Mike Mills: The Game Is Music To His Ears

By Abe Schear

At one time or another, most of us have wanted to be rock and roll stars. While the aura of that life seems so different than mine, baseball can be a common thread.

In that regard, a couple of years ago I thought to interview Mike Mills, having regularly seen him rambling around the ball park, rooting for the Braves, rubbing elbows with everyone else. I have seen his world renowned group, R.E.M., six or seven times, and have always been impressed with their loyalty and dignity. In fact, the band has always performed as the best of teams.

R.E.M. rocks on and on, gathering grace and relevance. At the same time, Mike’s loyalty and passion for the Braves has multiplied. Not many of us would, on successive weekends, fly from Europe to Atlanta to watch the Braves.

Ultimately, I was impressed that Mike Mills was so un-rock like. Friendly and thoroughly gracious, he gave me all the time I needed to record and explore his wonderful memories.

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Abe Schear: Here we are. It is Monday the 29th of August and I hope this works. Something will work. Growing up in Macon, did you play baseball?
Mike Mills: Well, I was in Atlanta, actually, until 1971, so I did. I played two years of Little League in Atlanta and when I moved to Macon, for some reason, I just didn’t take it back up.

Schear: And where did you play in Atlanta?
Mills: I played out at the Northeast Athletic Association which is off Pleasantdale Road and played at Vigo Field which was donated by Frank Vigo, the auto dealer.

Schear: And what position did you play?
Mills: Infield, second, third and short.

Schear: Who taught you to play baseball?
Mills: Mostly my Dad, I think He was my coach the first year, so he helped a lot. Just he coaches in Little League, watching on TV, reading books, all those things.

Schear: Were your family Braves fans?
Mills: Yes, Dad and I used to watch games all the time. We went to a lot of Braves games. He actually took me to a Crackers game. I went to a Crackers game on Ponce.

Schear: Ponce de Leon.
Mills: It was on Ponce de Leon. It had the big magnolia tree in center field. I still remember that night. It was a long time ago, but I remember some of it.

Schear: You were a little boy.
Mills: Very little boy.

Schear: The field… I think the last year they played there was ’63 or ’64.
Mills: ’64. The Braves came in ’66.

Schear: And I guess your dad was a Crackers fan, too?
Mills: Yeah. He liked baseball and that was all we had in Atlanta. Of course, he was on the road. He didn’t get home from the Marines until ’60 or ’61, something like that.

Schear: Now, when you were a child, who were your favorite players?
Mills: Rico Carty, the “beeg” boy.

Schear: Anybody else?
Mills: Well Rico was my favourite. I liked Felipe Alou. Who else from the Braves? Felix Milan because he would whistle. He had a really loud whistle and you could… Hell, at those Braves games you could talk to the guy across the entire stadium because there was nobody there, but you could really hear him whistling out at second base really loud. I liked Phil Niekro. I think those were my favorites.

Schear: I remember with Rico Carty, his arm was so bad that the ball would get hit out to him and the shortstop would run out and go get it from him. He couldn’t throw a ball at the end of his career at all. Did you collect baseball cards?
Mills: No, I was never a baseball card person for some reason. I’ve got a great coffee table book of old baseball cards and I enjoy thumbing through it, but I never collected them.

Schear: So, you didn’t collect any baseball stuff when you were a little boy?
Mills: No, the odd thing is, I really didn’t because I collected all manner of other weird things as a kid: political buttons, college pennants, coins, but never baseball cards.

Schear: And then you moved to Macon?
Mills: I moved to Macon in ’71. Didn’t carry on with Little League because I didn’t know anybody. I was very shy. I went to see the kids play one time and it was like all of a sudden they were throwing the ball 20 miles an hour faster than I’d ever seen anybody throw it in Little League, so I think I just never got the nerve to join after that.

