clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

A guide to appreciating Vin Scully if you weren’t there to appreciate him the whole time

New, comments

Most people didn’t get to have Vin Scully narrate the soundtrack of their lives. Let’s commiserate together and appreciate the genius in a different way, then.

My most vivid Vin Scully memory: It was a Saturday night in April, 2012, and baseball had mostly finished for the day. The Dodgers and Padres were tied in the late innings, though, so I turned on the TV, booted up the Playstation 3, and navigated to the MLB.tv app.

For two innings, I was listening to the Padres’ announcers call the game, which was fine. It was a close, taut game, and I was enjoying myself. The app’s default setting at the time was to play the home team’s broadcast. Okay, fine. There was baseball on, and that’s all that mattered.

Then I looked at the controller on the table, picked it up, and said, "Wait a second, I wonder if there’s a way to ..." Pushed the button in the middle, then the button on the right. Used the analog stick to move down a few options, then pushed the button at the bottom.

Suddenly, Vin Scully was on my TV. I listened to him call the game as it extended through extra innings.

I’ve been playing video games since I was 4. I’ve beaten the Water Temple, collected 120 stars, and sniped the racist 13-year-old who was pushing the crouch button over my avatar two minutes earlier. For 34 years, I’ve held a video game controller in my hand and asked it to entertain me. It’s delivered, which is why I keep coming back.

Still, switching from a baseball game to Baseball Game, Now With Vin Scully was, without question, the most exhilarating moment I’ve ever had with a controller or console. Maybe the kids doing esports think they’re cool when they win the esports championship of the world. But no one will ever feel more satisfied than when I figured out how to listen to Vin Scully on the danged video game box.

* * *

I realize that’s not a very good Vin Scully memory, but it’s the best one I have. And that’s the point, so bear with me.

* * *

With Vin Scully retiring, the tributes are coming too quick to sort, which is about what you should expect. If you’re here, you’re wasting time that could be spent on a much better tribute, such as Jayson Stark’s oral history. Bill Plaschke has a fine one here. Baseball-Reference got granular and nerdy in just the right way. There are dozens of them, and they’re all excellent because they’re working with the best possible material.

Yet they’re leaving me feel left out, nostalgic for something I can’t make up for. I didn’t grow up in Los Angeles. Vin Scully wasn’t the voice of my summers, the sound that’s inextricably wrapped around every baseball memory I’ve ever had. I have that stupid Playstation memory and a handful of others. I listened to Scully when I could and enjoyed the absolute heck out of it. But it would be disingenuous to pretend that he was the soundtrack to my life.

Which fills me with regret. All these people, talking and writing about what Vin meant to them, and I can’t join in unless I want to say, "I know. He was the best. So incredible," meaning every word of it, but without the memories and mounds of supporting evidence that others can bring.

The simple math suggests the same thing is true with you, though. Even though Scully was the voice describing Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, Kirk Gibson’s hobbled homer, and The Catch, and we can all rally around those highlights as shared moments together, we aren’t part of the select few, the 3 to 5 percent of baseball fans who got to spend their entire baseball lives with him.

This makes it harder to appreciate exactly how special Scully has been.

Let’s commiserate, then, and figure out how we can put ourselves in the shoes of the people who got to spend their lives with Scully. Let’s see if there’s a way to understand a fraction of what they’ve gained and a fraction of what they’ll miss.

It will be a small fraction, and we’ll never fully understand. But we’ll do our best.

* * *

Start with the concept of baseball on the radio at all. In the Golden Age of television, when everything was changing, it was still the best way to experience a game you couldn’t go to. Which is to say, almost all of the games. Watching the televised games of the ‘50s right through the ‘60s was like watching a game from the upper deck while wearing a neck brace and dirty glasses. There weren’t the quick, expert cuts to the ball in flight, the multiple angles, the on-screen graphics. There was fuzz and a steady camera shot or two and fuzz.

Radio was still the way to go. The on-screen graphics came with every pitch, every batter, they just weren’t quite on screen.

One and two the count, two outs, as Maury Wills digs back in ...

Note that you’re required to read that in Scully’s voice.

Baseball on the radio sticks around as a kind of anachronism as the rest of the world shifts to television for its news and entertainment, and it sticks around long after the quality of televised baseball improves. Not only is it the format that you can sneak up to your room, follow at work, and bring to the beach with you, but the pace of the game fits it perfectly.

Baseball is action and inaction, with the gaps giving us time to breathe, time to contemplate the next move. It’s sort of a cliché to compare baseball to chess, but ... c’mon, the fastball’s the rook, the curveball’s the bishop, the slider’s the knight ... here, let me draw you a diagram. As the catcher and pitcher are figuring this all out, the hitter is going through the permutations in his head, too. Runners are leading. The crowd is roaring. Everyone crouches down and waits for the next active moment. There’s tension. Oh, how there’s tension.

