The modern baseball broadcaster provides a public service to sports fans everywhere: He receives our hatred; he’s a magnet, or a receptacle, for our frustration. To talk for three-plus hours extemporaneously, particularly during a game as leisurely and mannered as baseball, is to invite listeners to pounce on every poorly researched remark. Each year the baseball site Fangraphs.com asks its readers to rank all 30 teams’ announcers; perhaps the nicest thing written about one was that he was “phlegmatic to a fault.” Snarking on broadcasters is a fan’s sport within a sport.
The rise of hate-listening tracks the decline of the Big Broadcast Personality. Today, baseball announcers pretty much sound the same. John, Dave, Tom, Marty, Joe, Jack, Dan … They are interchangeable and anonymous: Choosing one over another would be like choosing between brands of paper clips.
There are, of course, a few grandfathered-in exceptions to the bland-yet-hated rule: Hawk Harrelson in Chicago, Mike Shannon in St. Louis—and most exceptional of all: Vin.
Vin Scully, who now enters his final month on the job, began broadcasting for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950 as an apprentice to Red Barber. Three years later, he was the team’s lead broadcaster. By 1958, when the team moved to Los Angeles to play in the Coliseum, he was so vital to fans – many of whom had difficulty following the game in a stadium far too massive for it – that they packed transistor radios so they could listen to Vin in the stands. By 1976, fans elected him the “most memorable personality” in Dodgers history. That was 40 years ago.
Over the decades, the sports-media landscape changed dramatically, and Scully’s once-beloved profession was whittled down to those Johns and Daves and Toms and Joes we like yelling at so much—but he never lost his touch.
The key to Scully’s success is his calm, intimate vibe. While many broadcasters call games as if they’re trying to talk anonymous hordes out of looking at their iPads, Scully is having a conversation with you – and only you. “I’ve always felt that I was talking to one person,” he said in 2007. “But I’ve never envisioned who that one person is.”
To listen to Scully is to be drawn in by a storyteller—and a fellow traveler. Scully has seen nearly 10,000 baseball games but he never sounds like a jaundiced expert. He’s excited to find out what happens just like you. It’s a baseball game. Let’s watch it together.
In 1950, you listened to Vin Scully because you wanted to know if the Dodgers were winning and he was the only way for you to find out. Now, in an age of push notifications and Twitter alerts, it’s difficult not to find out the score. And we have an absurd number of ways to follow along. We can watch the game on our TVs, our iPads, our phones, our video game consoles or even our wristwatches. We can listen to national audio feeds. We can turn off broadcasters altogether and just listen to the crowd. But still we choose Vin.
Ask any baseball fan. When they’re flipping around MLB.tv looking for a default game, just “which game should I turn on right now?” the determining factor is always, always, “Are the Dodgers at home?” Because if they are, Scully’s calling the game, and that’s the one you choose. Sure, the score of that Diamondbacks-Rockies game might be a little closer. But you’re going to turn down the chance to listen to Vin? In his last season, no less? The Dodgers are in first place, but even if they were on a 100-loss pace, they would be must-watch all season. That’s because of Vin.
Though he’s been around forever, he’s not some nostalgia play. He doesn’t complain that They Just Don’t Play Like They Used To or invoke the Good Ole Days, perhaps because he realizes they’re not behind us.
Baseball is the game we love to lament. Fans yearn for the time when it was America’s pastime in more than name, back when every theoretical American was rapt to attention, Ovaltine in hand, to watch the Mick. But that’s not how it really was. (Yankee Stadium was one-third full when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record.) In reality, more people are watching baseball right now than did in 1950, or 1960, or 1970, or any other time in recorded history. The newer fans are a more diverse group, more global, more liable to GIF a Mike Trout catch at the wall than keep a scorebook at the ballpark.
What unites the newer fans to the past is that they adore Vin Scully. The man in the booth – doing the job we now love to denigrate – is more beloved than the players he describes on the field.
His voice has served as the soundtrack of baseball even as that game, and the way we interact with it, has evolved. We’ll choose him right down to the very end. And then we’ll get back to booing the other guys.