Schear: Did Macon have a minor league team then?
Mills: Off and on in the time I was there. They have one of the oldest ballparks in the country, Luther Williams Field, which has been renovated and restored; and the last time I was in Macon, I went down to try and see it, but the game got rained out, but I think I only went to one game down there.

Schear: I guess you listen to the ball games. You follow the Braves games on the radio, on TV?
Mills: Well, mostly the radio. Milo Hamilton and Ernie Johnson. I used to listen to all of it on my Sinclair transistor radio. Remember, Sinclair Gas?

Schear: Right.
Mills: They gave away transistor radios with the little green dinosaur on it. This was my connection to the Braves. And, then of course, Ted bought Channel 17 which was WTCG at the time and along with bull fighting from Mexico and reruns of Lost in Space, he would show every Braves game. He bought the Braves for programming, purely for programming.

Schear: And I am guessing that you listened to the Braves games on your radio when you were just a little boy?
Mills: Oh, yeah, as long as I can remember. I had the radio under the pillow for the night games.

Schear: Now, when you came to Athens in the late ‘70s…?
Mills: ’79, January ’79.

Schear: Were you following the Braves then?
Mills: Oh, yeah, I’ve been a Braves fan always since they got to Atlanta.

Schear: You followed them all through your college…?
Mills: Oh, yeah, I even got Peter interested in them, although he doesn’t like sports, but I got him. I think probably because they were so inept for so long, he enjoyed them just because they were so bad.

Schear: Did you enjoy mostly watching them or listening to them or going to them?
Mills: Oh, well you know, I would much rather go to the game than anything, but I guess it just depended on what you’re doing, but if it is just me sitting around, I’d rather have it on TV. If there are a lot of folks and you’re having a little party or barbecue or whatever, the radio is fine.

Schear: What other ballparks have you gone to?
Mills: Oh, golly, okay let’s see. Iv’e been to the Kingdome. I haven’t been to their new park yet. I’ve been to Oakland Coliseum.

Schear: It’s a great place to drink beer.
Mills: Not the Coliseum, sorry Oakland. It’s next to the Coliseum. Whatever the field is in Oakland, I don’t know what they call it now. I went to Candlestick and I’ve been to PNC. I’ve been to Dodger Stadium. I haven’t been to a game in San Diego. I haven’t been to Arizona. I’ve been to Coors Field. Let’s see, I haven’t been to Busch, although I’ve been trying to go this year. I better go quick. I haven’t been to Kansas City. I’ve been to Wrigley. I went to the old Comisky. I haven’t been to the new one. I haven’t been to baseball in Cincinnati or Pittsburgh. I have been to Yankee Stadium. I’ve been to Shea Stadium. I’ve been to Fenway. Let’s see, what am I leaving out? I went to the old Baltimore. I went to the old Baltimore Memorial, and then I’ve also been to Camden.

Schear: Detroit?
Mills: I have not been to anything in Detroit. I have been to Jacobs Field.

Schear: Florida and Texas?
Mills: I’ve been to a Marlins game in Florida. I’ve never been to baseball in Texas, and I don’t think I’ve seen Tropicana. I think we might have played in Tropicana a long time ago. I’m not sure, but I’ve never been to a baseball game…

Schear: Now, when you are on the road and you’ve got time, do you go to the ballgames?
Mills: Occasionally, usually you just don’t have time. If you’re on tour, you have to time it. If you get everything right, it has to be an off day for us. The team has to be in town. We actually might be traveling. You know, it’s almost impossible.

Schear: You’ve sung the “Star Spangled Banner” in Atlanta.
Mills: I’ve sung it for the Braves twice. Once at the old Fulton County and once at the new one. I’ve sung it at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. I’ve thrown out the first pitches in Camden Yards and the Kingdome.

Schear: And what’s that like?
Mills: It’s pretty cool. I really enjoyed it, because you know, in the Kingdome, you’re on a mound and they take a photograph of you just as you’re… You know, at that point, you’re lined up and the way they’ve got the camera set up, all you can see is you and the stands behind you and it looks like you’re really in a game and it’s a really cool picture of me at the Kingdome. It was their opening day about five or six years ago.