And there’s a voice describing it all. When you’re following the radio, you get one sense to work with, and then you have to fill the rest in on your own. That means your imagination has to do at least a quarter of the work, and sometimes it sighs and complains, but it’s OK because you’re your imagination’s biggest fan. It was designed just for you, you know.

Scully was that voice for everyone, echoing through the garage while you were under a car, in the car as you were going for a drive, at the mechanic’s because you had no business being under the car in the first place. When you’re young, old, in-between, with an old friend, remembering an old friend, everywhere.

When television took over, Scully spent more and more time on the medium, for different sports and different audiences. But the foundation of the affection felt for him, the necessity of him, was built on the stream of consciousness coming over the radio. It was perfect for him. Baseball was perfect for the radio. He was perfect for baseball. The feedback loop got stronger with each decade.

* * *

I don’t have those memories of Scully. But I have memories of baseball on the radio.

I remember being in the backyard as my dad swept leaves, hearing him laugh and laugh when Mike LaCoss hit his second home run in as many starts, the only two of his career. (It had to be the fantastic Hank Greenwald with the call.)

I remember waiting for the train to pass when Joel Youngblood won the game in the bottom of the ninth. It would have been an exciting radio moment, except I also remember my mom punching my dad in the shoulder, absolutely fuming because she told him not to leave the game early. They never left early again. (Probably Greenwald, though it could have been Lon Simmons).

I remember waiting in my car, a ‘65 Bug, six volts short of being able to handle anything more than the stock AM stereo, on a break, listening to Mark Leiter finish his second complete game in as many starts, wondering if he was the ace the Giants had been looking for. I remember the direction the car was parked, what the light of the department store looked like from the parking garage. (Duane Kuiper, I think.)

I remember trick-or-treating with my 2-year-old, the first time she actually got it, and we went from house to house at the block party, with all of them listening to the World Series in the driveway or on the front porch, and lingering just long enough at one of the houses to hear Aubrey Huff hit a home run. (Dave Flemming that time.)

None of them had anything to do with Vin Scully, but those are memories that can’t be pulled out of my brain without shutting the whole system down.

Now I picture all of these memories with a single laconic voice, the cadence letting you know what was happening just as effectively as the actual words. The continuity is what gets me. From Brooklyn to Los Angeles, Koufax to Kershaw, those were the aural pins in the map charting the lives and memories of Dodgers fans.

Your baseball memories will be different. Maybe it’s more TV than radio, or maybe it’s all TV. It’s like that for some Scully fans, too, especially over the last couple decades. But you have the baseball memories from somewhere. And if you picture them all coming from the same voice, the one you can listen to in your head whenever you want, it helps you understand just a little bit more. It helps you get the attachment and the bittersweet farewells.

* * *

It helps that Scully is the best, of course, a master storyteller with a photographic memory and appreciation for tangents. It helps that his voice is unquestionably the archetype of what a sports broadcaster’s voice should be — calm, sonorous, with enough range to let you know when the really important stuff is happening. It helps that he knows he’s there in service of the game, not the other way around, which means there are times when it’s better to shut up and let the crowd call the game for a little bit.

It’s possible that Scully holds the highest possible approval rating for anyone who’s done any job in the history of the world. I want to laugh that off as hyperbole, but is it? Guess there could be a kindergarten teacher somewhere. Maybe an astronaut. There will occasionally be a loudmouth Giants fan who wants to puff up his or her street cred by moaning that he’s just so boring or that he ugh tells the same stories more than once. Here’s a picture of them. You’ve been warned.

Everyone else loves him. Probably because he’s the best. And there’s a tendency to lament that we weren’t there the whole time, and that it’s going away, sort of like I’m doing now. It feels like I caught the tail end of it all, and that’s something a 40-year-old Dodgers fan could think, too. The catalog of great moments stretches back impossibly far, and it’s impossibly vast. Oh, to be a 90-year-old who moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1958, there from the very beginning, able to appreciate it all.

Except we were here, at least. The next group to shuffle through won’t even have that. They’ll get to listen to the highlights, and they’ll be able to appreciate them on some level, just like us.

And maybe one day when they’re older, if they’re lucky, they’ll stop and realize that all of those tentpoles holding up the canvas spanning from personal milestone to personal milestone can be put into perspective, at least chronologically, with the help of sports. And maybe they’ll think about what it meant to have one voice, the same voice, take them through it like their own personal narrator.

This game, of course, was happening right about the time you were getting married, which you remember because when you think back, you remember listening to me in your tiny apartment, a waystation on a path you couldn’t possibly imagine, as you made plans for the rest of your life. Now let’s get back to this one.

It’s what I’m doing right now, even if I’m wholly satisfied with the voices I did hear, the stories I was told while it was all happening. Still, for a brief moment, melding my memories with the memories that could have been makes me understand what an absolute gift Vin Scully was just a little bit more.