Who says nothing good ever came out of a slump?
In 2006, the Eastern League's Connecticut Defenders were mired in a particularly brutal stretch of what turned out to be a forgettable season. No one on the club was playing well, and wins were exceedingly hard to come by.
In response to this dire time of their lives, Defenders infielders (and longtime friends) Jake Wald and Derin McMains got together and recorded a humorous, bittersweet song entitled "Hang with 'Em."
Over Wald's country-tinged acoustic guitar work, McMains crooned memorable lyrics such as "Hit a line drive and it should fall in/Shortstop's making another web gem/Hang with 'em, hang with 'em."
And with that, Stache and Hawk were born. Two years, two albums and several open-mic appearances later, the duo has bucked the odds and emerged as the world's number-one country band that sings exclusively about professional baseball.
And they're still just getting started. This is the story of how a pair of San Francisco Giants prospects (some would say "suspects") changed the course of music history.
In the Beginning...
Like the majority of the world's great art, Stache and Hawk began as a simple coping mechanism.
"Playing this game, it's important to have a release, because it helps to lighten the mood," said McMains (aka "Hawk") in a wide-ranging telephone interview. "Especially since we were playing in [the Defenders'] Dodd Stadium, which is definitely not a hitter's park. Actually, if we had been pitchers there, we probably would have ended up writing joyful gospel songs."
But luckily for music fans everywhere, this was not the case. To accurately reflect the sometimes melancholy and often absurd world of the Minor Leagues, the duo adopted a low-key country sound that is heavily influenced by the story-telling approach of Johnny Cash.
Not that they consider themselves worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the legendary Man in Black.
"We completely embrace the novelty aspect of what we do," said Wald (aka "Stache") in a slightly less wide-ranging telephone interview. "We're baseball players, not musicians. We don't have dreams of being No. 1 on the pop charts, right next to Justin Timberlake. But what people can hopefully appreciate is that we're pretty good at writing funny songs."
"Hang With 'Em" was the first such song.
| Stache and Hawk
Listen to these fan favorites:
• "Hang with 'Em" -- The song that started it all. The closing stanza could very well serve as the Minor League Ballplayer's Prayer: "It doesn't matter what you do/Because there's a top prospect in front of you/But I'll keep trying to bust my can/In hopes of making that 40-man."
• "Doublin' Up" -- In which McMains charts his downhill progression from "prospect" to "suspect" via his place in the bus seat hierarchy. "Doublin' Up" refers to the fact that young players have to share a seat, while those with seniority ride solo.
• "Down on the Farm" -- In this upbeat hootenanny, Stache and Hawk point out the complete lack of similarity between the "farm life" of the country and the "farm life" of Minor League Baseball. Listen closely to see if your favorite team gets name-dropped.
• "Bad Clubbie Blues" -- A glimpse into a largely unknown side of the Minor League life -- dealing with an unsanitary, grumpy clubhouse manager. If any "clubbies" would like to rebut this negative characterization of their profession, please send me an email.
"The Defenders radio guys got a hold of it and started to play it on the radio after we lost," recalled McMains, who is currently coaching in extended spring training for the Giants after suffering through an unrelenting series of injuries. "We were like, 'Okay, that's like a win for us every night. If we win, we win. If we lose, our song is on the radio.' From there it got to the point where people were asking us if we had an album out."
So they put one out. Stache and Hawk's "Cabin Fever," released in 2007, features soon-to-be classics like "No Money, No Problem" and "Bad Clubbie Blues" (which details the frustrations of dealing with an incompetent clubhouse manager). According to the band, "Cabin Fever" went "double aluminum foil" after selling out its initial pressing of 100 copies (it is also available on iTunes).
Once the album came out, McMains and Wald were put in the position of having to constantly answer the same question over and over again: Namely, "Why do you guys call yourselves Stache and Hawk?"
"Things weren't going well for us [in 2006], so Derin and I were looking for a way to change things up a bit," explained Wald, who is currently back with the Defenders after opening the season with the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies. "The Giants have a rule banning all facial hair except mustaches, so I grew a mustache. And Derin got a Mohawk, but no one could tell because he had his cap on. So, there you go. I became Stache, while he became Hawk."
Music for Beer Drinkers
Of course, a key component of any musical endeavor is the live show, and Stache and Hawk have been working on theirs ever since a memorable debut.
"Our first show was at a place in Scottsdale [Arizona] called Sugar Daddy's," recalled Wald. "We signed up for the open mic and got on stage about a quarter to one. There was one person in the audience, but he loved it. When we were done, he dropped 10 bucks on the stage and told us to keep at it."
Through trial and error, the band has found a small but appreciative audience.
"We've played in coffee houses, and it was terrible," said McMains. "You get these cerebral, book-reading people who don't care about sports. We've found that the best response is from the beer-drinking crowd, because baseball and beer just go together."
"We love to play anywhere baseball fans are gathered," added Wald. "I think our best show ever was in Scottsdale after a Giants Spring Training night game. People laughed at the right times, and we even got some requests. 'Hang With 'Em' and 'Bad Clubbie Blues' are the baseball guys' favorites, while the fan favorite is 'Seriously, Baby, I'm So Good."
"Down on the Farm"
The aforementioned "Seriously, Baby, I'm So Good" (which McMains describes as being about "a girl who doesn't know anything about baseball") is one of the standout tracks on Stache and Hawk's new album, "Down on the Farm." Available on iTunes, the 12-song magnum opus also includes gems such as the down-home title track, the morality tale of "Ballpark Annie" and (this writer's favorite) "Doublin' Up."
"'Doublin' Up' is about having to share your seat on a long bus trip," explained McMains. "It's such a part of our lifestyle that it's easy to forget that not everyone knows what we're talking about."
With Wald in Connecticut and McMains in Arizona, "Down on the Farm" was very much a long-distance collaboration.
"We spend a lot of time writing apart, sending ideas back and forth," said Wald. "It allows us to get stuff done."
As long as Stache and Hawk are residing in the world of professional baseball, it's a given that they will have plenty of material to choose from. McMains, for one, is drawing inspiration from the rigors of the extended spring training lifestyle, and also mentions that he'd like to do a song poking fun at the fact that Canadian baseball players are only in the sport because they failed at hockey.
"It's like, 'Dude, let's just keep this going,'" he said. "Life's so unpredictable, let's just have some fun and see where it all leads."
Despite a penchant for self-deprecation and an inability to take themselves too seriously, Stache and Hawk have the charisma and song-writing chops to reach an increasingly wider audience. And, best of all, they have found their niche.
"Eventually, we'd like to play to large crowds during Spring Training and at All-Star Game festivities," said McMains, adding that playing the Hall of Fame induction ceremony would be a "solid" gig as well. "I joke around with Jake that if we're not careful, one of these days we'll be performing at Minor League games alongside the ZOOperstars and Myron Noodleman."
And while these aspirations may indeed eventually come to pass, for now the duo is just happy to be doing what they're doing.
"It's been a blast for both of us," said Wald. "We had no expectations going into this; we just thought it was really cool to get our music out there. We knew that people would like it in the baseball world, and now we're expanding from there."
"In the music industry, you have to be really good, or really different," adds McMains. "Well, it's clear we're not good, so let's be different. At the very least, we've got the market cornered when it comes to country bands that sing about Minor League Baseball."