Designated HitterMarch 24, 2005
Growing Up With Vin Scully
By Eric Neel

I first met Vin Scully in my grandfather's kitchen. He came singing out of a small black transistor radio that sat on the windowsill above the sink. These were the Dodgers of 1974. I was six years old. I'd sit listening on a stool near the sink while Papa washed dishes and Vin called the action. There are times and places, most of them brief and small, when you feel perfectly at home in the world, when even the thought of any sort of sorrow or peril is a million miles from you. That stool, in that kitchen, with Vin's inimitable voice was one of those times and places for me.

My parents were going through a divorce. My mother was sick most of the time, and my father was elsewhere. I was scared and I didn't really trust anyone. Except Vin. He'd say, "Hi again, everybody, and a very pleasant good evening to you, wherever you may be," and my life would come back on line. It wasn't just that he was out there and that he loved baseball as I did. It was his sound, the sound of a merry gentleman, full of comfort and joy.

I know there were kids like me in the heartland clinging to Jack Buck on KMOX, and I'm sure there were boys and girls back east falling for Ernie Harwell or Mel Allen. But I don't know if they could ever feel what I felt for Vin's voice. I swear the way his smooth, round Irish lilt wrapped itself around me, it promised, almost every summer night, to keep me safe.

It's been 30-plus years since those first games in Papa's kitchen and still, every time I hear Vin I get a rush of that same feeling. Like Proust's madeleines his voice kicks me back. And my four decades are just a drop in the bucket. Scully's been singing Dodger stories since 1950. Think about that. From Brooklyn to Los Angeles. He's seen Sandy Koufax come and go. He was there when the Dodgers' forever infield -- Garvey, Lopes, Russell, and Cey -- broke in and bowed out. He was at the mic for Fernandomania and he welcomes Gagne to the jungle now. The team's town has changed, its players have changed, and its owners have changed, but Vin has remained.

How do you assess the value of that? Not just for me or for any one fan, but for the franchise and the community? I honestly don't think you can. In an era dominated by free agency and disaffection, when Darryl Strawberry comes in one year and Mike Piazza gets sent out another, the identity of a professional club, the thing, the attitude and spirit, you root for and identify with is at risk. It's no turn-back-the-clock slam on the players or the union to say so, it's just what is, and has been for a while now.

People say you root for the uniform, and sure, there's some of that, but in the case of the Dodgers, I think Vin is the uniform. As it was with the Lakers and Chick Hearn for so long (and how blessed has LA been in this regard, with the Kings also having Bob Miller for so long), Scully, the sound of Scully, is synonymous with Dodgerdom. Whatever else we're doing when we put on a cap or a t-shirt, we're pledging allegiance to Vin. He's who we are.

That's no doubt true in many major league cities, but it's especially crucial in Los Angeles. It's a vast stretch between the coast and the desert, and thanks in part to a tangle of freeways, a history of water grabs, and great geographical diversity, the L.A. area is a spread-wide place, with communities distanced and often cut off from one another. That's part of the charm of the place, for sure; you get great variety and, at the margins, some fantastic cultural, culinary, and political mélanges. But it comes, too, with a kind of alienated undercurrent, like the city's prone to spin, from time to time, like Yeats' widening gyre, like you're not always sure what connects you to folks on some other spoke of the wheel. I've always felt that Vin counteracts that in some steady, fundamental way.

I was at a game at Dodger Stadium in the early '80s, I think, and it was souvenir-baseball-radio night. The first 10,000 fans or something got baseball-shaped transistor radios. And there we all were, holding the balls up to our ears, watching the game with our eyes, and listening to Vin describe it with his words. Every radio was on. The open-air stadium was like your living room, rich with his voice. And I remember thinking then that it's Vin who unites us -- culture, class, and race be damned. I've been at stop lights and in unfriendly bars, restaurants, gas stations, gyms, and liquor stores where Vin's name -- or the sound of his call on a radio -- has been nothing less than a shibboleth.

Which brings us to his words. Because it's not just the voice, of course. It's how he tells stories. I could talk about a hundred different things -- from his flare for the homespun phrase with a touch of Shakespeare (or his flair for the Shakespearean phrase with a touch of home) to his feel for the classic structure of tension and resolution (his sense of which I'd put up there with any great filmmaker you want to mention), to his pitch-perfect metaphorical touch ("He's like a tailor; a little off here, a little off there and you're done, take a seat," he once said of Tom Glavine) -- but I'll focus on two: detail and empathy.

