The voice of baseball

This being Independence Day, a traditional baseball day, the Wall Street Journal interviewed the greatest baseball voice of our time:

It was another cloudless day in this Southern California canyon, another day for baseball at this idyllic mid-century ballpark. I asked Vin Scully if he felt lucky to do what he does.

“Oh, no, not lucky,” he said, firmly. “Lucky is too cheap a word. I really feel blessed. I truly believe God has given me these gifts. He gave it to me at a young age, and he’s allowed me to keep it all these years? That’s a gift. I say this because I believe it: I should spend a lot more time on my knees than I do.”

You probably know that this is the esteemed baseball broadcaster Vin Scully’s last year in the booth for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He is 88 years old, and after an astonishing 67 seasons, one of the greatest voices in sports—a melody of the American summer for nearly seven decades—will say farewell this October.

“I’ll miss it,” he said. “I know I’ll be very unhappy for a while.”

Then he smiled, because Vin Scully is a human sunbeam. When we met, he offered me a cupcake, and then asked about my three-year-old son. He’d instructed me to bring the boy when I came to visit him at Dodger Stadium. I didn’t, because A) I am truly an idiot and B) the kid’s a bit wild, and I feared he would have run around and climbed both of the foul poles.

“We raised six, and have had 16 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren,” Scully said. “You tell me a three-year-old runs around, and I say, ‘Yeah, I think so.’ ”

Below us, on the field, the Dodgers were getting ready for another ballgame. The late afternoon air was still warm enough for just a T-shirt, and you could smell popcorn and sausage. A lot of folks think a scene like this is pretty close to heaven. Scully thought so when he was a child growing up in New York City, saving up 11 cans to buy a 55-cent ticket to the Polo Grounds to see the Giants. …

Like everyone who’s ever spoken to Vin Scully, I recognize quickly that everything Vin Scully says is a treat, because he is saying it in that famous, honeycomb voice, which migrated with the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and described Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Fernando Valenzuela and Kirk Gibson, among countless others. Scully’s voice called Hank Aaron’s 715th home run…and it’s now talking about a cupcake? Dodgers president and co-owner Stan Kasten told me about a time he was talking to Scully, who was describing a friend’s surgery in great, gory detail “but it was Vin Scully describing it, so it was still kind of lyrical.”

“Whenever you talk to Vin on the phone, it really is kind of surreal,” Kasten said.

Scully occupies rare space. At a moment in our culture in which antagonism is the preferred currency, Scully is as universally beloved as it gets. There he was, a few weeks back, on the cover of Sports Illustrated. “VIN SCULLY IS READY TO DROP THE MIC,” the headline read. There’s his name on the Dodger Stadium entrance road from Sunset Boulevard. Though he’s worked a reduced schedule in recent years, his voice is the first thing you hear when you enter the park. Inside, his presence looms larger than any player’s. Even a screwy cable-TV controversy in L.A. that’s prevented a lot of Dodger fans from seeing games hasn’t diminished the goodwill.

There will be no one like Scully again—an ideal package of talent, paired with a historic franchise, and perfect timing as baseball expanded from the radio to TV era. And yet he isn’t a foghorn for the “good old days” but an exuberant voice for the current game offering just the right sprinkle of nostalgia. To listen to Scully is to be transported, said Bob Costas, who praised Scully’s “mastery of the craft.”

“A Vin Scully broadcast is simultaneously today’s game and whatever notion you have about any game you’ve ever listened to,” Costas said. “It’s a news bulletin and a flashback.”

He is a reservoir of moments. I ask Scully the loudest he ever heard the old Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. He mentions Cookie Lavagetto’s pinch-hit double in the 1947 World Series that gave the Dodgers a win over the Yankees. And Dodger Stadium? That’s easy: Kirk Gibson’s walk-off homer in the 1988 World Series, which happened not long after Scully told the audience at home that the hobbling Gibson wouldn’t appear.

I’ll let Scully handle the rest, because nobody on Earth wants to hear me tell it:

I had no idea that Gibby was in the clubhouse, all by himself, looking at the television set with ice packs on his knees. And whatever I said struck a note in him, and he hollered, ‘Bull—-!’ and then hollered to the clubhouse kid, ‘Go down and tell Tommy [Lasorda] I’m coming down.’

And then, as the inning progressed, I remember [seeing Gibson] out of the corner of my eye, and I just responded—it wasn’t a broadcasting line, I was absolutely shocked—‘Well, look who’s here.’ And the rest is history.

If you go and watch the Gibson clip now, what’s striking is that as soon as Gibson’s homer clears the fence, Scully says nothing until Gibson gets to home plate. The drama breathes. The moment is enough. It’s the same with Aaron’s 715th home run. Scully says little. The game’s greatest voice also knew when to not use it.

He still cares, still loves it, and is still adored. So why leave now? Why is Scully retiring young?

“I’m not young, I’m young at heart, for sure,” he said. “Little by little, you start losing it, and I’m aware that I’m not nearly as sharp as I was 10 years ago.” He compared it to a ballplayer whose bat starts to become a little late on a good fastball.

“I think it’s just time,” he said. “I just know it’s time.”

Respectfully, I have to disagree. Vin Scully is forever.

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