It’s a Wonderful Life. The Notebook. When Harry Met Sally…. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Gone with the Wind. Casablanca. If this sounds like a hopeless romantic’s answer to a Tumblr ask box query for “what are some classic love stories to watch with my crush that I met at a party last weekend?” circa 2012, it probably originated in those terms anyway.
Sound bites from these films flicker over clean chords in typical emo-album fashion: samples bubble under the fair use time limit but burn long enough to leave marks. Ryan Gosling wants Rachel McAdams while she breaks into sobs. Billy Crystal shouts his own bleeding-heart version of “Auld Lang Syne.” It’s grade-A Tumblrcore cheese. Lil Peep would repurpose this section in 2016, removing the clips but retaining the emotional heft. That moment would be reappraised again, this time by the same person who wrote it in the first place, this time from a very different vantage point.
“How Do I Tell A Girl I Want to Kiss Her?” was never officially released by Modern Baseball or more accurately, Bren Lukens. They dropped Dude: The Love of Your Life Has Some Serious Issues in 2012 on Tumblr for free download under their initialism BTFL, following the Mediafire overflow of MoBo’s debut EP The Nameless Ranger in high school. That track doesn’t open the set, but Spotify thinks it does. Hey, whatever r/emo lurker that forwarded it to streaming services under the New Guard Media copyright, let’s talk. I’m the Old Guard.
This pirate upload is missing a few inclusions. BTFL’s original running order has a few interlude moments, the kind of pint-size vignettes that would rocket Sports, Modern Baseball’s debut album (earning double digits today, November 27), up the Bandcamp “punk” charts. It adds a few, too, likely cribbed from other archival attempts. An easy thumbs-down can be thrown: “Pretty O.K.” was penned by Jake Ewald, known today as the leader of Slaughter Beach, Dog.
But alright, I can’t act like I didn’t think Bren and Jake’s voices were one when I first made my way through Sports, then backwards to The Nameless Ranger and their Couples Therapy split with college buddies Marietta. Both of them studied at the school of neurotic pop punk, trading lines in shot-upward snarls. They did the friendly back-and-forth like Delonge/Hoppus, Lazzara/Nolan, take your pick.
The pair met in high school in Maryland, becoming fast friends after Jake let Bren borrow shoes after they stepped in dog shit. Don’t let me explain this, though. MoBo paid voice actor Rick Lance to summarize their Superbad origin story for the documentary Tripping in the Dark.
Long before MoBo’s quick ascendancy into pop punk blood money, they were dorm room guitar heroes filming webcam sessions for Jake’s classmate’s blog, owners of cottage businesses, and regulars of the house show circuit. It’s an education that began in Frederick but calcified in Philadelphia, while Jake headed to Drexel and Bren headed northwest to Chestnut Hill.
Drexel’s Music Industry program is an attractive concept for many starry-eyed applicants. Senior projects range from record labels spun up to shit out a single catalog number, benefit shows at Brooklyn bars, or being in Modern Baseball. Faculty at Drexel’s Westphal School do things like run Don Giovanni Records (thanks for Aye Nako, Joe!) or have played bass in Passion Pit, and Ryan Schwabe not only mastered MoBo’s final two releases, but advised both Jake and bassist Ian Farmer on their senior projects.
Drexel’s radio station WKDU is no slouch, either. Eric Osman was gearing up to spin selections on his show Eric Goes to College, watched A Goofy Movie with his brother, and landed on the name Lame-O Records. MoBo was comfortably nestled in the Philly basement gig world, creating their own niche at Michael Jordan, a house that accepted pictures of the Jumpman as entry fees. LMO-001 would be Sports, a record with DNA left over from the BTFL sessions pieced together in Drexel’s Studio A during spring finals in 2012. (Bonus fact: it was mastered by Zakk Cervini early on in his discography, who would go on to have quite the stacked portfolio.) Most of the instruments were performed by Jake, with Bren performing most of the vocal takes. Producer Ian Farmer would later join the band on bass after spending time with the band behind the boards. Sean Huber, leader of bar rock troupe Steady Hands, would eventually become MoBo’s drummer and featured vocalist on their biggest hit. But this is still LMO-001.