Schear: And what about singing? What is that like?
Mills: Singing is petrifying. It’s horribly frightening, because you are all alone. I did it once with music which was weird because the music was coming out of a centerfield and I was on home plate, so I was a bout a second behind the music throughout the whole song and I didn’t realize that until somebody told me. So, the second time I did it, I just did it a cappella which works a little better.

Schear: And the song is not easy to sing anyhow.
Mills: It is not the easiest song to sing. The only thing you really want to worry about is getting the words right. You know, people will forgive you for missing the notes. If you miss the words, they get on you pretty bad.

Schear: When you are on the road and you have time off, do you ever play baseball or throw a ball around or play softball?
Mills: We had a pretty good game one year. I couldn’t even tell you. Oh, it was in Minneapolis and we had all the crew out there, including a bunch of guys that never have seen baseball. We had a guy from Ireland that had never played and he ended up doing really well. We’ve done it, but it’s a little difficult these days considering most of the guys in the band are not sports fans.

Schear: When you go to the ballpark and you listen, what is the favorite audience R.E.M. song at the ballpark?
Mills: I don’t know. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard one at a baseball game. I did, however, go to a hockey game, where two goys got knocked down and they went sliding across the ice and they played “Stand”, but in terms of baseball, I’ve probably heard “Shiny Happy People” maybe once or twice. That’s all I can think of.

Schear: Are baseball players big fans of musical groups?
Mills: Some are. I had an amazing experience: Two friends of mine and I one summer went to several ballparks and we set it up through the office so they knew we were coming. Sometimes, we’d just go as if, you know, we were civilians. Sometimes, you’d go in with some advance notice and in Chicago at Wrigley, they took me down to the locker room and I met Sutcliffe* and Mark Grace came up to me. He held his bat out and he said, “Here, I can’t hit shit with this, you take it.” He gave me his bat. I’ve still got it at home. So, that was really cool. Mark Grace was a great guy. After that, we went up and the lady who was taking me around says, “You want to meet Harry?”** and I said, “Hell yeah, I want to meet Harry.” So, I had just bought a Holy Cow hat and she took me in to see Harry and Harry said, “What a fine hat you’ve got there, son” and I was like “Thank you Harry, anything with you on it is really good.” So, that, was really cool. That was a pretty big experience.

Schear: But you didn’t sing in the 7th inning stretch there?
Mills: I never sang “Take Me Out” to the Ballgame at Wrigley.

Schear: You guys have played, I’m sure, in many arenas including ballparks. Which ballpark that you’ve played in is a memorable one?
Mills: Well, we don’t do stadium shows in America. The only ballpark we ever played in is the awesome minor league field at St. Paul. I guess, where the Saints play. That was a really good experience. It was raining, but other than that we had a great time and it was really cool playing actually in a baseball stadium, but I think that’s the only one we’ve ever played in.

Schear: Any songs that you’ve written that in any way have any baseball message to them?
Mills: No…***

Schear: Any baseball metaphors …?
Mills: No, I can’t think of any. You know, Michael [Stipe] writes 99% of the lyrics and is not a sports fan, so that doesn’t really tend to creep in.

Schear: Now, I can understand that. Being a guitar player, what baseball position on the field is being a guitar player most like?
Mills: That’s a good question. I’d say probably like the outfielder. You know, a lot of attention, a lot of notice, homerun hitters often, and that sort of thing.

Schear: Okay. I’ve seen you many times at the ballpark in Atlanta. People pretty much leave you alone in Atlanta?
Mills: Oh yeah, yeah. People don’t bother me really much anywhere I go. If anybody wants to say something, they are usually very respectful and polite and that’s all I would ever ask.

