Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Grand Vin

When I think about my youth, and I try to recall what it sounded like, I only remember a few voices. The voice of my mother reading “Charlotte’s Web” or “Winnie the Pooh” to me. My grandmother making dinner in the kitchen, the sounds of her kindness and humor that was my safe place. And Vin Scully.

The Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles for the 1958 season. I was five years old. I can’t remember when I fell in love with baseball, or why. Baseball just seems to have been part of who I am. I don’t know how I came to write jokes either. Those places in my heart and soul seem to have been installed at the factory. I don’t care for any other sports. Not at all. I don’t denigrate them. No more than I denigrate romance novels, or sitcoms on the CW. I save my scorn for the wine business I love. And though I was pre-programmed to love baseball, it was Vin Scully who mentored me, every night of the baseball season, through my crappy little transistor radio under my pillow. His voice is the voice of my childhood. He could speak over my parents arguing in their bedroom if I turned the volume up a little bit. Make me feel better after I’d wet my bed far too late into my life. Vin Scully painted a picture of a world I never knew, but badly wanted to believe in, a world where your best effort was all you needed to prove you were valuable. I needed to hear that as a kid. He brought comfort to my childhood, but also dignity and joy. He never spoke down to me, he never dealt in inside jokes, never put down opposing players or umpires; Vin Scully epitomized class and sportsmanship, as well as the power of observation and storytelling.

Almost everyone reading must know that Mr. Scully has announced that this, his 67th year as the voice of the Dodgers, will be his last year. I’m not heartbroken. I should be, but it’s hard to be selfish to a man who has only been kind and unselfish. Actually, I’m amazed that I lived long enough to see him retire. I’ve listened to him for 58 years. I’d gladly take another 30. But I only feel gratitude, not loss. Grateful to have been born in Southern California where Vin Scully rules.

I don’t have many heroes. How many of us do? Vin Scully is one of my heroes. And so I’m self-indulgently writing about him. I need to, I think. You can stop reading here, if you haven’t already. It’s only going to be baseball foolishness. And there will be hundreds of tributes to Vin Scully written, mine won’t be that special. But I need to, if only for myself.

In the days before the endless stats that now dominate broadcasts, baseball was about the moment. The human moment. Vin Scully, when the situation warranted it, could easily explain the moment, make you feel you were in the game, make you understand what must have been going on in the hitter’s mind, make you think about what must be running through the manager’s strategy. But always with a twinkle in his eye. It was always only baseball. And when there was tragic news in the world, a catastrophe of mythic proportions, Vin would always remind us that there was a game to play, but that it was of no real consequence. That baseball was just the playground, and not real life. I’m certain that’s why I feel the same way about wine. And feel sorry for those who believe it has genuine significance in the world. It does not.

I remember a game against the Giants when Koufax no-hit them. The only televised baseball games in Los Angeles back then were NBC’s Game of the Week, and games against the Giants in San Francisco. It was 1963. I was ten. I had to go to bed because it was getting late. But as the game went on, into the seventh and eighth, Koufax had not allowed a hit. I was listening to the game in my room, the radio under my pillow, hanging on Vin Scully’s every word. In the ninth inning, my grandmother came and “woke” me up, sneaking me into her room to watch the end of the game on television. When Harvey Kuenn hit a comebacker to Koufax to end the game, one of Koufax’s four no-hitters, my grandmother and I let out whoops and cheers. Vin Scully, as was his wont, was silent.

Scully is, like the great writers and poets, the great singers and speakers, a master of the silent pause. After a dramatic home run, he would stop speaking and let the crowd tell the story. He understood timing, and I think I learned much of mine from him. One of my favorite Vin Scully lines was simple, yet perfectly delivered. He was speaking about a player who had suffered a mild injury and was listed as “Day to Day.” A pause. “Aren’t we all?”

There was the wonderful call of Fernando Valenzuela’s no-hitter against the Cardinals. When Valenzuela gets former Dodger Pedro Guerrero to hit into a game-ending double play, Scully first makes note of the exact time of the last out, the date, that he’s pitched a no-hitter, and then says, “If you have a sombrero, throw it to the sky!” You want to listen to a master at his craft, listen to Vin Scully call that ninth inning.

There are 67 years of highlights. The great call of one of the most dramatic home runs ever hit, the Kirk Gibson home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. “In a year that has been so improbable,” Scully says, always improvising, though after a two-minute pause, “the impossible has happened!” Scully had a way of making memorable moments indelible in your memory. It’s a remarkable, and inimitable, gift.

Through earthquakes, riots, countless disasters and tragedies, culturally and personally, there was that voice in my ear, coming from underneath my pillow. It was the one sure thing in my life for six months of the year, a place I could visit and feel happy and included, safe from anger and fear and pain. I almost liked the lopsided games better because then Vin could tell longer stories about baseball. Yet there was also no one better at calling a dramatic, hard-fought, even heartbreaking baseball game. And probably never will be.

No one from Los Angeles would argue with the fact that Vin Scully is by far the most popular and beloved man in the city. Not Magic Johnson, not Kobe Bryant, not any movie star you can name. He has been for as long as I can remember. It says something about Los Angeles, often seen as vapid and starstruck, that this is true. In some very important way, he’s the most beloved man in my entire life.

I met him once, at the restaurant where I was sommelier. I’ve never been so grateful to meet someone. Bob Hope was a very regular customer, also, and I cannot tell you how many times very powerful, very wealthy, very successful men went up to Mr. Hope in tears because they were finally able to thank him for how much his USO trips to Vietnam meant to their lives, at the worst times of their lives. I didn’t serve in Vietnam, but I felt some of that gratitude to Vin Scully. Everyone will tell you that Scully is the same man you see on television, the same man you hear on your radio. Gracious, articulate, thoughtful, quick-witted, and humble. I wanted to stand up straighter, speak more clearly, and make him proud of me. I’ve felt that every time I’ve heard his voice for the last 58 years.

There’s an old warning that you should never meet your heroes. It’s usually true. Not in Mr. Scully’s case. I muttered something stupid, something he’d probably heard every day of his life, something jejune about him being the voice of my childhood. I was a wreck. More nervous than the day I got married. But Scully was so gracious, listened to me so intently, and thanked me with great charm and affection. It was one of the best moments of my working career, and a highlight of my days in Los Angeles.

And with his retirement, the last voice of my childhood goes silent. All those hours listening to his voice in the darkness, his voice a balm for every real and every imagined wound, the simple kindness of an older male voice a rare and precious gift to a young boy, the decency and sense of dignity he always exuded a shining example of what it is to be a man, I wonder, how many of us growing up in Los Angeles owe a large debt to Vin Scully? And now his brilliant career is finally Day to Day.

Aren’t they all?

Originally published September 2016