All good things must come to an end. Even very good things that have been going on for an incomprehensively long time, like the broadcasting career of the marvelous Vin Scully. He had been making more than baseball out Dodgers games for so long that many imagined he was as permanent as the stars, and not the Hollywood kind. For this reason many were stunned to learn this year that even Vin would call it a career, the career in question having begun when Harry Truman was president, gas was 20 cents a gallon, and a loaf of bread cost even less. In the light of what else has happened in 2016, one could be excused for saying, to coin a pretty good phrase or two, “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.”
It’s not exactly accurate to say that Scully’s retirement after Sunday’s Dodgers/Giants game from San Francisco is an end of an era. Vin’s era ended long ago. He outlasted it and is still beloved for the power of his poetry, for his unique and soothing melody that has been turning Major League baseball games into destinations for decades. The art of baseball broadcasting, making the game an occasion rather than just a score, was begun long ago by such as Red Barber, Mel Allen, and Ernie Harwell. Scully brought it to perfection. And on the evidence of the last games that he called this summer and fall, he’s leaving the arena while he still has a lot of game.
Vin is a story-teller in a post-story-telling world. This is a texting generation, where hardly anyone even knows how to tell a joke anymore, let alone tell a story. Even the well-told joke requires set up, elaboration, punch-line. It calls for timing, a precise choice of words, a sense of, if not irony at least of the absurdity of the human condition (the best jokes, including Vin’s, also include an obvious affection for the weak timber of humanity). Vin has all of these in spades, plus total recall of most of the post-war history of Major League Baseball. This when he’s at an age when many would consider remembering where the car keys are a triumph.
The well-groomed story calls for even more elaborate verbal dexterity, insight, timing, and touch. Vin has been weaving marvelously layered and entertaining stories — some about baseball, others not — in between ground outs, foul balls, and base hits for decades. Some, it’s not an exaggeration to say, almost in sonata form: Introduction, exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda. (Okay, maybe this is a bit of a stretch. But only a bit. And when writing about Vin it’s easy to get carried away.)
Stories of this sort require an audience with an attention span. An audience that knows a little something, and for whom ancient history isn’t last month. And here’s where I don’t wish to sound grumpy. Grumpiness in a salute to Vin Scully, perhaps the least grumpy among us, would be seriously out of place. But considering how out of touch Vin is with the times, I marvel at the great affection he is held in by segments of the LOL generation. Perhaps all is not as lost as it sometimes appears to be.
Many of the folks saluting Vin last Sunday afternoon (the 25th) after Vin’s last Dodger Stadium game, or two nights before that at Vin Scully Appreciation Night, were clearly paid up members of the post-verbal generation. Perhaps they’re aware at a basic level that something is wrong with the way we’ve devolved linguistically, and they appreciate a master from the long-gone ancien régime. Someone who still knows how to be human in well-crafted declarative sentences, how to be the thoughtful adult in the room, even though he has to be told what a tweet is. In fact, partly because he has to be told what a tweet is. (Don’t even try to explain to Vin what Pokémon is.)
There has been a large and justifiable media fuss made over Scully and the end of his long reign as the voice of the Dodgers, even though the ever humble Scully is embarrassed by it all. Many have speculated on what Vin will do in retirement. Considering Vin’s mastery of English and his encyclopedic knowledge of post-war baseball, I hope he writes The Baseball Book. With the storehouse he has to call on, his only challenge would be keeping it to a manageable length.
Writers and commenters have lately reminded us why and how Scully has charmed us over the years: The friendly and soothing voice, the way he uses the language, erudite but with the common touch. He seems to always have the absolutely apt metaphor for what just took place on the field. Descriptive aids that can be enjoyed even by those not altogether sure what a metaphor is. There’s the fact that he talks, never shouts, to listeners, whom he treats as though they’re friends watching the game with him.
