Welcome to The Flyover Podcast, thank you so much for taking the time to join us for the next nine innings of stories, jokes, and music.
That’s right, this week’s episode, “Opening Day,” is dedicated to the true beginning of spring, that glorious day each year when the umpire yells “Play Ball,” and the Major League Baseball season finally gets underway.
So often, baseball is much more than just a game, making it kind of difficult to put into words that feeling you get when you watch your team’s first game of the season.
So I’m gonna start the show off a little bit differently by reading a piece from the late-journalist Pete Hamill, who grew up in the shadow of Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Listen to how he once described his fascination with America’s pastime, perfectly encapsulating all of its romance, historical significance, and intrigue:
Nobody we knew owned a car, so we went there on foot from where I lived, walking across the hills and meadows of Prospect Park. By the time we reached Flatbush Avenue, there was a convergence of all the tribes of Brooklyn: the Jews and the Irish and the Italians, immigrants and their American children; old-timers who had moved from the waterfront neighborhoods to the higher slopes to be near the great ballpark; tough lean men who had survived Iwo Jima and Anzio and the Hurtgen Forest, places where they had lost the hyphenated prefixes of origin and had become Americans; and of course, all those black Americans, including men with gray hair who had waited far too many decades to see Jack Roosevelt Robinson walk on big league grass.
All of us were going to Ebbets Field.
In memory, encoded in all those unreliable images printed upon me as a boy, the place was huge. It was, in fact, the largest structure I had ever entered, larger than any church, larger than any movie house. I know now that it was sneered at as a bandbox: But if you were eleven, and you were sitting in those centerfield stands, and Terry Moore of the Cardinals was directly below you, and home plate seemed a mile away,
it was huge.
It was also beautiful. As kids, we used free tickets from the Police Athletic League to get in. Then we climbed dark ramps, higher and higher, climbing to the distant reaches and the cheapest seats in the ballpark. Finally we were at the top level, and walked through a gate, out of the darkness, and there before us was the field. No grass has ever been greener. Each time I went back to Ebbets Field, and made that climb, and saw that field, my skin pebbled once more at the sight of all that beauty.
Most of us imagined the Dodgers before we ever saw them. Nothing in newspapers or radio ever matched the experience of being there: the smell of hot dogs, the signs along the walls (“Hit Sign, Win Suit”), the barking of beer hawkers in thick Brooklynese (“Getcha cold one now, heah day are, cold as da Nawt’ Pole”) the music of the Brooklyn Symphony, the shouting and argument, dismay and joy in the stands. Everyone was joined in the rough democracy of the upper deck.
(John Fogerty – Centerfield)
(Dropkick Murphys – Tessie)
On April 15th, 1947, Jackie Robinson jogged to first base in front of 26,623 fans at Ebbets Field and became the very first African American to play professional baseball. It didn’t end racism; not everyone applauded; nor did every team immediately fall in line with Branch Rickey’s progressive wisdom: the Boston Red Sox wouldn’t have a black player on their roster until July 1959.
However, it was a singular moment that ultimately did change the conversation within Major League Baseball, professional sports, and the country. When Robinson scored the eventual game-winning run that afternoon, everyone cheered. A mostly white crowd that likely still had reservations earlier in the day, at least temporarily, saw the light.
For the black folks in attendance, Robinson immediately became their hero. And nearly 75 years later, he’s everyones, perhaps the most celebrated and talked about athlete the game has ever known, with the possible exception of Babe Ruth. And each year, on April 15th, every player in the game honors Robinson by wearing his retired number 42.
Now, Robinson knew he had only taken the first step toward bending that long arc of justice, but as he said in a speech in 1952, he knew that the immediate importance of his breaking the color barrier had shown people who looked like him that they had a chance. Not a guarantee, but a chance.
Let’s return to Pete Hamill’s piece, which concludes with a poignant paragraph on Robinson:
The great accomplishment of Robinson in 1947 was not so much that he integrated baseball, but that he integrated those stands. Which is to say he started integrating his country, our country. And so when Robinson jittered off second base, upsetting the enemy pitcher, the number 42 sending signals of possible amazements, we all roared.
Whites and blacks: roaring for Robinson. And when he broke for third, the roar exploded to another level, and birds rose from the roofs of the ballpark and the stands shook so hard you thought they might fall.
(Buddy Johnson – Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?)
(Chuck Berry – Brown Eyed Handsome Man)
Baseball has always been a provincial game. It’s one of the things that makes it unique, and what has always made it great. The Dallas Cowboys may be “America’s Team;” the whole world may have followed Michael Jordan’s Bulls, and as we saw with last year’s “The Last Dance” remain captivated by them; but odds are, unless you’re from Tampa Bay or are a big Dodgers fan, you probably didn’t tune into last year’s World Series.
