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Con sabor.

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It’s probably been 25 years since I first read Ball Four, Jim Bouton’s celebrated diary of the 1969 baseball season from the point of view of an average player on a lousy team.

Ball Four is legendary for its unflinching descriptions of greenies, baseball Annies, beaver-shooting, hangovers, and other unsavory aspects of the big-league ballplayer’s daily life.

For me, one of the most memorable scenes in Ball Four had nothing to do with depravity. It involved music, oddly enough.

It is Friday, August 8, 1969, and Bouton’s woeful Seattle Pilots are in Washington, D.C., for a game against the Senators. I’ll let Bouton set the scene:

… the guys are very loose. Today, for example, everybody in the clubhouse is listening to Cal Tjader or somebody like him, keeping time by banging clothes hangers on chairs and John Donaldson, who is so skinny we call him Bones, puts two baseballs under his uniform shirt in order to get a set of shoulders, and towels around his middle so he has a belly, and he pulls his pants up so he looks like an old-time ballplayer, and he goes through the silent-film baseball-player routine in time to the music and everybody is having a great time.

I had no idea who or what Cal Tjader was when I was 14.

It sounded like a wonderfully exotic name to me (perhaps because I mentally mispronounced it as “tuh-JAY-der.”)

And I liked the thought of burly men in long-sleeve baseball undershirts, kicking it in the clubhouse, banging rhythmically on their lockers with clothes hangers. Any music that could inspire such an unlikely scene must be worth hearing.

Took me 25 years, but I’ve recently been checking out the music of Cal Tjader on YouTube, and doing some research online as well.

Tjader (it’s actually pronounced “CHAY-der”), for anyone else unfamiliar with him, was a vibraphonist who mainly performed a Latin-tinged style of jazz.

Tjader was not Latino; he was actually of Swedish-American descent. But his chops and credibility in the Latin and jazz worlds were unquestioned. In a four-decade career, he recorded and performed with major figures like Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, Mongo Santamaria, George Shearing and Kenny Burrell, to name a few.

(OK, I’ll name one more, for the pop-culture junkies in the crowd. Tjader’s first LP as a leader — 1953’s The Cal Tjader Trio — was also the first appearance on record for a young San Francisco pianist named Vince Guaraldi.)

Tjader’s music was polished enough to cross over to a wider audience, and the ARSA database of local radio airplay surveys turns up quite a few surveys featuring his name.

Most notably, his good-time groove “Soul Sauce” got significant hit-radio airplay in New York City in the spring of 1965, and also showed up on surveys from San Francisco.

Bouton doesn’t specify what song the Pilots were listening to in the visiting-team clubhouse.

And, for the record, the Pilots were not inspired by the Latin-jazz groove. They lost the Aug. 8 game 10-3, though Bouton did his part, pitching a scoreless ninth inning.

(I imagine the soundtrack in today’s baseball clubhouses is probably evenly split between country-and-western and reggaeton. Kids these days got no taste.)

The Tjader track I’ll feature here isn’t something the Pilots might have listened to. It’s a version of the standard “Speak Low,” taken from Tjader’s Grammy-winning 1979 album La Onda Va Bien.

It’s low-key, maybe even a little loungey. But, hey, we’re talking “Speak Low” here. Surely you didn’t expect a red-hot cutting contest.

Enjoy. And if you want to keep time, a clothes hanger will do fine.


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