Jake Peavy’s New Pitch

It was a shelling that lasted the whole season. Jake Peavy, a journeyman fastballer for the San Francisco Giants, was greeted in the early part of the 2016 season

with the news that he’d been bilked out of $15 million by a financial adviser. As the summer wore on, meetings with lawyers outnumbered strikeouts, depositions over-shadowed wins, and Peavy’s ERA soared to a career high of 5.54. His season was cut short when he stepped on a pair of scissors, forcing the two-time World Series winner to sit out the postseason, too. He returned home only to be served with divorce papers.

Undoubtedly, it was a very bad year for Jake Peavy, but you wouldn’t know it by the party he hosted in early December. Seventy friends and family trekked out to Catherine, Alabama (pop. 22), 80 miles west of Montgomery. It’s the pitcher’s offseason home away from home, a 5,400-acre ranch and hunting camp named Southern Falls. Guests packed the property’s spacious bar-room/concert venue/bowling alley, the Mill Creek Saloon, as if it were a championship locker room, hoisting bottles and cans, moonshine jars and joints.

The host weaved through the crowd, cheering the house band jamming onstage. It was a southern-flavored shin-dig, with an oyster roast and barbecue buffet and plenty to wash it down. As guest after guest — southern-rock legends and almost-famous singer-songwriters — sat in for a turn with the band, Peavy boogied, hollered, and used his iron-veined hands to pogo off the shoulders of others while shouting, “Can you believe this, brother? Can you believe this!”

As he eases toward retirement after 15 seasons in the majors — during which the reliable right-hander won a Cy Young Award and spots on three All-Star rosters while inching his way up to 56th on the list of all-time strikeout leaders — Peavy has begun his walk toward a new passion project: Building a musical outpost in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. “Any city that’s worth a dang certainly has a musical heartbeat,” he says, “a culture and a scene that can stand on its own.” He’s not out to build it from scratch but simply to turn the volume up on a city that has produced an eclectic mix of musicians, from Jimmy Buffett to James Brown’s longtime band director, trombonist Fred Wesley.

So he built a studio, Dauphin Street Sound, in downtown Mobile in the hope of turning the town into a mini Music City USA. Located in the heart of the Gulf South — just over two hours’ drive from New Orleans and six hours from Nashville — the studio comes complete with Peavy’s collection of guitars, valued at a half-million dollars (including a 1955 Fender Telecaster that may be the first with a sunburst finish), the expertise of three-time Grammy-winning producer and engineer Trina Shoemaker (who has worked with Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, and Whiskeytown), and a nearby band house that doubles as a private rehearsal and event space. And then, just two hours north, there’s Southern Falls, where Peavy recently built an outdoor theater and a 48-bed lodge — “a Bass Pro Shop on acid,” a friend called it. In an era when a musician can cut a record just about anywhere, Peavy’s dream is for the two locations to become destinations, like FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, or Sonic Ranch in West Texas — workspaces that will allow singers and songwriters to escape the world, hunker down, and write and record music.

Peavy talks about music like baseball fanatics rave about a batter’s perfect home run swing or the sublime form of a star pitcher’s windup. Music is “vital to who we are as a people,” he philosophizes. “The closest man-made thing to that next level, the spiritual.” Growing up in Semmes, just outside of Mobile, he remembers watching his grandfather sing gospel harmony in the family’s church and playing bluegrass and Hank Williams records back home. On Sundays, his grandmother would transport her grandkids to the local nursing home, where she would, in Peavy’s words, “beat on a piano” as the children sang out “This Little Light of Mine.” His father, Danny, exposed him to healthy doses of classic rock before it was called classic rock — “Bob Seger saved American music in [my father’s] opinion,” Peavy says.

After skipping college to work his way up through the minors, Peavy joined the San Diego Padres in 2002 as a 21-year-old rookie in need of a mentor. He gravitated toward the team’s third-base coach, Tim Flannery — the Padres’ fan-favorite second baseman throughout the 1980s and a roots-country singer-songwriter with a dozen albums to his name — who could often be found on road trips strumming his travel acoustic, accompanied by a bottle of wine, in hotel stairwells. The young pitcher begged Flannery to teach him the song his grandfather sang to him as a boy: “Pancho and Lefty,” Townes Van Zandt’s oft-covered ode to an outlaw’s struggle with the bitter-sweet memory of a life spent on the road. (It is, in Peavy’s estimation, “the best country and western song ever written.”) The coach eventually snuck a guitar into Peavy’s locker, a gift with a note attached: “Bring this with you.”

Professional baseball players spend a shit-ton of time away from home, and Peavy spent most of it seeking out music. He frequented Chicago’s blues-bar scene after being traded to the White Sox in 2009. In Boston, where he won a World Series in 2013, he faithfully worked to build his guitar and piano skills while crate-digging for vinyl in each city the Red Sox landed. In San Francisco, where he was reunited with Flannery and secured his second World Series ring in 2014, Peavy befriended and jammed with luminaries of that music scene, including Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead.

Last August, Peavy partnered with the Dead’s Rex Foundation in hosting a Jerry Garcia tribute concert to raise money for several San Francisco nonprofits. (His band, the Outsiders, played on the bill.) It was the highlight in a season dedicated to charity. At home and out of town, Peavy toted his guitar to children’s hospitals, sharing what he calls “the sheer joy of music” by covering Tom Petty and Bob Marley tunes for young patients. In Boston, he gathered a group of friends, including Jennifer Hartswick, the trumpeter in Phish frontman Trey Anastasio’s solo band, and Widespread Panic drummer Duane Trucks to play a benefit concert. Back home in Mobile, he sponsored the TenSixtyFive music festival, a free three-day event to promote the revitalization of the city’s downtown corridor.

Now a free agent — and hoping to hook up with a team in the second half of the 2017 season — Peavy seems content to nest in Alabama, surrounded by his four sons, wide circle of musician friends, burgeoning guitar collection, and brand-new recording studio. But at Southern Falls that evening, Peavy had focus only for music: someone playing a piano, a songwriter willing to share tips on crafting that perfect melody, even a stereo softly humming in the corner, stole his attention. After the barbecue was cleared and the house band was only tuning, Peavy allowed his mind to wander.

“It’s time to be more involved where I’m gonna spend the rest of my life,” he says, side-stepping any talk about the money troubles or the divorce. On this night, even baseball is nothing more than an abstract metaphor for music. He takes comfort in the belief that musicians, like the most nonjaded of athletes, “show up for nothing other than the music,” for the love of playing to packed auditoriums or empty stairwells.

Late in the night, Peavy joined the band onstage, grabbed a guitar, and stepped up to the mic. “Living on the road my friend,” he sang, “is gonna keep you free and clean.” The crowd cheered in recognition of “Pancho and Lefty.” We raised our drinks as Peavy’s tentativeness transformed into a voice that sounded determined and resilient, and we sang along: “Now you wear your skin like iron, your breath as hard as kerosene.”