How Modern Baseball went from releasing Sports in November 2012 to prepping their Run for Cover hot seller You’re Gonna Miss It All the following summer is a scientific marvel “fifth wave emo” bands remain puzzled and upset by, but the Sports-era web ecosystem doesn’t exist anymore. I would also be eating sour grapes if Elon Musk owned my marketing platform.
PropertyOfZack was founded by Drexel alum Zack Zarrillo, who does more for your favorite bands than you probably know. He always has. Just look at POZ, a Tumblog that rivaled AbsolutePunk in its salad days and hired me as a navel-gazing dork at its sunset. POZ was the rag to blow up the Fall Out Boy reunion and probably also Modern Baseball, in addition to getting bands like Tiny Moving Parts signed just because people reblogged that couch being long and full of friendship.
Sports was largely premiered via POZ and AbsolutePunk, a press campaign that culminated in a 92% review from the latter website. In the age of the X.X Pitchfork ratings scale and, worse, the calculators of Twitter discourse, nothing hits quite like a reviewer’s tilt. Writer Kelly Doherty shoehorned in references to coming-of-age melodrama. The comment section was stuffed with phrases like “lightning in a bottle.” Lame-O sold out of 300 records rather quickly, boosted by the record’s dot-com backbone and Run for Cover’s distro section. Sports would be reissued once by both Lame-O and RFC, later becoming Osman’s impetus for cataloging the City of Brotherly Love’s finest indie rock musicians. (Can’t forget giving shine to Eric’s business partner Emily Hakes, who is as much part of this story as A Goofy Movie.)
Those who still use Tumblr probably wax nostalgic about the days of its music discovery possibilities. Plenty of subcultures proliferated there, from “soft grunge” to the House that Marina Built to continuing the Arctic Monkeys’ overhaul of Urban Outfitters into a vinyl stockroom. TikTok has assumed that role these days, but Tumblr’s accessibility and viability as an easily indexable blogger’s paradise made Modern Baseball have plenty of runway. TikTok has continued their reign in a misty-eyed sense, but Tumblr solidified its right to exist.
Leveraging the internet in songwriting is not new. We could go all day about the potency of lines as AIM away messages or the sharp high of a clutch MySpace song. Tumblr united the word vomit of LiveJournal with the clipped pace of a five-second attention span. Sports darts between both hemispheres and updates both for the times. Think the loose candor of a risky text chased with quick-firing immediacy. It’s almost like it was a product of its nocturnal undergrad environment: caffeinated, rushed, and sincere. Certain moments are blown out so much, you can hear the click track.
For those playing Sports for the first time today, I’m sorry. This will not reach you the way it grabbed ten years ago. (To paraphrase Thomas Nassiff’s long-lost review of You’re Gonna Miss It All, these songs have expiration dates.) Bren walks us through a lonely night on Twitter (did you know the handle gracing “@chl03k” had the bio “modern baseball wrote a song about me once”?), records voicemail lead-ins on “Hours Outside in the Snow” and locks texts on “Re-done.” Jake commiserates about an English prof with a two-star online review. They’re texting you “sup”s and “heyy”s with a smile or winky face, hoping to get the same. (The “love me” on the corner of NYC’s Canal St. and Broadway, signposted by “See Ya, Sucker,” has been painted over. I checked.) For crying out loud, BTFL and Sports share a minute-long bruiser called “I Think You Were in My Profile Picture Once.”
That being said, I dare you to highlight a two-chord song with more boundless electricity than “The Weekend.” Actually, don’t do that. Just watch the video, their first collaboration with director/genius Kyle Thrash, a giddy beeline through MJ’s basement to a Hipster with Glasses.
“The Weekend” is a great thesis statement for an album that splits the difference between gooey pop punk and wiry folk punk. It’s not an emo song; it’s threaded through the band’s acoustic beginnings. Scene scholars might look to Modern Baseball as a jumping-off point for the emo revival’s “commercial” evolution. Algernon Cadwallader was not getting pieces in Grantland on their sophomore LP. And they surely weren’t moving thousands of records on tour with The Wonder Years.