Thanks to Rob McMillin at 6-4-2, I had a chance to hear Scully's call of the ninth inning of Koufax's 1965 perfect game again recently. It's a terrific piece of poetic storytelling (Gary Kaufman wrote a great piece about it at Salon.com several years ago), and the thing that jumps out at me is his habit of describing, without fanfare, just the smallest sorts of actions and gestures. There's a bit in that ninth inning where he describes Koufax and his hat:

"Koufax lifted his cap, ran his fingers through his black hair, then pulled the cap back down, fussing at the bill. Krug must feel it, too, as he backs out, heaves a sigh, took off his helmet, put it back on and steps back up to the plate."

Like Hemingway, Scully lets the mundane resonate and tell its own story. As a batter steps into the box, Vin tells you where he comes from, what his mother and father do, or what he likes to read. It's at those moments in which the players, who might otherwise be unfamiliar to us -- by virtue of what they do, how much they make, and how they've been characterized or ignored by the press -- become known on some basic level.

The temptation as a storyteller is to make too much meaning, to layer dramatic moments with interpretation. You hear a lot about Scully being the consummate professional because he's no homer, because his calls are objective and clean of angle. That's all true, but I think that's a byproduct of this other thing. I think a key to his genius is that he often lets things be what they are and, like a good writer, he pays attention to the little things. You're as likely to hear about how a runner moves his feet or a batter wiggles his bat as you are to hear about whether the one is thrown out or the other gets a hit. Nothing escapes notice, so meaning tends to layer itself in our minds as much or more than in Scully's.

I've often thought of this as a kind of "giving way" on Vin's part. As much as Scully's an unmistakable presence on air, he's also willing to recede to the point of remaining totally silent at certain times. In the moments after Kirk Gibson hit his famous home run in Game One of the 1988 World Series, while Jack Buck was giddily shouting, "I do not believe what I just saw!," Scully, who'd called the shot like he's called so many others -- "High fly ball into deep right field. She is...gone!" -- took a long pause to let the crowd noise reach the mic and the moment reach its emotional height, before coming back on to cap things with the sweet little turn, "In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened."

But even more than in these characteristic silences, Scully's empathy shines through in his habit of describing a scene by trying to imagine himself in it. He'll often playfully speculate about what a first baseman must be saying to a pitcher in a mound conference, or some such thing, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking, instead, about those times -- and they happen almost every game -- when he introduces a scene by thinking, almost feeling, through the likely emotional register of Teddy Roosevelt's proverbial "man in the arena."

Here are the key moments in the ninth inning of Koufax's perfect game (italics mine):

  • "Three times in his sensational career has Sandy Koufax walked out to the mound to pitch a fateful ninth where he turned in a no-hitter. But tonight, September the ninth, nineteen hundred and sixty-five, he made the toughest walk of his career, I'm sure, because through eight innings he has pitched a perfect game."

  • "I would think that the mound at Dodger Stadium right now is the loneliest place in the world. Sandy fussing, looks in to get his sign, oh-and-two to Amalfitano."

    And . . .

  • "One and one to Harvey Kuenn. Now he's ready: Fastball, high, ball two. You can't blame a man for pushing just a little bit now. Sandy backs off, mops his forehead, runs his left index finger along his forehead, dries it off on his left pants leg."

    It's hard to describe the effect this turn has, but I think, for lack of a better term, I'll call it ethical -- and I mean that in the classic sense -- as a mode of thinking outside of oneself and about the fortunes of another. You hear all the time that listeners feel as if they know the announcers who call their home team's games. You hear, too, that they feel as if they're known by those guys behind the mic. It's never true, of course (I'm sure Scully hears a dozen times a day, as he did from me when I first met him in person two years back, that he's been "such an important part" of the life of someone he's never met), but I think in Scully's case, there is, in his tone -- and in his rhetorical style -- something inherently welcoming, something that underwrites his calls with a genuine sense of its being possible.

    That's a powerful thing. It meant the world to me when I was six.

