On Vin Scully

I said I’d write something about his last broadcast if I had a baseball-writing gig. But what’s a gig anyway? Money? As a character in one of my own short stories says: “Oh, brother. If money is all you ever think about, you’ll always make just enough to need more of it.”

Anyway, a handful of people said they’d read it if I wrote it, so this is for that handful of people. I said it would be “the best.” It’s not. It’s just the best I can do today. I didn’t make any notes during the broadcast. Consider these my notes, summoned and misquoted from memory — which is so much of what Vin did for sixty-seven years: activate (but not misquote) memory while attending to the demands of the moment on the field. I wrote them quickly and didn’t really edit them. Well, you can’t edit a broadcast, either.

1) His storytelling, his way of calling a game, his language: these are all justly celebrated. Listening to him one last time, though, what stood out was his actual voice: the timbre so rich, so warm, the rhythm so beautifully modulated, and just the right amount of silence. Vin said he didn’t listen to other broadcasters and urged them not to listen to him or any others: it would dilute their own unique style. But of course they listened and copied. I once heard Jon Miller, a great broadcaster, talking about Vin’s voice. Miller said that there was a play-by-play broadcaster in Japan who imitated Vin as a matter of professional course. You could tell even if you didn’t know Japanese that he was trying to sound like Vin. In perfect Japanese, he imitated the Japanese broadcaster imitating Vin: the mellifluous tone, the sentences like little trips up and down little hills, the ends of them at once conclusive and expectant. It sounded just like Vin, of course.

Pardon a far-flung reference and indirect comparison: Vin is like Mick Ronson, David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars guitarist, who generally eschewed flashy solos, supported the songs, played “just enough and no more,” as one rock thinker put it, but had great tone. You listen now to so many broadcasters whose voices are simply unpleasant to listen to, even the competent ones, and hear the difference between the good and the great. And Vin has done all of this for nearly seven decades, his voice never flagging, and no color guy in the booth to take the burden off.

2) In his final game, the degree of difficulty was so high. He had his hands full with his last game, the Dodgers trying to clinch, and the death of Jose Fernandez. (Imagine if news of Arnold Palmer’s death had broken.) He handled almost all of it easily, seldom allowing himself to be distracted, to overstate, to over-emote. One of his most expressive outbursts was when the Dodgers’ second baseman, Charlie Culberson, fielded a chopper in a tense situation and beat the runner from first to the second base bag for a close, unassisted forceout to end the inning. He would put emphasis where you didn’t expect it, and so were called to the actual excitement of the play: a footrace, a great pitch. His calls of the Dodgers’ game-tying and game-winning (and division-clinching, and career-ending) home runs were almost sedate by comparison. They spoke for themselves, as Vin had already done, for decades.

3) He was musing on how hot it was at Chavez Ravine and sending out a little dove of a dream — not to the people tuning into his final broadcast, who were surely doing so from comfortable shelter, but to the fans roasting in the seats. They could not hear him, of course, which made the message all the more poignant: his voice became sing-songy and as light as the breeze he invited everyone to imagine blowing in off the lake beyond center field. The broadcast cut to a shot of the flag out there, wafting. Then he said that people had for years come out to the ballpark looking for that lake he was always talking about on hot days. He admitted a little devilishly now that the lake wasn’t real. He’d made it up. “I can dream,” he said, like a magician who can do more than dream: he can make the dream live for a minute. It was as if one of his last acts on air, now that it was safe to do so, was to reveal the truth and own up to his long, long fib. My little fib kept you cool.

4) There was a 2-2 count, two on, two outs, the Dodgers down a run. “They’d take two runs,” Vin said, an extended ad-lib on the number two, making the entire thing sound so easy, which it wasn’t: it required dexterous syntax, deep powers of observation and wishing, veiled just thickly enough not to sound too partisan. Later there was another 2-2 count, two on, two out. He said it again. Maybe he’s done this for years. Whether he has or hasn’t, he makes it sound so natural, just like he makes the description sound natural. That’s what’s great about Vin: everything is great because it’s baseball, and baseball makes itself natural to announce. When he said, a few times, that he wasn’t the story, that it wasn’t about him, he was right. He was right because he didn’t say, and didn’t need to say, what I just said. Baseball made him a great broadcaster.