If your team isn’t in it, you might not pay much attention to the game. But, if they are? Every day is an event, a rollercoaster of emotions as your team fights its way to the top of its division.
You live with your team. You die with your team. For most baseball fans, that’s always been it’s greatest draw. Long before fantasy baseball, kids would study box scores and batting averages, mimic players’ stances, memorize lineups. These were your guys, for better or worse, day in and day out.
A little earlier, we played “Tessie,” by the Dropkick Murphys. Talk about living and dying with your team, “Tessie” tells the tale of Murph, Sully, and the rest of the Red Sox faithful doing just that, night after night, until that ultimate release on October 27th, 2004 when Boston finally won it all.
Each team, each city, each fanbase, they have their own identities, along with those little traditions that have carried on for decades. The Cubs famously “fly the W” to the strains of “Go Cubs Go” whenever they win at Wrigley, just as the “Cleveland Baseball Team” blasts “Cleveland Rocks” at the end of their home games. The Atlanta Braves, of course, still hanging in there with the chop.
It’s well known that the Yankees play Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” at the end of each game in the Bronx, but that hasn’t always been the case. No, they used to only do that when they won. When they lost? They would play the Liza Minnelli version, which could really pour salt in the wound on a freezing April evening.
But, like the famous Alan Parsons Project song that used to introduce Michael Jordan in Chicago, they’re instantly recognizable. They were the things you saw on TV or heard on the radio that you simply couldn’t wait to take part in when you finally walked through the concourse and made your way to your seat. The roll call at Yankee Stadium. Singing along with Harry Caray at Wrigley while marveling at the ivy adorning the outfield wall. The aforementioned Murph and Sully drunkenly cursing up a storm ‘cuz they’re turning Fenway into a fuckin’ amusement park when they sing Neil Diamond in the bottom of the eighth.
These traditions, they’re the things that make baseball singular. They become a part of those treasured few childhood memories that, even if you’ve recently lost touch with the game, you always look back fondly upon. The moments that ring in your ears long after you’ve made the journey back home, a smile on your face after a great day at the ballpark.
(The Standells – Dirty Water)
(Randy Newman – I Love LA)
Well, we’ve reached the middle of our game here at Flyover Ballpark. Our starting pitcher, he’s beginning to lose his steam. The fans, they’re already making dinner plans or thinking about trying to beat the traffic. They might be debating getting that soft serve ice cream, y’know, in the little helmet, or more likely regretting that $9 hot dog and $13 beer. Doesn’t mean they’re not going to get several more, of course, because, you know, Bud Light.
Part of the fun of going to a baseball game is the stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with the game, those middle innings when your mind begins to wander and you start paying attention to the people in the stands, or the way the guy at second base adjusts his cup. You start fixating on that one pixel on the video board that’s green, for some reason. Or the one light out of all of the lights in the light tower that is facing the wrong way. How did that happen?
You pay really close attention to guys’ birthdays when they put them on the big board, and start to worry that you’re running out of time to become the starting center fielder for the Oakland Athletics. Because, yea, age was the only obstacle in your way.
You start to wonder why they don’t just have Robot Umpires, especially because this guy behind home plate can barely see his toes, let alone balls and strikes. You get sucked into the New Era Cap Game or the Great Subway Race at Yankee Stadium where the announcer actually says, “Let’s go to the aerial cam” when the trains are under the god damned ground! It’s the SUBWAY RACE!
You hear the announcer introduce Nick Castellanos and think, damn, that’s a good baseball name. You start thinking of other names that, when you hear ‘em, they could only be baseball names: Hank Aaron; Mickey Mantle; Satchel Paige, Quentin McCracken. The ones you hear Bob Sheppard saying in your head as you do them: “Now batting, number 18, Didi Gregorious. Number 18.” Nick Markakis. Hideki Irabu.
Then you think of some others that, thank god these guys played baseball because could you imagine going through life with a name like Pretzel Pezzullo, Coco Crisp, Boof Bonser, Dick Pole, or, kids cover your ears, Rusty Kuntz?
Then after listening to the guy next to you say all this stuff for the past three minutes, you start to wonder what a real comedian might say about this little game of ours.
(George Carlin – Baseball & Football)
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to rise out of those seats, but leave your caps on because we’re skipping Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America.” We’re also going to skip past her singing, and this is true, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.” Yeah. It only took the Yankees 19 years to care about that one. They still do “Cotton Eyed Joe” though, so hey, some things never change.
We’re up out of our seats because it’s time for the 7th inning stretch! That point in the game where everyone tries to get that last beer in, or run to the bathroom so they don’t have to do it on the way out. Of course, you’re smart, you know that you go to the bathroom in the middle of the 6th inning, that way you’re in and out. C’mon people!
So, let me hear ya. Good and loud. A one. A two. A three.
