My favorite Vin Scully stories don’t end with two quick thumps of the snare and a whack of the crash cymbal.
Scully’s words elegantly dance off his tongue like a Broadway show tune, a beautiful symbiosis between broadcaster and listener, and yet my favorite Scully lines aren’t punctuated with an electric bah-da-bam!
Scully is the best storyteller my ears have known, but I don’t ever find myself looking for a punch line. I don’t find myself listening to Scully for a joke. For a man with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I can’t say I listen to Scully for glamorous reasons. No, for a man who has lost a wife and a son and still finds the joy in coming to work nearly every day after more than 60 years with the Dodgers, I listen to Scully for a moral.
Scully says he makes a living talking about baseball games — “How lucky am I?” he often says with that wide grin — but he really makes a living talking about life. He sits upright in a suit and tie tossing Jolly Ranchers into his mouth for a few seconds between innings to moisten the whistle, but he speaks like a man peacefully reclining in jeans and a t-shirt on a grandiose porch somewhere amid the pines of the South. Other than the faded dialect, you would never know Scully was a New York boy before moving west.
It’s this charm, this appreciation for experiences real and imagined, that reminds me of my favorite Vin Scully stories. “My favorite Vin Scully lines,” is probably more accurate.
A few years ago, someone asked Scully how he got himself through those sweltering summer day games in which the Dodgers had gone to the bullpen for the fifth time, the opposing catcher had jogged out to talk to his pitcher for the tenth time. The kind of August afternoons when frozen lemonades melted immediately upon meeting the sun, mothers kept cool by fanning programs and spraying mist bottles, fathers pulled their caps low and dozed off with the flakes of discarded peanut shells still littering their shirts.
Scully was in his suit when downtown L.A. temperatures could kiss triple digits, and he didn’t have air conditioning in his booth. He had a small fan close by and the press box window propped open so he could sniff the ballpark air and hear the Dodger crowd. How do you keep cool and focused on the ballgame, Vinny? Scully responded, “I’m kept cool by the nice breeze blowing in off the lake out beyond centerfield.”
If you’ve never been to Dodger Stadium, there is no lake out beyond centerfield. That one sentence, that was Scully. Playing a game with his psyche at a time when even the most professional mind is tempted to daydream. He found the artistry in a painstakingly boring ballgame that most would not waste a sunny afternoon on.
Scully, 83 now, has had to gradually downgrade his work schedule over the last few years. Six months of cross-country travel becomes a bit much for an old body regardless of how young the soul, and Scully wanted to be home a little more. He settled on a schedule that allows him to call all home games and only road games against N.L. West opponents, meaning Scully would never have to travel beyond Denver. Since 2009, Scully has operated year-by-year, allowing himself the option of retiring at any moment.
Shortly after the Dodgers traded for Rod Barajas last August, Scully announced that he would be returning for the 2011 season. Fans were ecstatic, the Dodgers were thankful, and the media asked Scully a few questions after his announcement. When asked why he decided to return for another year, Scully said straight-faced, “Well now that they have Rod Barajas, that was the clincher.”
Reporters squealed with laughter, and Scully allowed a sheepish grin, knowing that his life had been blessed with stories about Jackie and Drysdale and Newcombe and Fernando and Lasorda and Hershiser, et al, and yet it didn’t take but a few seconds to make the year for a career .240 hitter and welcome him to the organization. That one sentence, that was Scully.
Of course, you could listen to Scully for months tell stories about the Brooklyn days or Gibson’s homer or calling football games for the CBS Radio Network on the frigid roof of Fenway Park in Boston. In those moments, Scully brings you into his life, into his humor and his road trips through America. But it’s those Scully lines that I relish, because those don’t just bring you into Scully’s life, they bring you into his mind and his heart.
And this saddens me a bit given the recent proceedings in the Obituary of Frank McCourt. I’m not going into great detail on McCourt or his divorce or the legalese that is currently weighing down our sports pages. Search “McCourt bankruptcy jackass,” and Google gives you 1.73 million results in 0.18 seconds, so my work is done there.
What saddens me is that the state of the Los Angeles Dodgers is so decrepit that I fear fans are missing out on experiences that should be savored. Clayton Kershaw is a young pitcher that should draw 50,000 people to Chavez Ravine every night he takes the hill. Matt Kemp is a young centerfielder who should make parents want to bring their kids to the ballpark to see what a budding superstar looks like.
