One Last Time for Dodger Baseball

Today and tomorrow, America’s pastime begins anew as baseball stadiums from Atlanta to Anaheim shake off the rust of winter and open their doors. Opening Day ushers in the return of a welcome and comforting annual recurrence—same as the spring renewal with which it coincides. The weather warms, the snow thaws, and once again the birds and flowers, thought lost to the uninitiated, reassuringly reappear. In one respect, however, this year’s time-honored tradition will resume with an air of sadness becoming of the knowledge that the game as many of us loved it will soon never quite be the same again. More importantly, the game as we know it, as it exists and should exist, will not survive next year’s chill. Next year, the sun will emerge, the tarp will roll back, and the teams will take the field, but Vin Scully will announce no more.

It’s incredible to think about but absolutely true­—Vin Scully is the only primary broadcaster the Los Angeles Dodgers have had in their fifty-eight-year history. Even that astounding feat does not do justice to his endurance; Scully has been calling Dodger games since 1950, eight years in Brooklyn and then that many plus another half century across the country after Walter O’Malley took the team west. The longevity is astounding. Scully was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, meaning that many parents have listened to Scully on Dodger broadcasts only since his receipt of baseball’s highest honor. His tremendous love for the game and the role he played in it alone are worthy of a multi-volume treatise.

Indeed, much has been, and will be, made this year about Scully the man—what he’s meant to the Dodger organization and what his personal contributions have meant for baseball. That coverage is well deserved. The stories of Scully’s kindness, grace, and generosity are legendary. That treatment, however, limits our understanding of Scully’s true meaning, if not his impact. As is the case with so many legendary figures, to the audience, the man himself is lost within his manifestation in our own lives. Just as FDR was the calming, measured persona of his fireside chats, to the masses, Vin Scully is the smiling, well-dressed man on television, notifying us that it was “time for Dodger baseball” with that soothing intonation. Indeed, for most of us, Scully is first a voice, wafting in from the living room, reminding us that the bullpen is warm and the game has tightened, welcoming us to hurry back once the kids are put to bed.

Scully’s magic manifests itself in precisely the same way that baseball’s greatness unfolds. Baseball is a sport of tremendous drama, but drama created only by hiding it unexpectedly throughout the long, unyielding existence playing out over nine innings and six months. To see the true beauty in baseball, then, requires one to enjoy the moments melting together, to revel in the routine sounds of pitches whizzing and bats cracking as much as the sudden sparks of intrigue that punctuate the seeming inaction. Much like life itself, baseball’s enjoyment is in inhaling these mundane moments throughout the course of a spring afternoon, through the dog days of summer, and into the chilly autumn night. In much the same way, for Scully to announce his obvious talent as a lyrical storyteller with every word would be to quickly diminish its power. Instead, he kindly greats his audience with “a very pleasant good evening to you, wherever you may be” and simply ends it with a cheery “til then, from all of us to all of you, goodnight everybody.” In between he lets the mellow sound of his voice and the simple call of the game wash over like a gentle summer breeze. Only in service to these primary tasks will he then subtly interject with the simple poetry that exemplifies his craft. “Andre Dawson has a bruised knee and is listed as day-to-day,” he once told his audience in 1989 about the Cubs right fielder. He paused before continuing: “Aren’t we all?”

Although it has been written about many times before, Scully’s call of Kirk Gibson’s game winning home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series best exemplifies his irreplaceable place in baseball. To begin with, that home run is possibly the greatest moment in World Series history. It is part of the canon of American sport. So, naturally, Scully would be the one to call it. The setting was this: the 1988 Dodgers were a ragtag group who managed to win 94 games despite an anemic offense, led by their two stars, National League MVP Gibson and NL Cy Young winner Orel Hershiser. The Dodgers were lucky to even be in the World Series; they defeated the juggernaut, 100-game winning New York Mets in the National League Championship Series in a wild seven games just days before. Their reward was a date with the sublime Oakland Athletics, winners of a remarkable 104 games during the regular season. To make matters worse, Gibson injured both of his legs in the series against the Mets and was doubtful to play in the World Series at all. In Game 1, the A’s were up 4-3 in the ninth inning and brought in the best relief pitcher in all of baseball—Dennis Eckersley. After two outs and a walk, Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda called on Gibson to pinch-hit in dramatic fashion. On a 3-2 count, Gibson hit a hanging slider over the right field fence for the game winning home run. That moment was Gibson’s only appearance that World Series, but it was enough to swing the magic to the Dodgers, who won the championship in five games.

Scully’s call of the home run was the perfect embodiment of what made him great. First, he simply and succinctly told the audience what was happening: “High fly ball into right field. She is gone!” Second, he allowed his listeners to soak in the moment without forcing himself into the experience, falling silent as Gibson rounded the bases and letting the crowd noise speak to the magnitude of the moment. Then third, he offered his poetic addition with a deft touch, remarking as Gibson crossed home, “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!”