5) He didn’t shy away from commonplaces: “tall drink of water.” He did not come to the ballpark to be original. Baseball is mostly commonplaces. His inventions rose up out of the ordinary narration, all the stronger for the contrast, and then appositely receded back into the flow.

6) At one point he began a story about Andy Pafko, the old Dodger outfielder immortalized by Don DeLillo. The story was going to be about Pafko injuring a hamstring — “I didn’t know what a hamstring was,” Vin said, or something close — but the inning ended. Unless I missed something, he never finished the story. No matter (even if I did miss something). Of all the things Vin said on the air, all the stories he told over the years, he didn’t tell so, so many more. That is perfect. Baseball’s famously endless permutations; its making of history every day, it seems, in some way or another (Gary Sanchez, fastest ever to nineteen homers); how “no one ever really figures this game out,” as one player once told me — after he’d gone four for four with a home run: there is so much more we will never know, see or hear than the tiny portion we will. Let the story about Pafko come up short at the wall. Almost everything does. I’ve already forgotten most of what I was going to write about this game.

7) How generous he is. He talked at length about the Rockies‘ starter. In his last game, ever: he devoted time to that kid, a rookie. The assumption was always that the Dodgers were the good guys, of course, but the other team was never the bad guys. They were ballplayers, thus respectable. “You’re never any closer to the game than you are to the players,” Bill Veeck wrote. Vin focused on the players.

8) His wit, so sly and brief. He was talking about the braininess of Colorado’s pitcher, who, Vin said, likes to read books about pitching: They’re “performance-enhancing,” he said.

9) In truth, he began to stumble a bit toward the end. In the ninth inning, he was trying — he announced that he was trying — to call the game while narrating the action of the Giants game in San Diego. At one point, he noted that a Giant got a hit, but he couldn’t get the player’s name straight: “Miguel, Mario — whatever.” If any other broadcaster made that mistake, he’d be called a racist by someone, somewhere. (In fact, the game log indicates no hit at all by any Giant in the ninth inning.)

He was getting the on-deck hitter wrong at the very moment Seager hit his game-tying homer, which made him half-miss the call. It all happened so fast, he couldn’t catch up with it. The game speeds up on you. How many players have said this, from wide-eyed rookies to declining veterans? This was why Vin was retiring. It wasn’t effortless anymore. Oh, and he was older than most of us are when we die.

The studio mix of crowd noise and his voice was all wrong when Charlie Culberson hit his game-winning home run, and so you could barely hear Vin’s call. A home run to end it, can you believe that — something like that. He didn’t need to say “end my career.” Anyway, Vin had already gotten excited about Culberson, calling that race to second base in the top of the same inning. It was as if he’d already done his work on Culberson’s behalf.

The only real mistakes, truth be told, came after the game was over. In his speech to the fans, he got badly tangled in his words and his syntax. Surely he was overcome with emotion and using most of his mental energy to keep it in check. Surely he wasn’t comfortable addressing the entire crowd of more than fifty thousand people. But it was as if, without baseball in action before him, he was not the same speaker. He was as inarticulate as all the rest of us, ordinary without the demands of the game lifting him to his higher calling

10) And then there was “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” surprising schmaltz to end the career of a broadcaster who always avoided schmaltz. Not just that, but a recording of Vin singing “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” Allowed: there was no fat lady; still, this did not seem like a good idea, and it was not an entirely successful farewell. But he carried it off, his voice modest but mostly on-key and entirely listenable. He stood with his wife.

And finally, after his sixty-seven years of modesty and restraint, there was one, last, small but conspicuous indulgence of vanity. The crowd gave him its weepy ovation after the chorus — but he did the second verse, too, and then another chorus, going slightly off the score. His voice went up a step instead of down (as Bette Midler’s does). So subtly, he went out on a high note. And when it was over, the toast he received was not actually to him. It was better, and it was just right for everything about Vin’s career. On the field, the division-winning Dodgers opened all the bottles of champagne and celebrated.

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