And yes, I played in the outfield. At the major league level the three outfield positions tend to have consistent profiles and abilities – the center fielder is fast and has a good arm; the right field needs a great arm to make the long throws to third base; and the left fielder… well… the left fielder can hit and is generally not known for his defense. In fact sometimes he’s a defensive liability. In the little leagues it’s even more noticeable. See, when I played, the rule was that every player had to appear in at least two innings if they showed up for the game. And left field is where you hid the suckiest kids, the ones who couldn’t catch or were slow or ambivalent about being there. If memory serves, I believe that over the course of my baseball career there was only one game in which I played somewhere other than left field. Oh, and I couldn’t hit for shit either.

Two things strike me about Play Deep. First, the harmonies are brilliant. Second, these songs have a certain quality about them that just sounds like The Outfield. I can’t place it, but there are other bands and performers like this as well. Bruce Hornsby, for example, has this “thing” he does with the piano that seems to be on every one of his songs that, the second I hear it, I’m like, yup, that’s Bruce Hornsby. In fact, I got to see Bruce perform once – he played the National Anthem on piano at, ironically, a Seattle Mariners baseball games years and years ago. And guess what? He made the National Anthem sound like a Bruce Hornsby song too.

There’s one thing that has always confounded me about “Your Love”. I get it that the narrator is having a tryst with an old flame. After all, right at the start we establish that his new lady is out of town. Josie’s on a vacation far away… But what I always wondered about is the line, You know I like my girls a little bit older. Is this him telling the girl he’s inviting over that part of why he’s with Josie is because Josie is a little bit older, or is he still into his nameless ex because she’s a little bit older? Somehow I feel like this is an important distinction. One of these ladies is “older”, but which one? I posed this question to Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane, and she looked at me like, “is this a serious question?” It is. But I suspect I’ll never know the answer. Either way, he’s a dirtbag Josie, and you should leave him.

(♠) “War-riors… come out to play-ay….”

(♣) To be fair, there are others, especially if you want to go back to the 1940s and 50s. There are also plenty of novelty songs dedicated to specific teams or players, and even songs by baseball players themselves, such as my personal favorite “Phillies Fever” (1976). Terry Cashman’s “Talkin’ Baseball (Willie, Mickey & The Duke)” (1981) is a classic as well, with the added benefit that Willie (Mays), Mickey (Mantle), and The Duke (Duke Snider) were all outfielders. See? It all comes full circle.

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