2014 Reds

On Rockstars and Flamethrowers

The Japandroids are a band that almost wasn’t. Consisting of only a drummer, David Prowse, and a guitarist, Brian King, they just barely meet the requirement of being a band at all. Yet, by pounding new life out of aggressive drum lines and wild electric guitar riffs, they minted one of the best summer albums of all time (at least, according to Rolling Stone). The duo from Vancouver almost left their music in a garage up north after they received a chilly reception from the local crowd. Their first album, Post-Nothing, made them a champion of the indy music scene, but it was their second, Celebration Rock that made them for real. A single listen to Celebration Rock reveals why they made it: The Japandroids play loud. They play fast. And they never gave up.

One of the most iconic images of the 2013 Reds season is of Tony Cingrani snarling on the mound. His feral, semi-insane scowl leaves you wondering if he is going to throw a pitch or charge the batter’s box. That raw emotion is appropriate for a pitcher who described his philosophy as “go after everyone like you’re closing.”

Yet Tony Cingrani is a pitcher that almost wasn’t. We think of Cingrani as the flamethrower who routinely sends batters back to the dugout, another K in his belt, but this wasn’t always the case. In his first year at Rice University, Cingrani posted an 8.59 ERA in six starts and walked more batters (16) than he struck out (13). At the end of the year, Cingrani walked into coach David Pierce’s office and asked him a tough question:

“Do you even want me back in the fall?”

The Japandroids first album, Post-Nothing, is a shout-y record. It’s fast and loud and if you don’t listen closely enough, you might miss the fact there are lyrics hidden beneath the sound. Despite the chilly initial reception in Vancouver, the album quickly received international recognition. Exclaim! rated it the second best album of the year and Pitchfork called “Young Hearts Spark Fire” a Best New Track. Multiple music outlets listed the album in their Top 50.

When you hit it that big, people want to hear you perform live. Plane tickets were booked. Venues were reserved. In the spring of 2009, the duo was scheduled to play 200 shows in 20 countries.

In the second day of the tour, Brian felt a sharp pain in his stomach and was rushed to the hospital. His doctor said the guitarist had a perforated ulcer and would need to stay in the hospital for two weeks. In an interview with John Norris, Brian recalled,“We tried explaining to the doctor that we were on tour and had to drive all over the place, the previous day we had driven six or seven hours … and he told me that had I been on the road and a few hours from a hospital when this happened, I would have died.”

The tour was put on hold.

Tony Cingrani’s road back to the hill began in a parking lot. Cingrani played long toss with David Pierce by standing at one end of the parking structure and Pierce at the other. The previous year Cingrani had developed a long pitching motion and his coach was determined to make his delivery more compact with less room for error. Other coaches joined the reclamation project: Steve Ruzich helped Cingrani line up his leg drive and his arm motion. Cingrani’s old high school pitching coach, Jake Zajc helped out too. At the end of the summer, the determined left-hander had pushed his fastball from 89 to 95 miles per hour. It was dramatic improvement and Cingrani was given his starting gig back.

In his first two starts, Tony Cingrani got shelled and was moved to the bullpen.

The generation that grew up on the bands Incubus and Blink182 is now somewhere between their ruckus adolescence and a milder adulthood. That middle ground is a strange place to exist: too young to be old, too old to not have car payments. That void also fills our radio space. The youthful bliss of Hannah Montana and other radio artists no longer speaks to a generation that grew up on the dot-com crash. For many of us, we’ve left the airwaves entirely in the hopes that Spotify or Pandora can help fill our collective musical void.

Out of this middle came Celebration Rock. “Younger Us” is a track that reminisces joyfully about late nights and the freedom of a lost youth but also the growing pains attached to it. The following track, perhaps the anthem of the album, “The House the Heaven Built,” mixes the darkness of an ambiguous past (born of a bottle/from heaven’s hand) with the confidence that emerges from these trials (when they love you and they will/tell them all they’re loving my shadow/and if they try to slow you down/tell them all to go to hell).

The album is bookended by the sound of fireworks, to inform the listener that the next thirty-five minutes is about celebrating – both the joy of the beginning and the sorrow of having to move on.

In his senior campaign, Tony Cingrani moved to Rice’s bullpen. It was there he developed his attack-first-ask-questions-later mentality with an acute appreciation for pressure-filled situations. His mechanics continued to improve and so did his pitching line. Cingrani posted a 1.74 ERA, secured 12 saves, and recorded a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 66/10 in 57 innings pitched. Tony Cingrani looked to Major League Baseball with the hope of being drafted.

There are gatekeepers in every industry. Usually they are successes-past, confident that the way they themselves made it will be the way the game is played forever. Despite the brilliance of Cingrani’s senior year, almost every scout considered him a marginal major league prospect. Scouts loved his fastball, but even Chris Buckley, the Reds’ director of amateur scouting, unfavorably labeled Tony Cingrani as a “gut selection.”

Other scouts were not that kind. Common phrases were: “no secondary pitches,” a “very marginal” slider that is “nothing special,” and a “below average” change-up. In the eyes of the gatekeepers a starter needed three pitches and Cingrani had 1.5, at best. The Reds were criticized for taking Cingrani with the 114th pick of the 2011 amateur draft. In his first year in the minors, he wasn’t even ranked as a prospect by Major League Baseball.

If Tony Cingrani was going to make it to the big leagues, he would have to do it the unconventional way.