Three years ago, esteemed sportswriter Joe Posnanski, a romantic in his own right, had this to say about Scully in the process of dissecting the difference between Scully’s television call of the Buckner home run and Jack Buck’s also-celebrated radio call of the same play:

Scully’s call was poetry. Vin’s love of baseball is evident in every call he makes, but it’s not the love of a fan. He loves baseball as an artist, loves it the way Da Vinci loved Mona Lisa — he wants to bring out every nuance, every subtlety, every sound and smell and sliver of sunlight.

That analysis has it half right. Scully does love baseball as an artist and sees the game as poetry. That’s what fills his broadcasts with literary insights and makes his lilting calls a window into human achievement and struggle. Posnanski is right that Scully is finely attuned to the nuances and beauty within the game beyond the box score. In fact, one of Scully’s most admirable and unique qualities is that despite being a Dodger since the Truman administration, his broadcasts are remarkably even-handed. He surely wants the Dodgers to win, but willing them to victory is not his aim.

Yet, one can’t help but see, however, that Scully’s love for the game is fundamentally that of a fan. Having never played baseball at a high level, he doesn’t attempt to teach us how to throw a curveball or understand the mindset of a wild pitcher. Having never managed, he doesn’t try to game out the various strategies and pressures from the skipper’s perspective. Instead, he simply tells us what he sees as a man who has watched—and loved—baseball for nearly seventy years. That perspective, while humble, is still quite powerful. When he describes the abuse that Jackie Robinson received as the first African-American ballplayer, he does so with power and emotion because he was there to witness it. When he tells us about the incredible curve that Sandy Koufax threw in the 1960s, he does so with insight and accuracy because he was there to see it turn hitters into stone. But even these incredible insights simply stem from what he continues to do every night from the booth at Dodger Stadium—watch and observe. He still coos at babies in the stands and marvels at the gorgeous sunsets at Chavez Ravine. And when Yasiel Puig guns a runner down at the plate from deep in the right field corner with his cannon arm, Scully still reacts as a fan would: “Oh, to be 22 and a Dodger!”

This brings us to the second half of why Scully is such a solitary treasure, which unfortunately rests on the failings of others rather than his own genius. For all the rhetorical brilliance of Scully’s six decades behind the microphone, there is a baser and more basic reason why his commentary is now so unique—the nuclear wasteland that is modern sports announcing. As Jacob Silverman correctly noted in the New York Times last year: “It may seem odd to feel such devotion to an octogenarian baseball announcer, but Scully is a singular figure. He stands apart from today’s broadcasters, who, with a few notable exceptions, are awful.” It is in that sense that Scully’s retirement evokes the greatest sighs of forlorn longing and bitter nostalgia. Today’s broadcasts are stuffed with unimaginative wordplay, mindless clichés, and rampant homerism. Most egregious of all is the massive overemphasis on breaking down the technical parts of the game. Rather than simply remind us of what has happened, tell us what is happening, and notify us of what’s yet to come, the new trend in sports casting is for announcers (usually former players) to tell us the ins and outs of how they prepared and executed their athletic feats. This has meant hours of chatter about how pitchers throw their two-seam fastball and how hitters know which pitch to look for. It’s a tedious exercise wholly unrelated to the joys of watching the game’s story unfold. With Scully’s final sign-off, we will be without our last remaining wordsmith to paint the picture of the game more vividly than even the images on the television. We will be consigned to the cheerleaders and the backslappers, able to seek comfort only from the mute button. As Scully himself once said about no one in particular, but which could easily be applied to the rest of his profession’s tendencies: “Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamp post: for support, not illumination.” Scully didn’t need to talk to the manager before the game, or give us the latest perspective from the front office. He simply watched, and then told us what he saw.

Two years ago, Scully called Clayton Kershaw’s breathtaking fifteen strikeout no-hitter against the Colorado Rockies. After a night of constantly alluding to the possibility of that rare occurrence, in the ninth inning Scully told his audience, “And now if you don’t mind, I’m going to sit back and watch it with you!” It was just the kind of sentiment that makes Scully’s calls endearing and properly grounded in the true purpose of his profession. Once again, he masterfully captured the excitement of the moment, while managing to see it through the eyes of a fan. Of course, Scully did not actually stop announcing that game; he was there to capture the thrill of victory right up to the final pitch. However, with his announcement at the end of last year that 2016 would likely be his last season as the voice of the Dodgers, Scully truly is going to sit back and watch the games with all of us. One could hardly begrudge him that indulgence, although frankly Vin, we do mind. As for how Scully will handle life next year when he is no longer behind the microphone, no doubt he will take it day to day. Won’t we all.

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