FARGO — Growing up as a baseball fan in Fargo, Matt Halvorson knew of Roger Maris as the home run king thanks in part to the museum in West Acres Shopping Center.
He recalls hearing ads for shops specifying they were “located in the Roger Maris Wing of West Acres.” When he started writing songs inspired by baseball, he knew he wanted to include that specific reference.
Halvorson knocked it out of the park when he released his latest single, “Roger Maris,” on April 1 — opening day of the Major League Baseball season. The tune is one of nine from an album called “Nine Innings” that will be released later this year.
Each of the nine tracks is named after a big leaguer. Rather than being a walk-up anthem to pump up a crowd, the songs are more nuanced, exploring the gray in a game that is often black and white and the players labeled heroes or bums.
“This was seeing the world through baseball, but these are non-baseball stories I know too,” the singer says from his home in Seattle.
“Roger Maris” is more about the stress the player endured in 1961 as he chased Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. Maris didn’t want the spotlight and many Yankees fans and sports writers didn’t think he was worthy of becoming the new home run king, preferring that title go to Maris’ teammate and friend, Mickey Mantle.
Even after Maris won the title, the record was diminished with an asterisk because he hit 61 homers in 162 games, eight more than Ruth did.
The dramatic song builds to an emotional climax before crashing as Halvorson closes with the reflective line, “I will catch my breath and mend my wing and let West Acres take me in.”
“It was all about finding stories that were compelling and putting myself in that spot,” he says. “How can I tell a story that’s bigger than baseball that helps me understand my life a little better?”
The cover art for the single was created by Halvorson's Fargo neighbor and friend, Zach Scheet.
Not all of the figures Halvorson sings about are stars and some are known for their worst moments, not their career highlights. Pitcher Carl Mays won more than 200 games and four World Series championships in the early 1900s, but is best known for throwing the pitch that killed Ray Chapman, the only big leaguer to die as a direct result of an in-game injury.
The project kicked off with spring training and the inauspiciously titled “Kevin Elster.” A light-hitting shortstop known for his defense, Elster suddenly broke out with the Texas Rangers in 1996 at the age of 31, knocking 24 bombs and 99 RBI. His previous best was 10 homers and 55 RBI.
It’s widely assumed now that Elster, like a number of Rangers at the time, was on steroids. Halvorson doesn’t judge, but rather considers what he would’ve done if his career was winding down and he was offered a way to boost his performance and extend his playing days.
“Part of this is that these songs are about me as much as they are about the people they are named after,” he says.
Halvorson grew up loving baseball and recalls throwing himself grounders in his family’s basement when it was too cold or wet outside. The family moved to Sioux Falls, S.D., when he graduated from high school in 1999, and he played ball at Augustana University there.
After college, he worked for the Sioux Falls Canaries — rivals of the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks — and later made it to the bigs as a staffer for the Atlanta Braves. Working in baseball wasn’t as fulfilling as playing the game, so he quit and turned his attention to making music. Now he’s happy to watch games with his four kids.
“I like writing music and telling stories,” he says. “I do think baseball is the most lyrical, poetic sport. I like to think we discovered baseball and the rest of sports we invented.”
These days he writes Rise Up for Students, an advocacy blog about equity and education in Seattle and Washington, focusing on racial issues and social injustice.
He sees Major League Baseball as a reflection to America’s long reckoning with these issues. He started “Nine Innings” about a decade ago after learning about Moses Fleetwood Walker, one of the first Black men to play in the MLB. His only season was in 1884 and he would be the last Black man to play in the bigs until Jackie Robinson cracked the segregated game in 1947.
Halvorson will mark Jackie Robinson Day, April 15, with a song about the Hall of Famer. An ode to Walker comes out on May 1, the 137th anniversary of his first day in MLB.
The last song he wrote for the project was about the once highly-touted prospect, now utility player for the San Diego Padres, “Jurickson Profar.” That tune comes out on Sept. 2, the ninth anniversary of Profar’s debut, in which he homered in his first at-bat. The singer was drawn to Profar’s story as an example of how baseball fans and writers can get caught in a cycle of looking for the next great player and overlooking an otherwise solid career.
Halvorson says now that he’s done recording, he’s ready to move musically from baseball.
“I’ve reached the end of that compulsion,” he says. “I’ve got to clear out space for other ideas to happen. I’m hesitant to become some baseball song guy.”
Still, he’s not entirely putting the project behind him. Tunes will come out throughout the season until the full album is released around the World Series.
While he wrote the songs for himself, he hopes they find an audience — and particularly hopes the Maris family gives the tune about their dad a listen.
“It’s been fun writing with such specific purpose. I had to make the best use of the few words I had to use lyrically,” he says. “I really do enjoy writing these very specific songs, to let music and words tell a story.”