Come to think of it, that might be the reason MoBo’s post-Sports lifespan was larger than, perhaps, what some wanted. The Wonder Years tweeted about the album shortly after its release, and to get a cosign from Philly’s premier pop punk group at Stage One of their career was a huge boost. MoBo opened for TWY’s 24-hour tour at First Unitarian, and would be the first of five on their Greatest Generation tour. MoBo’s touring schedule boomed and by 2017, they were exhausted. I moved to Philly two weeks after those farewell shows. MoBo played their biggest hit, a song called “Your Graduation,” three times for an encore, after having played Sports in full. It was the only album they celebrated this way, even if its two successors found them successively larger and more critically acclaimed.
They were farewell shows, by the way.
Foxing’s Conor Murphy was recently quoted saying of Modern Baseball’s sudden disappearance: “they’re just gone because there was nowhere to go.” At the time of Sports’ release, the question of where Modern Baseball could’ve gone wasn’t a point of contention. In 2012, the Lame-O website description was enough to entice the most emotionally tortured of white people: Say Anything, Motion City Soundtrack and The Gaslight Anthem? Sign me up! (Foxing would also tour with MoBo in 2014. As 2000-cap royalty, MoBo had the license to introduce acts like PUP and Death Rosenstock to eager audiences throughout their career.)
Some might say “Tears Over Beers” is, in a way, a Gaslight Anthem of its own. I do not listen to those voices, because it definitely just sounds like the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris.” TikTokers will talk about “male manipulator music” and use this song as evidence. I do not use TikTok, but I read this Pitchfork piece during MoBo’s heyday that elaborated on this with brain cells. (Writer Dan Caffrey is a man. I don’t care.)
Modern Baseball became the Good Dudes Backed Hard of pop punk by acting like sweethearts and wearing tie-dye on stage. They had a hotline forwarded to their tour manager in case audience members felt unsafe and grandstanded about the overwhelming Wonder Bread dudeness of package tours. There are articles about them pointing out that bro-stuff is a no-no.
I don’t 100% think that anybody is good, especially in the music industry that I referred to as “pop punk blood money” with no irony. I don’t think anybody posturing online, about MoBo or as MoBo, was definitively right, either. I have a Modern Baseball tattoo. I yelled at bands for ripping them off. I am as much a product of this queasy situation as I am removed from it, no longer a resident of the city that made this band famous.
I love this record. It changed my life. Before I discovered it, I was a big nerd with big feelings. After it, I was a big feeling nerd with validated emotions and people I could (and did) consider my friends. A song like “Play Ball!” will always remain a high-water mark of the genre, a syrupy mess of acoustic splendor. The construction of the album, beginning with “Re-do” and flipping over onto “Re-done,” elevates it away from standard breakup fare. Because of Sports, I left my bedroom and started attending shows, tens of them being MoBo sets, hundreds of them being rooted in their backyard.
In 2013, I attempted suicide in my Virginia dorm room the night before a Psych 101 final. I was fighting online, being an asshole, and Sports was on the turntable. I threw up what I had shoved down. “Cooke” saved me from circling the drain. I didn’t tell anybody that until I wrote about it a couple years later, and I left Philadelphia for the same reasons this summer.
A decade is a long time to become something else. Modern Baseball fractured in 2017, with Steady Hands on one side and Slaughter Beach on the other. Jake and Ian record music at The Metal Shop, a Philly studio they own together. Sean is still torching his voice with an Irish slant. Bren retreated from public life. Thank you, y’all. Sorry I left without saying bye.
Sports is a record that begins with a do-over and continues with more of them. It’s no surprise it’s settled into an afterlife as a foundational text for formative years: songs bent by and blooming via young love, restored by the power of a sudsy antidote or a chosen family. Sports let Modern Baseball be whatever they wanted, if for a moment.
You can be whatever you want, too. Don’t let me go back.