Schear: Have you had season tickets to the ballgames or do you sort of go out and buy them?
Mills: Yeah, I’ve had season tickets since ’91.

Schear: So, you use your tickets and you go see the games?
Mills: Or ’92. ’91 was worst to first.

Schear: And you go to a lot of games now when you are in town?
Mills: When I can. I’ve only been to a couple this year. I hope to see one or two more before the season is out.

Schear: Do you follow the Braves when you’re on the road?
Mills: Oh yes, absolutely. You know, the Internet can be a useful tool and so I take my laptop. I stay on top of it for them.

Schear: What about XM radio?
Mills: I haven’t gotten to that satellite radio yet. I’ve heard great things about it but I’ve been on the road for so long I haven’t needed it.

Schear: I listened to the ballgame yesterday. The Braves beat the Brewers, and I got to listen to the Brewers announce broadcast the game.
Mills: Awesome. By the way, the bass player would be a catcher. The bass player in baseball is the catcher.

Schear: And that is why?
Mills: Because you are really sitting there running the show but nobody knows it.

Schear: And the singer?
Mills: Would be the pitcher.

Schear: I was once at a concert when the performer announced the score. Are you aware of the games while you perform? At World Series time?
Mills: Certainly, in ’95 we were because it was a long, long tour and my base technician is a Cleveland Indians fan, so we kept trying to upstage each other with hidden logos of the other team. For example, I would come on stage and there behind the P.A. speaker where only stage people could see it, there would be a big Cleveland Indians logo and then he would come up to his little work station and I had a big Braves flag hanging in there or something. So, that was pretty intense. The Braves beat the Indians, you know. Everybody was kind of watching that. I got everybody kind of psyched up.

Schear: In your ear, were they telling you what the score was?
Mills: I don’t know. We don’t . . . Not during the show. Maybe by the encore when things get a little bit looser, but for the first hour and a half, you’re just paying attention to what you are doing.

Schear: And the most memorable game you’ve ever been to?
Mills: Wow, that’s tricky. I would say… Was it in ’92 that we played the Blue Jays?

Schear: Yes.
Mills: Well the World Series with the Blue Jays was pretty memorable because I was in Europe doing press, but I commuted back to Atlanta for two weekends in a row to see the games only to have Joe Carter break my heart. Those were pretty intense because I was flying from Italy back to Georgia just for two days and then back again and I was completely out of my mind on jet lag.
I was at the first few games of the series with the Yankees where Andruw… We had won the first two games and Andruw hit those homeruns and then, of course, we got swept in the next four, but I’d say those first two in New York were pretty intense. Also, Ernie Johnson’s first last game. We all went to… I think it was Fulton County, when Ernie was retiring and we got some of his flash cards and everybody held them up and it said, “Hey, Ernie we’re” and then you’d flip them over and it said, “zipping right along.” So, hopefully Ernie saw that. I don’t know.

Schear: That’s funny. Any baseball collectibles now that you’re a little bit older?
Mills: I’ve got all kinds of stuff. I do some charity golf outings where there is a lot of memorabilia for sale, so I’ve got a bunch of signed baseballs and jerseys and all kinds of stuff just from years of going.

Schear: No baseball cards?
Mills: No baseball cards, no, not one card. I don’t know why, but I just never went that direction.

Schear: Okay. I’ve asked all my questions. What have I not asked that I should have asked?
Mills: Oh, I’m in a very reactive mode. I don’t have any idea. I just don’t. I think you have covered everything I could think of.

Schear: Okay. Well, that’s great. Thanks.
Mills: Awesome. I hope you have something you can use.

Schear: I can use every bit of it.

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*Rick Sutcliffe, pitcher for Chicago Cubs 1984-1991
**Harry Caray, the legendary announcer
*** Obviously the interview was done before R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey started The Baseball Project!

The interview was taken from the book I Remember When – A Collection of Memories from Baseball’s Biggest Fans by Abe Schear

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