And yet because McCourt bought the Dodgers and treated them like another leveraged asset, he has alienated the fan base. Because McCourt used rich Dodger revenues to finance a personal life of greed and excess, he has disregarded the roster. Today, the Dodgers are 36-45 and trail the San Francisco Dodgers by 10.5 games in the N.L. West. In May, McCourt had the gall to say that the Dodgers roster has not been affected by his financial troubles. He had the audacity to say if he had more cash, the roster would look same. “I think we have a very, very good team,” McCourt said. Idiocy cubed doesn’t begin to justify those comments.
People who are much smarter and more experienced than I are saying that McCourt will go and the Dodgers franchise will once again be what it was. I believe this to be true, but only in time. I don’t believe McCourt’s exit can magically cure a club that ranks 19th in baseball in runs and 23rd in ERA. These problems run thicker than the lint in McCourt’s pockets. I’m afraid that if ownership doesn’t improve before Scully departs, fans will be waiting much longer for the return of the Dodger lore that the old-timers reminisce about amid the other 15,000 — give or take a couple of handfuls — fans at Dodger Stadium on any given night. Scully is the only attachment the current Dodgers have to their better days.
An illustration of the current Dodgers: A couple weeks ago, the Reds came to town and Kershaw was scheduled to pitch against Johnny Cueto. My Dad and I, intrigued by the pitching, went online the night before to buy tickets. We ended up buying two seats in row A — the first row behind the incredibly overpriced Dugout Club section — and sat about seven rows off of the Reds on-deck circle. The face value on the tickets was $75 or so. We got them online for $50. It was one of those sweater-less nights at Dodger Stadium, where everything seems comfortably cool and old fashioned.
Kershaw threw seven innings of one-run ball, and then the Dodgers brought in Blake Hawksworth, Scott Elbert and Mike MacDougal. In the 8th inning, disgusted by the Dodgers inability to hit, my Dad and I went to the restroom. There are speakers inside the restrooms at Dodger Stadium so you can listen to Scully call the game and keep track of the action on the field. We stood quietly a few urinals apart, before my Dad offered this: “Man, this is better than our seats. At least you can hear Vinny in here. That’s better than anything you can see on the field. Huh, who knew… the urinals at Dodger Stadium, best seats in the house!”
I don’t think I can more aptly describe the current state of the Dodgers more than that. It was another Dodger loss, but Scully did his usual thing, finding the exciting play, making you believe that there was actually something special happening here.
I thought about all of this when I heard and read people saying this week that Vin Scully should speak out about Frank McCourt and what’s going on with the Dodgers. Steve Mason on 710 ESPN in Los Angeles even talked about some comments Walter Cronkite made about the Vietnam War, trying to illustrate the impact an iconic broadcaster can have. While I respect Steve and somewhat saw what he was trying to do there, my mind — or maybe it was my conscience — wouldn’t allow me to connect this McCourt mess with a war. On the surface that sounds silly and ridiculously shortsighted and, well, I never got beyond the surface.
But it did strike me as odd that we are even having this conversation. Why would Scully do that? That’s not his job, but it’s also not like him. And what difference would it make anyway? What good would that do?
I thought about all of it. And I realized, you know, Frank McCourt isn’t worth Scully’s time. He’s not worth Scully’s words. Scully is the ONLY thing that is keeping Dodgers fans watching and listening to games during these times. As a baseball fanatic, I’d like to say that Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp are doing that, too. But I just don’t think it’s true. Not on a nightly basis, anyway.
Scully knows McCourt will leave and the Dodgers will move on. And I think by not diving into that mess, by not acting like he has anything to do with it, Scully is making his most powerful gesture of all. He knows his stories and his broadcasts are one of the very few things keeping “Dodger tradition” afloat in this era.
Scully keeps sports in perspective at a time when the leadership of the organization has lost all of it. He keeps the games bearable when without him they would be anything but.
Vin Scully isn’t most powerful when he makes a public announcement about an off-field occurrence. He’s better than that. That’s not how he serves baseball and the Dodgers.
Vin Scully serves baseball and the Dodgers best when he allows us to believe on hot summer afternoons there is a nice breeze blowing in off the lake out beyond centerfield.
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