The idea for this issue's sports music package (page 128) began with one of those square, time-wasting, interoffice e-mail chains, like Worst Movie Made from a Great Book or Best Musician Who Died Before He Was 30 (both actual examples of topics SI writers and editors have debated in their, ahem, down time). A query for suggestions for the best songs about sports yielded a list of about 35 tunes, some of them dreadful. (Do yourself a favor and never listen to "The Blind Man in the Bleachers" by Kenny Starr.) When the e-mail chain died down most staffers went back to their nonsports musical interests, but longtime senior editor Greg Kelly became obsessed with the subject. He built a list of more than 150 songs, many of which had intriguing backstories he'd never heard—like the sad demise of Toronto Maple Leafs hero Bill Barilko described in The Tragically Hip's "Fifty-Mission Cap," or "The Ballad of Eddie Klepp," Chuck Brodsky's ode to the first white player to appear in the Negro leagues. Then came the actual task of whittling the list down to a Top 40, which Kelly approached as the most enthusiastic of amateur music historians. His credentials more or less rested on a relatively random association he has in a Rotisserie baseball league with Terry Cashman, the so-called Balladeer of Baseball (who will now probably never trade with Kelly again after "Talkin' Baseball" missed the cut), and that he once sat at a table next to Elvis Costello and Diana Krall at Balthazar down in SoHo.
"What the hell," says Kelly. "The purpose of any list is to argue about it, and my greatest hope is that the SI Ultimate Play List will start fistfights along with many more time-wasting, interoffice e-mail chains."
Well, in that case, I've got some questions about the conspicuous absence of Bobby Bare's "Drop Kick Me, Jesus (Through the Goalposts of Life)," and what about Randy Newman's score for The Natural? Not to mention Jimmy Buffett's Wrigley Field rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," which he dedicated to "Harry Caray, you old pirate." Buffett doesn't have a song on SI's Top 40, but he's all over the list (see mentions in the introduction, No. 28 and No. 33), and his two shows at Wrigley Field in the summer of 2005 were the first concerts ever held in the old yard.
"These old ballparks are like cathedrals in America," says Buffett, who has also played Fenway Park and five other big league stadiums. "We don't have big old Gothic cathedrals like they do in Europe, but we've got baseball parks." To be there in Chicago listening to Buffett and the Coral Reefers cover Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans" less than a week after Hurricane Katrina struck is to understand exactly what he is talking about.
With the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks coming at us, our sports and our stadiums and the music that goes with both will be wrapped together in healing and patriotic rituals. Our songs will be more than narrative—they will underline courage and loyalty and sacrifice and, always, doing the right thing, however ironic that may seem. In other words, playing through life on a principled and direct line, or, as Bare put it, "Straight through the heart of them righteous uprights"—you know, the goalposts of life.
Go to SI.com/music, where you can hear samples of the songs on SI's list of the 40 best sports songs—plus 20 bonus tracks—and download them on iTunes.