California’s Puig Destroyer play “heavy, loud, fast songs about baseball.” Somehow, incredibly, in their pursuit of absurd parody, the band have done something special, ripping away the genteel skin of our national pastime, and exposing the writhing musculature beneath. Albums Puig Destroyer and Wait for Spring – both released in 2013 – take place within the ballpark, and within the howling consciousness of professional ballplayer Yasiel Puig, charting The Cuban-born sensation’s early passages through the agony of inactivity, the mania of impatience, the indignity of racism and judgment, and the ecstasy of force and motion. The result is a look at baseball through a blood-clouded lens – a frightening, visceral tour through green fields seething with violent confrontations, submersed hatreds and primal, barely-containable animal urges.
Long summer shadows are stretching out quietly, pushing up against the dusty softness of the day’s retreat. A halcyon symphony is being composed in an idyllic scale – in whumps and cracks and murmurs, in roars and stomps and bellowed cadence, in roaring waves and sing-alongs and life lessons delivered with aromas of mustard and beer about their edges. They come as in pilgrimage, these multitudes – fathers and sons and sisters and daughters filing in as they have so many times before, to beget memories and to cement bonds in the buoyant amber-hued ether of tradition. They have come, with open hearts and innocent eyes, to see a ballgame.
But who is to say that this hazy, perpetual nostalgia is not really a soft-headed delusion? All the pastime’s lore mere bedtime fiction, a polite myth concocted to save children and parents alike from confronting the ugly truth – of baseball’s dark side. The shadow game, the churning, baying undercurrent, coursing along the underbelly of each inning, itching and scraping for violent release. It has always been there, but it took the right man, the right ballplayer to come along and uncover it. Yasiel Puig is that man, and that ballplayer.
And Puig Destroyer are the band who have decided to share that bizarre unmasking with the rest of us. Puig Destroyer’s opening track, “One Man, Five Tools,” rumbles in without preamble, chunky, thrashy and frantic. “Speed power, fielding contact / A cannon for an arm / One man, five tools” bellows vocalist Mike – singing as Puig. Puig – baseball’s goddamned Achilles, a six-foot three demigod whose mortal heel happens to be a relentless temperament – one utterly unsuited to the pace and decorum of America’s beloved pastime.
After all, baseball is about patience. It’s about letting the game come to you. Ritual, deliberation, pace, tactics – these are the unglamorous strategies that result in victories and a trip to the playoffs. One must be prepared to patiently wade through slumps, trusting in statistical regression and the rhythms of the season. One must often put their desire for action aside, bearing the mild indignities of intentional walks and sacrifice flies for the good of the team.
Unless one is simply unable to do it. “Fuck the walk, destroy the ball / Crush smash kill… annihilate” howls our ballplayer. For him, it’s destruction or nothing – “If it’s over the plate / It’s out of the park,” he pledges from somewhere within the sludgy, lurching midst of “Controlled Violence.” For Puig there is no compromise. Every inning is an opportunity to crush the opponent – to leave them broken and helpless as they watch the runners tag home.
Which is why the self-defeating rituals of the game infuriate Puig so. He cannot understand why his so-called teammates do not share his sense of determination and urgency. “Pitcher wins / Are dumber than shit / But I’m not / Going to lose sleep over it.” He seethes, perched spitting at the edge of the dugout. But at other times it is just too much. “Stop fucking bunting / Stop fucking bunting” is Puig Destroyer’s final mantra, screamed out over an ominous rumble of double-bass and doomy riffage, encapsulating the livid, muscle-quivering frustration of our ballplayer as he watches his team actually giving outs away.
But Puig Destroyer also find ways to step back a bit from the diamond, and even from Puig himself, playing lyrics both semi-silly and sincere against their music’s brutish grindcore style. “Dad hat / Dad lap / Fashion isn’t where I’m at” bellows Mike on “Dad Hat,” daring us to laugh with that lyric, and the ensuing “I wear my pants real high / I don’t care what I look like / This is baseball motherfucker / This is my whole life.” On “Nine and Never Apart” Puig Destroyer become almost teary-eyed in tribute. “I would go to baseball games / With my father, my friends, my brothers / But I won’t forget the women that / Helped me become who I am.” Though the words are screamed over galloping thrash and blasting grind, close listening brings the sentiment shining through.
Best perhaps are the moments in which our ballplayer must confront the dangerous territory where baseball and larger society meet. How will Puig deal with the incessant, nagging echo chamber that surrounds the MLB? Ss it turns out, about the same way as he approaches the game itself. “You ignorant, white fucks / How can you be so oblivious,” screams Mike-as-Puig on “Play the Game (The Right Way),” aiming a burning scowl at white defenders of mediocrity – the very ones who stand to be exposed by Puig’s all-out style of play. The song ends with a defiantly bitter, lumbering, call-and-response chant of “Play the game THE RIGHT WAY / You mean THE WHITE WAY” that is as brutally catchy as any stadium rallying cry.
The media represent another annoyance, another distraction. “I was benched so I hit a bomb / And the media spun it into / A war against me and the game,” shouts Mike on “Fuck the Media”. And yet, these soft, self-important pencil-pushers – so divorced from any real understanding of what it means to play and love the game – provide fuel for Wait for Spring’s superb ending, a series of fervent, yet somehow weary chants of “Fuck the media,” which issue out over nightmarish, dissonant chords.
October has arrived. The cameras capture the frost at the tips of the grass during the night games. Fans wear Halloween costumes in the stands and make scary faces on the Jumbotron. They jog in place and exhale vapor during the 7th inning stretch. Cold dry hands whisper together in the dugout. It’s the playoffs, and the air is charged, but our ballplayer can also feel the awful dormancy looming. Winter and the offseason. The forced idleness that robs his life of meaning, leaves him a prisoner, gnawing at the timbers, even in the permanent sunshine of Los Angeles.
This is what it means to Wait for Spring. “Wake up with nothing to do / Missing the summer and a season to work through,” laments Mike-as-Puig on “Rise and Grind”. It is an empty, maddening time. But bleak as the winter is, he knows it will be back – it is America’s pastime, after all. Yes, they will come – streaming in and murmuring up and down the sections. The drunks in the bleachers, the stern, ruddy businessmen in the luxury boxes – they will have their ballgame. Attentions wandering, faces stuffed, ill-fitting jerseys, souvenirs for the kids. They will see the players idling and chewing, and they will lean back in their chairs and relax, and everyone will silently agree to keep the stakes low.
But for Puig there is no such thing as low stakes. He approaches every at bat as if it will be his last. “I’ll never stop even when I should,” he observes, again on “Rise and Grind”. He knows himself, and he knows that if he doesn’t destroy the baseball, his team won’t win. Yes, this season might be a little different. He might say a few words for the reporters and sign some autographs for the fans. Coaches and managers might take credit for his “growing maturity,” and the media might write sympathetic stories and pretend to understand him. But Puig knows that they won’t – because the game doesn’t belong to them. They’ll never hear the ball scream in pain as it explodes off the bat. They’ll never round the bases so fast that their feet stop touching the ground. He’s heard that he’s reckless, that he’s arrogant – a danger to himself and to the game. He knows that this isn’t true. No, the real truth is that Yasiel Puig was built for this game, and he’s showing everyone the way it is meant to be played.