    And the truth is, it still does. The season officially begins on Sunday night, April 3, when the Yanks and Sox go heads-up. But for me, like it's been for thirty-odd years, the real start of the season comes two nights later, when Vin says, "Hi again everyone, and a very pleasant good evening to you, wherever you may be."

    I'll be in the kitchen.

    Eric Neel is a columnist for ESPN.com's Page2 and a regular contributor to ESPN the Magazine. He lives with his wife Gwen and daughter Tess in Humboldt County, California.

  • Comments

    Thank you, Eric, for writing this piece with so much feeling. I could precisely hear Vin's tune while I read each quote. I remember listening to every game with my mom while carrying a ghettoblaster around the house looking for the spot with the best reception. We truely have been the luckist fans as we heard the voices of Vin and Chick on a daily basis. Now, I cherrish those few innings at the beginning of Dodger games that Vin sets the table over the radio before gracing the television.

    I've still never listened to Vin, sounds a lot different than the "OHHHHHHHH WHY? WHY? WHY? NO! Not again!!!!" that I'm used to from Ron Santo.

    facinating.
    i love listening to vin as well. thanks for sharing this :)

    --ev

    I first heard Vinnie on KFI in 1959, but I've never been able to describe what it's been like since anywhere near as well as you did. Thanks.

    Excellent article. Thank you for putting my feelings about Vin into words.

    I didn't first meet him in a kitchen. Frankly, I don't remember when I first met him.

    All I know is that it will be near impossible to listen to a Dodger game without him.

    My favorite photo of him is that of him with my favorite all-time Dodger Jackie Robinson... the one where they're both on skates. In terms of history, it says it all about the man.

    Wow. This essay perfectly captures so much of what I have wanted to say and write about about Vin Scully. More accurately, it perfectly describes what I have only been able to feel and articulate in a framentary way. I am jealous of your ability to write such a beautiful piece. Thank you.

    The narrative of the ninth inning of the perfect game is also available in print in Charlie Einstein's "The Baseball Reader." Reading it the first time brought tears to my eyes and recollections of exactly where I sat and listened to that game. You know, Bob Hendley pitched a pretty good game that night, too - a one-hitter. The only hit was a double by Lou Johnson that had, as I recall, nothing to do with the one run the Dodgers scored.

    I was fortunate enough to go to Vin's house a few year ago to inspect a product manufactured by a company I represented. I made sure to take both copies of that book and Vinnie graciously autographed them for me. By giving them as Christmas gifts, I made two baseball fans incredibly happy.

    As a Cardinal fan since before the Dodgers moved out here, I have always appreciated his fairness and ability to praise the opposition perhaps even more than the typical Dodger fan.

    Vinnie's best LA call ever:

    The Dodgers move out here in '58 and, after four pennants in six years, Campy watches from his hospital bed as they finished next-to-last. But in '59 they catch fire, with Wills' midseason ignition out of nowhere.

    The White Sox await the winner of the Braves-Dodgers playoff.

    The Dodgers score the winning run on a throwing error and, as Hodges leaps triumphantly onto home plate, Vinnie exults, "And we go to Chicago!"

    From the outhouse to the penthouse, and the Dodgers--and Vinnie--owned Los Angeles.

    Two balls, two strikes, two outs, two on...deuces are wild

    Vin was my security blanket. I'm in NoCal now, and I miss him.

    Thanks for the wonderful essay.

    Thanks Eric.

    Eric,

    all I can say is AMEN!

    Eric,

    Lyrical, just lyrical. I wish I could write like you. But just so you know, you missed another sports broadcast legend that L.A. has, and in fact that the Dodgers have: Jaime Jarrin, Vin's fellow Hall-of-Famer. I grew up listening to both -- first Jaime Jarrin, whose precise Spanish surrounded my mother as she ironed clothes (seems like she was always ironing during the games), then, as I got older, Vin. I now live on the East Coast, but still have the same challenge when I fire up the browser to listen to the Internet broadcast: escucho a Jaime, or should I listen to Vin? Either way, it's one of the greatest treats in the world. For bilingual Dodger fans, it's two men who are the permanent connection to our Dodger memories -- and who remarkably, share many of the same characteristics -- praiseworthy objectivity, an amazing ability to turn a phrase and paint vivid word pictures, a deep respect for the game... Dodger fans have been truly blessed.

