Blurred lines between rock and sports (and Jack McDowell)

There has long been this mutual admiration society, even hero worship, with athletes and rock stars. I’m certain if somebody researched Diocles, the famous Roman chariot racer in the 2nd century, we would learn he secretly wanted to play bass and sing lead vocals.

“It’s been a running joke since I can remember that rock stars want to be athletes and athletes want to be rock stars,” said Mike Mills, singer, songwriter and a founding member of the group R.E.M. “We’re both involved with the word ‘play,’ and when you’re really good at something you have an appreciation for the dedication it takes by others to be that good.

“I also think we all feel like we’re getting away with something.”

Mills played baseball as a youth. He was a little league All-Star, but the baseball "career" ended shortly thereafter. Now he golfs, attends events and competes in a blur of fantasy sports leagues.

Mills has met and befriended a number of athletes, but only one may have led to a memorable moment in baseball history — and a song. Jack McDowell was one of the the game’s top pitchers. He had two 20-win seasons with the Chicago White Sox (1992-93). But he’s equally remembered for a game with the New York Yankees against his old team, when he allowed nine runs in 4 2/3 innings in an 11-4 loss.

What made it memorable was McDowell firing back at booing Yankees fans by giving them the middle finger as he walked off the mound. Tabloids had a field day. McDowell was labeled, “The Yankee Flipper.”

So here’s the back story. McDowell is an amateur rocker himself. A day or two before the game, he went out drinking with other rockers: Mills, Scott McCaughey (several bands, including R.E.M.) and Dennis Diken (Smithereens). Apparently, the quartet hit it kind of hard.

The night was recently immortalized in a song, "The Yankee Flipper," written by McCaughey. The opening verse:

“He’s a friend of the Smithereens, an old pal of Eddie Vedder; For a good few years there weren’t any pitchers better; He loved R.E.M. and he played a Rickenbacker guitar; But for a night on the town with Mike Mills you get hit pretty hard.”

And later, this:

“He was crowned the Yankee Flipper by the foul ball of fame. He gave 50,000 fans the finger, but we’d like to share a little bit of the blame.”

Mills seemed a little uncomfortable talking about that night, but said: “I remember we twisted his arm into having a shot of tequila with us. We played some pool. Next thing I know he wasn’t around anymore. He disappeared.”

Pretty sure he left out some details.

“For a band on tour it wasn’t a super insane night,” Mills said. “But maybe for a pitcher during the season.”

Maybe. Probably. Sometimes the line between rock and sports get a little too close.