Scully has clearly always been the Dodgers’ man and wants them to succeed. But he’s never been a homer. He has always treated visiting players with respect, complimenting them when they make a good play. I’ve never heard him complain about umpire’s decisions, even when a close one went against the Dodgers. He lets us know when something dramatic has taken place on the field, but he never over-eggs the pudding. When Vin calls a home run, listeners know it isn’t the first one he’s ever seen, or the last one he expects to see. And no one has ever been better prepared with information about the players and the teams and how it all fits into the big baseball picture. And sometimes into the big picture of life. (A favorite example here of Vin the philosopher comes from when Vin informed us that outfielder Andre Dawson “has a bruised knee and is listed as day to day.” He then took a beat and added, “Aren’t we all.” Just so.)
Not only has Vin always seemed to find the right thing to say in the right way, he has understood the uses of silence better than anyone in the trade. Most broadcasters fear dead air more than a live grenade, more than Dracula feared sunlight and the True Cross. Not Vin. He called Henry Aaron’s 715th homerun in Atlanta, the one that broke Babe Ruth’s lifetime homerun record. After saying, “It’s gone,” Vin didn’t utter another word for more than a minute, allowing the crowd noise and the events on the field to tell the story. It wasn’t because Vin couldn’t think of anything to say about this historic event — he later gave some impressive context — but because at the moment there was nothing that needed to be said. Most other broadcasters on this occasion would have been chattering like magpies, contributing nothing to the moment but ambient noise.
It’s for these reasons, and others, that there is no one else like Scully — no one even remotely like him. Of course, even as Vin departs the stage, there are good baseball announcers still around. The Giants’ Jon Miller is excellent. Joe Buck, son of announcer Jack Buck, is very sound. There are a few others. (Even Bob Costas can be good when not plying us with some liberal sermonette.) But the common broadcast booth ruck — here again, a grumpiness warning — is pretty dismal.
One of the more remarkable things about Scully’s games is that he announced them alone. He has been play-by-play, color-guy, analyst, story-teller, historian, straight man and joke teller all rolled into one. It’s hard to remember when anyone else did Major League games a cappella. Perhaps Ernie Harwell did Detroit Tigers games this way back in the day. Those fortunate enough to have seen and heard any of the thousands of games Scully broadcast over nearly seven decades got the Gospel According to Vin, and no one else.
By contrast, the modern broadcast booth is packed. There’s the play by-play-guy who describes what TV viewers just saw and would have almost certainly understood perfectly well without his help. Then there’s the “color-commentator,” usually a beefy ex-Major Leaguer wearing a tie, who in too many cases tries to impress viewers with how much he knows about the game and makes baseball sound more complicated than nuclear physics in Russian. Often the third wheel is a guy called an analyst who, well, I’m not entirely sure what he’s supposed to do. (Too often he abuses viewers with eye-glazing statistics in those new, computer geek categories that instead of shining light on the game mostly remind viewers of why they didn’t like algebra at school. What on earth does wins above replacement mean?)
All these worthies spend a good deal of the game hoping the fire marshal doesn’t notice the overcrowded broadcast booth and talking loudly over each other, giving the broadcast the flavor of outtakes from “The McLaughlin Group” or a cattle auction. They are a great cause of the national overuse of the mute button. With Vin, the last of the TV guys to begin in radio, it’s often the picture that seems expendable.
The Dodgers have announced who will do the team’s play-by-play next year, a 28-year-old from Michigan named Joe Davis. He’s been calling away games with help from former players Orel Hershiser and Nomar Garciaparra after Vin quit traveling with the team (save for California games). He won’t call games alone like Vin has — same trio next year — and the Dodgers have been careful not to say that he’s replacing Scully, as it’s obvious nobody could. You have to feel for the kid (the kid being six years older than Vin was when he began his Dodgers career in 1950 next to Red Barber). Talk about a tough act to follow. Dodger fans will eventually adjust to Vin-less summers. But it will take time and it won’t be easy. You don’t lose the best in the game and get over it quickly. Even if it’s a guy from a previous era. A man hopelessly out of date. But pitch perfect to the end.
God bless and a long, happy retirement, Vin. Thanks for all the great memories. And good luck to young Joe.
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