Love of game resonates with musician Hornsby

Love of game resonates with musician Hornsby

Love of game resonates with musician Hornsby
It's been 25 years since Bruce Hornsby arrived on the popular music scene with what remains his signature song, "The Way It Is." And it's been almost 15 years since he experienced the most nerve-wracking, exhilarating and memorable act of physical exertion he's experienced since he became a rock star: pinch-running in a Major League Baseball game.

Full disclosure: It wasn't a real Major League Baseball game. It was Spring Training.

Fuller disclosure: He didn't actually run. Obeying the orders of manager Terry Collins, the man who wrote "Mandolin Rain" and "Every Little Kiss" replaced Kevin Bass at first base in the California Angels' Cactus League game against the Seattle Mariners in March 1997 with two out in the seventh inning.

Alas, his big league service time ended without glamour or glory -- he was stranded by a George Arias popup -- but the indelible memory remains.

"I'm sure I looked all bony in a baseball uniform and I probably looked pretty stupid, but I didn't care," Hornsby says. "That moment certainly holds a higher place on my list than all those Grammy losses."

Hornsby, as usual, is being humble.

"Those Grammy losses" doesn't mention the three highest musical honors he's won: the Best New Artist Grammy (along with his original band, the Range) in 1986, Best Bluegrass Recording (with Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) for his song "The Valley Road" in 1989, and his duet with saxophonist Branford Marsalis, "Barcelona Mona," which won the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance in 1993.

"I'm 3-for-13," Hornsby says with a laugh. "That's not a very good batting average."

But a look at Hornsby's varied and enduring musical career reveals statistics and experiences worthy of the back of any bubblegum card.

Take the 100-show run from 1990-92 as the piano and occasional accordion player and backup vocalist for the Grateful Dead, a lifelong dream in action for a man whose first paying gig was as the key-tickler for his older brother's 1970s Charlottesville, Va., Dead cover band, Bobby Hi-Test and the Octane Kids.

"That was a special time," Hornsby says. "Jerry Garcia and I always had a great connection, and I always liked improvisation and taking songs and pushing them into different places. It's something I continue to do with my own music, and it's what makes playing in a band fun."

That spirit can be found in all of Hornsby's meanderings through the genres of rock, pop, bluegrass and jazz, through his countless collaborations and in his latest release, "Bride of the Noisemakers," a double album of live material culled from concerts over a three-year period with his current band, the Noisemakers.

Yes, Hornsby is always willing to talk music. But he's also willing to talk baseball.

Hornsby befriended then Mariners Mark Langston, Bill Swift and Scott Bradley backstage at a Seattle gig in 1989, and when Langston moved on to the Angels, Hornsby then became close with Kirk McCaskill, Wally Joyner and Rex Hudler.

It was through Hudler, the former dirt-stained utility player-turned-ultra-enthusiastic broadcaster and baseball ambassador, that Hornsby got to know recently retired managing legend Tony La Russa.

Hudler, serving as a correspondent for "Good Morning America," was approached by La Russa in the St. Louis Cardinals' clubhouse during slugger Mark McGwire's 1998 run at Roger Maris' single-season home run record of 61.

"He said, 'Hud, I hear you know Bruce Hornsby,'" Hudler recalls. "I said I did, and Tony immediately said that I had to introduce them to eachother because Tony wanted Bruce to play a benefit concert for his Animal Rescue Foundation."

Hornsby accepted, La Russa thanked him with tickets, McGwire belted home run after home run with La Russa's new favorite piano-playing philanthropist in the stands, and a lasting friendship was born.

"That's the beauty of baseball," Hudler says. "You pass the game onto your kids because you're going to be gone someday, and you pass on relationships. I did my part, and that's just the way it is.

"And hey ... that's the lyric to a Bruce Hornsby song!"

Indeed it is. And Hornsby has since passed on baseball, Hudler- and La Russa-style, to his own family. He has taken the Hornsby clan to Jupiter, Fla., for Cardinals Spring Training for the last 13 years, and he even roasted La Russa at the manager's 60th birthday party.

"It's great being friends with Tony," Hornsby says. "And Tony's got a lot of friends. Some really impressive people. You never know what amazing people you're going to meet when you have dinner with Tony in Spring Training or during the season."

Hornsby also says La Russa is among the most loyal friends a man can find. In fact, when Hornsby was honored by the Washington, D.C., chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), La Russa jetted across the country to surprise-introduce him.

"He's a great friend," Hornsby says. "And I'm sure he will continue to be."

That's why Hornsby was among the many to congratulate La Russa after the manager concluded his 33-year career by retiring on top -- right after leading the Cardinals to a stunning September comeback and even more amazing run to the 11th World Series title in St. Louis history.

"I texted him after he retired," Hornsby says. "I wrote something like, 'Great career. Now you can carry my amplifiers for me,' to which Tony quickly replied, 'No, I'll carry your piano on my back.'"

Hornsby says he can't imagine retiring at all, let alone retiring the way La Russa did. But he does see many comparisons between the grueling yet very rewarding careers that he and his friend chose.

"Music and athletes have a lot in common," Hornsby says. "It's really, to me, about the pursuit of excellence in what you're doing. We share a desire, a need, to achieve a certain level of performance proficiency.

"Jazz and classical and bluegrass ... playing those instruments well is all very akin to the guy who's grinding in the batting cage, lifting weights, spending all those hours behind the scenes honing his craft so it all shows up when the game begins.

"I practice every day at age 57. I'm a lifelong student."

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB and read his MLBlog, Youneverknow. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.