The songwriters that dominated the music industry from the 1980s through today have several rules if you ever want to cross over from a late-night act to top dollar artist. Ralph Murphy, an accomplished songwriter in his own right, is more than glad to tell you about these rules.

Ralph has a gruff been-there-done-that demeanor paired with an aged cool-factor that is hard to acquire outside the music business. Early on, Murphy tells his students “don’t whine, don’t preach, and don’t vent” and “you’re writing for 7:30AM because that’s where the money is.” Yet his favorite statistic, repeated over and over again, is that women buy 55% of all records and a greater percentage of concert tickets than men. He tells people that if you want to make it mainstream, you write love songs to women.

During his lecture Murphy plays chart-toppers to demonstrate the five ways to write a pop song. After playing “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles, he pauses for a moment. “That’s just great,” he says, “most artists just repeat the B block at the end but she adds an extra lift. It keeps the listener right up to the Ford commercial.”

Someone says, “This guy is a vampire”.

[Bareilles’ “Love Song” often though of as a romantic song. Its not; its a song filled with regret. When Bareilles delivered her first album, Little Voice, to Epic Records, the music execs generally liked it, but they had one problem with it. “There are no hits on this album” they said. The label told her that she needed a love song on her album or they wouldn't cut it.

Bareilles went back to the studio and recorded another song for the album. The generically labeled “Love Song” is a reminder that sometimes we have to sell a part of what we love to make it. Bareilles most famous song, the first release off of her debut album, is about the choice to either give in and make it big time or to hold on to what you love:

I'm not gonna write you a love song
'Cause you ask for it
'Cause you need one, you see
I'm not gonna write you a love song
'Cause you tell me it's make or break in this
If you're on your way
I'm not gonna write you to stay
All you have is leaving
I'mma need a better reason
To write you a love song today, today...]

Celebration Rock is not meant to be played at 7:30AM. If you did, the album has so much energy in it you might cause a multi-car pile up. It preaches, vents and the only love songs are the ones written to a youthful past. Needless to say, when Brian King and David Prowse were in the studio, they were not thinking about opening for a Ford commercial. Despite these rules, they finally broke through to the mainstream: Rolling Stone named their album one of the top summer albums of all time, Spin named them the band of the year, and Music Television, not known as a fan of the indy music movement, named their album the #1 album of the year.

Tony Cingrani posted a 3-2 record and a 1.75 ERA in his rookie-league debut. Yet, college pitchers are supposed to succeed early in the minors and questions persisted about his ability to compete against top quality hitters. The following year, Cingrani split time between A and AA , going 10-2 with a 1.19 ERA and notching 123 strikeouts in 105 innings pitched. After two consecutive season with an ERA below 2, rumors started to percolate that he might finally get the call. On September 4, 2012 the Cincinnati Reds purchased Tony Cingrani’s contract from the Louisville Bats.

He was finally in the major leagues.

Celebration Rock is an album to blast while driving up the Pacific Coast Highway. Its fast and unrelenting pace conveys the white-hot adrenaline rush of finally … finally overcoming the barriers and naysayers who said you’d never make it.

When Tony Cingrani takes the mound today, he’ll be snarling, blowing out his cheeks and glaring at the batter in front of him. In front of tens of thousands of fans cheering and jeering. All the cameras and lights. Think of that feeling – the I’m going to throw this ball through a brick wall and there is nothing you can do about it – that comes from years of battling adversity to get up that ten-inch hill.

It’s also the feeling that you never want to leave. That no one would ever want to let go. If you could record it for people to play over and over again, well, it’s the type of song that would make you a rockstar.

7 thoughts on “On Rockstars and Flamethrowers

  1. He has a great deceptive motion but has no stamina or as mentioned nothing but that fastball to rely upon. He has great potential but not sure we will ever see him start more than 20 games a season. Then again i am wrong more than right hoping this is the here as well as i really like this guy.

    • Agreed. Right now, he’s Chapman (-5 mph) if the folks who wanted Chapman to be a starter had gotten their wish.

      Que será, será

      • Chapman has an excellent slider, and supposedly has a great change up. And that extra 5 MPH. And was our best starter in spring training before being relegated to the bullpen. None of these things are true for Cingrani. I stand by “I wish I had gotten my wish.”

        Oh, and I don’t think it’s too difficult to take a guy who isn’t working out as a starter and put him in the bullpen. At any point. But it’s tough to go the other way. So the experiment would have been worth trying. Sigh.

        • simon was a reliever and does pretty good. Chapman was a starter in Cuba so he has plenty of starting experience, however, I think he would get rocked hard as I don’t think that thin frame of his would hold up to more than 5 or 6 innings at best. Either way it is worth a try to start him a game or two as it is. Relievers are a dime a dozen (which puzzles me why we stick with the few we have that aren’t cutting it)

        • Simon is a veteran, and most importantly, was a starter before being moved to the bullpen. Eric the Red’s point still stands. Chapman would have been best utilized in the rotation. And, are you kidding me? He has a thin frame? He’s probably the most athletic guy in that locker room. He can withstand the inning totals that starting would demand. But, he was never allowed to develop and was coddled into the position of being the star closer who only had to rely on his fastball. This was among the worst decisions the team has made in the last several years.

  2. A very interesting way to write a “biography,” Mr. Maffie. Thoroughly enjoyed reading through this (and also went to look up the Japandroids afterwards). I’ll take Cingrani and leave the droids (apparently, they weren’t the ones I was looking for). [apologies for bad star wars joke]

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