The Five Best Sports Songs

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For the past two years, almost every weekday has started the same way. I wake up, I find the 10 most interesting or important sports stories on ESPN.com, I write a one-sentence summary with a link, and then I write a joke. This all takes place from about 7:15 am to 8:30 am, which, as you might imagine, is not always an optimal time to be funny. But it’s paid work, and I like sports, so the last thing I’d do is complain. However, when you roll out of bed only to be confronted with sports headlines every single day, and then you spend the morning and afternoon writing about more sports, and then you spend the night watching sports so you can write about it again the next day, it can seem pretty all-consuming. There’s something Groundhog Day-ish about the routine.

There are consequences to this lifestyle. I realized the other day, when I discovered the folk singer Joshua James while watching Sons of Anarchy, that I have pretty much dropped out of the music scene. If I heard something like James’ wonderful “Coal War” on a show five years ago, I’d be the guy telling everyone else the artist and song. Now, I’m the one discovering it. Through television. There’s only so much time in the day, and those few sports-free hours I can steal belong to books and movies and TV. A man’s got to prioritize, I suppose. Still, this admission comes two months before my 30th birthday, and it feels a lot like getting old.

Anyway, I was listening to James in the car last week and realizing that I’m not music-cool anymore when I started thinking about sports and music in general. The brain made a few leaps, and the two concepts sort of meshed together in my mind. It occurred to me that while there are always raging debates about the best sports movie (it’s Slapshot, period), we rarely talk about the best “sports songs.” Are there enough to constitute a list? I realized I had to come up with some ground rules.

First, no “jock jams.” As much as fun as songs like “Ole!” can be, they’re mostly mindless. I’m also not interested in generic power-rock ballads like “We Are the Champions” or “Eye of the Tiger.” While admittedly “timeless,” in the blandest sense of the word, I think it’s safe to admit that these tunes have far outstayed their welcome. Last, no “homage” songs. These are antiques, from a time when the country apparently had a yen for market-ready odes to their favorite stars. The best example I can think of is that “Joe, Joe, Dimaggio, we want you on our side!” song. I’m generally a nostalgic person—it only takes a hint of sepia tone to have me pacing the floor and getting dogmatic about history—but those relics make me a bit nauseous. They seem about a half-step removed from creepy patriotic anthems.

What I am after, in this list, are songs that seem to come from a personal place, and mention specific athletes or moments in the context of greater themes. This criterion inevitably yields works that are only nominally about sports. But then again, sports are only nominally about sports, in the sense that a true understanding transcends the mere game. And that’s what these songs accomplish, too. So if my list contains only scant references to the actual athletic side of the spectrum, I offer no apologies. Here are my top five.

5. “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon & Garfunkel
An obvious, predictable choice, but no less glorious for the fact. When Simon sings “where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” it’s a death cry for the romanticized WWII-era, which, even from my perspective in 2012, seems hero-laden and beyond reproach. It’s a myth that America is happy to amplify, from the near-propaganda war films of the 1950s all the way up to books like Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation. Today, it seems like a lot to live up to, but imagine how it must have felt for the children of Paul Simon’s generation. Instead of World War Two, they had Vietnam. Instead of glory and unity, they had shame and revolt. Men living in that kind of shadow must have been dogged by the constant sense of disappointing their fathers. So Simon’s plaintive appeal, in a song written for a movie about a college graduate who upsets the generational apple cart by having an affair with an older, married woman, contains a poignant element of loss that manifests itself in a bygone Yankee legend.

4. “Wicked Gil” by Band of Horses
This is probably the strangest choice on the list. Ben Bridwell, the lead singer, is almost infamous at this point for singing (or “spewing,” if you prefer) garbled lyrics. This song in particular is almost indecipherable, and the meaning can only be extrapolated from emotion. At the same time, it’s incredible; the melody, energy and defiance say enough. But who is Wicked Gil, you ask? None other than former Mariner pitcher Gil Meche! Bridwell lived in Portland when Meche pitched for the M’s, and was a fan of all the Seattle teams (he also wrote a song called “Detlef Schrempf,” which, as you might guess, is not about Detlef Schrempf). And while this track has only a tenuous connection to Meche, who now plays for the Royals, I like to think that some of the Bridwellian passion is at least tangentially related to how he felt every time Wicked Gil took the mound.

3. “50 Mission Cap” by The Tragically Hip
It’s not surprising that the story of Bill Barilko translated to music, especially for the Hip, a Canadian group with a love for hockey. Barilko hailed from the Ukraine and played for the Toronto Maple Leafs. In 1951, he scored an overtime goal in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals, sealing his team’s victory over the Montreal Canadiens. That August, he and a friend took a small plane deep into Quebec for a fishing trip. The plane crashed, and Barilko died. They didn’t discover his remains until 1962. In the 11-year interval, the Leafs never won the Cup, but they were champions again in ‘62 for the first time since he’d gone missing. The appeal, to the Tragically Hip, is clear—Barilko’s fate contains the strange elements of tragedy and symmetry that maybe, possibly, potentially indicate unseen forces. Here are the song’s straightforward lyrics, in full:

Bill Barilko disappeared that summer,
he was on a fishing trip.
The last goal he ever scored
won the Leafs the cup
They didn’t win another until 1962,
the year he was discovered.
I stole this from a hockey card,
I keep tucked up under
my fifty mission cap, I worked it in
to look like that

2. “Piazza, New York Catcher” by Belle & Sebastian
This is my favorite song by my favorite group, which makes it one of my top contenders for greatest ever. Like a lot of Belle & Sebastian songs, it’s a sad, ruminating piece, albeit more scaled down than their usual efforts. It features just Stuart Murdoch (Scottish, but a big Mets fan) on acoustic guitar and tells the story of two lovers careening across San Francisco. The narrative hovers around Candlestick Park and the Willie Mays monument. In the second verse, the singer wonders aloud: “Piazza, New York catcher, are you straight or are you gay?” It seems a bit offhand, dealing with actual rumors that swirled about Piazza’s sexuality at in the ’90s, but is, on further analysis, intricately tied to the song’s characters and identity. Without spoiling it with too many words, I’ll say that the lyrics, like much of Murdoch’s work, open themselves for multiple interpretations. The thematic tie to sports, with its similar layers, illuminates the depth.

1. “Salvador Sanchez” by Sun Kil Moon
“Salvador Sanchez” is so epic that I’ll use the adverb “epically” to describe its epicness. Mark Kozelek, the songwriter responsible, is a diehard boxing fan who’s spent significant time watching films of old fights he obtained through the mail. This song comes from the album Ghosts of the Great Highway, a fantastic effort that revolves around the sport’s inherent proclivity for young demise. I could have picked several tracks for this list, but “Salvador Sanchez” is my favorite. Underneath an onslaught of soul-crunching, almost pugilistic guitars, Kozelek sings of three real boxers who met unhappy ends. Their stories are fodder for a novel, but suffice it to say that the subtle interweaving of early promise and untimely death creates a thick, fatalistic atmosphere revealing an older America of open, allegorical proportions.

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