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I was born the son of a New York Yankees fan, though it took me most of my childhood to understand that this was an inherent character flaw. I came to understand, in my post-adolescent years, that being a fan of a franchise like the Yankees was a soulless exercise in front-running that brought little spiritual reward; I now understand that my relationship to sports, like the Dalai Lama’s relationship to life, is best defined by suffering. But before all of that, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, thanks to the whims of my New York-born father, I watched hundreds, if not thousands, of Yankees games on WPIX, the superstation that beamed its signal to displaced fans in central Pennsylvania. And that meant I listened to hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of Phil Rizzuto.
Rizzuto spent thirteen seasons as the shortstop for the Yankees. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1994. I cannot say if Rizzuto was truly a Hall of Fame-worthy shortstop; I know very little about how Rizzuto performed in an actual baseball uniform, and frankly, I don’t care very much. Like most kids of my generation, I knew Rizzuto entirely as a baseball broadcaster possessed of an instinctual brilliance, the naive and non-sequitur uttering foil to the deadpan Bill White on those Yankee broadcasts in the 1970s and 1980s. The only way I can think to describe Rizzuto as a broadcaster is that he spoke like a real-life Pixar character—like one of the rodents from Ratatouille. He was neurotic and gullible, and his signature phrase was “Holy Cow,” and he would regularly call White a “huckleberry” and utter such strange and delightful poetry that some people actually compiled it into a book of verse a few years back.
Just hearing Phil Rizzuto’s voice is a Proustian experience for me these days, but it is not just because I listened to all of those Yankees games before realizing that I was not destined to be a Yankees fan. It is because Phil Rizzuto was also the star contributor to perhaps the most impactful song of my burgeoning adolescence.
I cannot remember the first time I heard the song “Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” but I am certain that it blew my mind. I am also certain that it coincided with the moment when I was still young enough to be consuming Yankees games by the dozen.
Here was a song that made absolutely no sense on so many levels. Written by composer Jim Steinman—who died a few weeks ago at the age of 73—and sung by a clownish stage actor who went by the name of Meat Loaf, it was schlocky and bizarre and eight-and-a-half minutes long, and laden with innuendo about a teenager yearning to get laid. It was not a rock song; it was not even a traditional pop song. You think Old Town Road bridged genres? How about an epically horny show tune that somehow got smuggled onto mainstream radio alongside Billy Joel and the Commodores and Foreigner?
Somehow, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” became one of the most popular songs of my childhood off one of the most popular albums of my childhood, Steinman and Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, a ridiculous experiment in excess that sold millions of copies. And the climax of “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” a depiction of that young man attempting to get laid through the euphemisms of baseball play by play, was narrated by one Philip Francis Rizzuto.
"OK, here we go, we got a real pressure cooker going here. Two down, nobody on, no score, bottom of the ninth. There's the windup, and there it is. A line shot up the middle, look at him go. This boy can really fly. He's rounding first and really turning it on now. He's not letting up at all, he's gonna try for second. The ball is bobbled out in the center. And here's the throw and what a throw. He's gonna slide in head first. Here he comes, he's out. No, wait, safe, safe at second base. This kid really makes things happen out there. Batter steps up to the plate. Here's the pitch, he's going. And what a jump he's got. He's trying for third. Here's the throw. It's in the dirt, safe a third. Holy cow, stolen base. He's taking a pretty big lead out there. Almost daring them to pick him off. The pitcher glances over, winds up and it's bunted. Bunted down the third-base line. The suicide squeeze is on. Here he comes, squeeze play, it's gonna be close. Here's the throw, here's the play at the plate. Holy cow, I think he's gonna make it!"
The story Rizzuto told is that he had no idea of the context his words would be put in. After Rizzuto’s death in 2007, Meat Loaf told author Jeff Pearlman that Rizzuto was in on the joke the whole time, but was “getting heat from a priest” about it. Either way, it wound up becoming a part of one of the strangest mash-ups in modern radio history, and it made Bat out of Hell one of the best-selling albums of all-time, up there in the stratosphere with Thriller and Rumours and Dark Side of the Moon, but far weirder than any of them.
“Most people don’t like extremes,” Steinman once said. “Extremes scare them. I start at ‘extreme’ and go from there.”
It is the defining quote to describe Bat Out of Hell, the defining quote to describe “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” and the defining quote of Steinman’s career, so much so that it anchored his obituary. And the funny thing is that it could have defined Phil Rizzuto’s broadcasting career, as well.
There is something beautiful about watching truly crazy shit break through into the mainstream: Last year, for instance, an HBO show called How To With John Wilson became a poignant cult hit, largely because it was a depiction of New York City that was like nothing else we’d ever seen on television. And perhaps that comports with the reasons why I stopped being a Yankees fan: Because they represent the things about New York that I never liked over the course of more than a dozen years of living there. The arrogance. The ruthlessness. The cliches about the city that have endured for decades. There is nothing extreme, nothing creative, nothing effortful, about rooting for a team that both expects and demands to win the World Series every year, that coasts along on its own reputation, that represents everything we’ve come to despise about New York City itself. (It’s the same reason I became a Red Sox fan in the early 2000s, then abandoned them after they won the World Series: Because the ethos surrounding their fan base completely changed.)
The best thing about the Yankees, for me, was Phil Rizzuto, because Phil Rizzuto was a brilliantly nonsensical character who brought weirdness into the mix, who turned Yankee games into something entirely unique. Or, if I may quote from the collected verse of Phil Rizzuto (speaking to broadcast partner Tom Seaver):
Another balloon coming our way,
Must be a downdraft
THAT SON OF A GUN’S COMING RIGHT—
Phil Rizzuto was that pink balloon. And “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” was that pink balloon, driven by the odd downdraft of the 1970s onto the radio, and wedged into a world where it didn’t belong. For those of us grew up with it, that Phil Rizzuto interlude in “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” proved a weird and wonderful bridge from childhood into adolescence, where, if we were lucky, we learned, like Jim Steinman, to a live a life at the extremes.
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