(Harry Caray – Take Me Out to the Ballgame)
These next two songs, they really don’t have much to do with baseball at all, but they were definitely inspired by it.
One of Sam and Dave’s last singles, “Knock it Out of the Park” is a great soul romp filled with some of the best baseball double entendres ever put on record, like:
“Hitting in a double play
Just don’t make no sense”
“You don’t win by getting on the base
Honey, you got to make the score…good God!”
“You know your very next friend
Might be her pinch hitter”
But, the greatest baseball double entendre ever recorded? That honor goes to the late, great Phil Rizzuto, who might not have even known what he was saying when he did his little bit during the, um, climax of the record.
That record? “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” written by the great Jim Steinman, and performed by the guy who got into a fight with Gary Busey on “The Apprentice.”
Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” album, recorded in 1976, is actually pretty close to a masterpiece. Jim Steinman is one of our greatest theatrical, over-the-top songwriters, responsible for writing the album’s seven memorable songs, as well as Meat Loaf’s “I Would Do Anything for Love,” Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” and many more. But, the song that defines both him and, what do I call him, Meat?, more than any other, is “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”
Produced by Todd Rundgren with Roy Bittan on piano and Max Weinberg on drums to give it that “Born to Run” era, E Street Band sound, “Paradise” is a purposefully over-the-top song about…well, trying to score. But, there have always been songs about that – what made this one special was the unique back-and-forth between Meat Loaf and female vocalist Ellen Foley. They’re on a date, sitting in a car by the lake with no one else in sight, they’re having a great night straight out of “American Graffiti.”
Then the song goes into a funky disco breakdown, with Meat insisting on “going all the way tonight.” And that’s where Mr. Rizzuto, uh, comes in, uh, no pun intended.
The broadcast parallels the action in the car, punctuated with Foley’s moans. But, as Rizzuto exclaims “Holy Cow, I think he’s gonna make it,” everything stops.
Until his death in 2007, Rizzuto maintained that he was completely unaware his recording would so literally be equated with sex. Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman tell a different tale, that Rizzuto only feigned innocence to make nice with some priest who had a problem with the song’s “graphic content.” Because, you know, the Catholic church…really big on not being controversial. No sir.
If there is such a thing as a guilty pleasure, “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” is certainly one of mine, made all the more enjoyable by the great Rizzuto’s surprising appearance.
(Meat Loaf – Paradise by the Dashboard Light)
(Sam & Dave – Knock it Out of the Park)
Well, we’re finally in the last inning of our little game now, but as a great man from Montclair, New Jersey via St. Louis, Missouri once said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”
Even during those games where your team is in the most desperate of circumstances and it seems like the odds are all stacked against them, there’s always a chance for a comeback. For a little two out rally.
In that way, baseball really is America’s pastime, an honest reflection of the country in which it was created. At its best, it symbolizes our highest ideals, a little piece of the world where that “rough democracy” might actually exist. At its worst, it can serve as a mirror to our society, showing us our greatest faults and the many miles we still have to cross.
Willie Mays, Bob Gibson and Hank Aaron may have their faces etched into the Mount Rushmore of the game, but each one of them dealt with the same painful hate that the man who kicked open the door suffered decades earlier.
The 1980s may have seen the greatest parity in the history of the sport, but the rampant steroid use, inflated ticket prices, shocking payroll inequality, and the strike of 1994 coincided all too perfectly with the rampant rise of capitalism and economic disparity in this country during those same years.
After 9/11, while a country in shock continued to grieve, it was baseball that started to heal the nation, the only time in history the majority of Americans were actually rooting for the Yankees to win the World Series.
And now, while it’s still the same game we’ve known and loved for more than 150 years, it’s suffering from some very serious issues at its core that sometimes feel insurmountable. The structures remain intact, but the game isn’t quite the shining beacon on the hill it once was.
But, it still can be, and there’s plenty of beauty wherever you look. Mike Trout following through on a 97 mile per hour fastball, sending it deep into the Anaheim night. Mookie Betts grinning as he reaches over the wall to rob another unlucky victim of a homerun. Javy Baez blowing a bubble of Bazooka as he turns a dazzling double play, truly deserving of the nickname “El Mago.”
Soccer may be the world’s “beautiful game,” but baseball is undoubtedly America’s. That glorious patch of green grass, when you walk through the concrete caves of the concourse and finally gaze your eyes upon it, to me, there’s simply nothing better.
“This field, this game — it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.”
And, with that, it’s time to bring in the closer.
We’ll be seein’ ya…
(Metallica – Enter Sandman)
The Flyover Podcast is recorded and produced by Kyle Pucciarello in Chicago, Illinois. For more information, please visit www.theflyover.site, @official_flyover on Instagram, or email us at email@example.com.