    Thanks Eric for a fine piece... Vin is amazing; I simply never tire of listening to his voice.... I have listened to his call of the Koufax perfect game countless times but it still sounds fresh to me every time I hear it.... Eric, I don't know if you have the time to devote to this, but after reading this short piece, I think you would be well suited to write a full length biography of Vin. For sure, such a book should be written...

    A little late to heap on the praise, yet...
    for me, Vin, was a connection to something I SO wanted to be a part of. And, as you point out, he made that so easy. I grew up in Florida in the 70s, so perhaps somehow, I heard a Dodger game on the radio down there. My father, a card fan working for the space program, definitely would have been listening on the radio. It's amazing that we can be so emotional about a man many of us have never met-- I can almost cry thinking about the possibility that my son will not get to here him call games. Thanks for the great work! (I second the biography nod!)

    Oh Yeah! Well said Eric.
    I'm 50 and I cannot ever remember not hearing Vin call the games. He is as familiar to me (and millions of others) as any member of our own families.

    One more thing, I think, sets Vin apart from other announcers. Eric you touched on it when you called Vin a gentleman. He is never afraid to use an unfamiliar word, then gently inform the fans of it's meaning. 'nothin wrong with a little knowlege' as Vin says. When the Dodgers had organ tunes instead of rap music between innings, he would name the tunes and elucidate their connection to the game. What other announcer would dare display their knowlege of Broadway show tunes and classical music to sports fans?
    We have, on occasion, heard Vin recite poetery, quote Shakespere and other classics. Who else could do this as naturally and easily but a true gentleman?

    No prince, potentate, or millionare was ever more of a gentleman than Vin Scully.

    Eric,

    What a beautifully written piece! I am not a regular reader of sports writing, but this intrigued and moved me; you have a wonderful sensitivity for your subject and for the language. Thanks for the pleasure of reading your prose.

    Beautiful piece. I first remember Vin from NBC's game of the week from the 80s. I could, quite simply, listen to him all day.

    Eric,

    I just sent you an email via ESPN. Maybe it gets to you, maybe not. Anyway, we're neighbors, (somewhat). I also live in Humboldt. Drop me a line when you have a minute. Maybe we can grab a beer sometime.

    John

    PS... Great column.

    Eric,
    The piece on Vinny was the most eloquent, poetic and oh-so-fitting tribute to a man I admire and adore as much as, if not more so, than the Dodgers. I have enjoyed the writing on ESPN- simply amazing. Thanks for making this Dodgers fan relive the magic of hearing Vinny on the radio, or at the stadium, eating a Dodger dog from the blue seats, watching the sunset.....pure magic.

    Great column. I met Vin when I was 15 and have never forgotten it...Life is all about change and generally that's a good thing but every once in a while it can, like a curveball, come out of nowhere and buckle your knees...It's nice to have a couple horses that you can always hitch your wagon to...

    What is Vin Scully's DOB? Sparky Anderson's?

    You have a great column. Keep up the good work.

    I grew up in New York in the 40s and 50s as a Brooklyn Dodget fan, and had the pleasure of listening to what I consider the greatest broadcasting team ever; Red Barber and Vin Scully. I still think those radio days beat TV anytime. Oh, to be back in the catbird seat again...

    It disturbs me that Vin changed his style from respectful to condescending toward his listenership when the Dodgers moved west, as though the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Little Falls.

    Nauseating, often repeated put downs like "Nada Senor;" "Don't go wanderin' off;" and the worst corn pone line of all-time: "The A's traded Manny Trillo to the Cubs for a TRIO of players." This hideous line was actually picked-up and repeated by Scully clones Jerry Doggett and Ross Porter. UGHHHHH!

    Robby Bonfire........phillies.mostvaluablenetwork.com

    Hey Vin, You prably won"t remeber me,,,,We had lunch together eons ago in 30 Rockefeller cwenter. You were in town for something or other with NBC and I was working for NBC. You look just great and have c-had a wonderful career. I am now living in Winter Haven Fl. the winter home of the Cleveland Indians. I married an AF pilot and have been here since '68 whwn Harry retired. If you ever come through Central Fl.let me know and we will buy you a beer. Lynn

    A great essay on the ultimate baseball announcer. Since I live in the Midwest, I don't get to hear Scully much, but I'd almost rather listen to Vin on the radio than be at the game in person. He makes it that real.