I am one of the relatively few people in the history of this planet who was lucky enough to grow up in Los Angeles during the time of Vin Scully. What a gift. This is what I have been thinking about since learning that the longtime Dodgers broadcaster passed away. It’s kind of strange and also kind of beautiful that a man whose job was to narrate a made-up game with no inherent stakes became the most beloved and universally respected person in one of the world’s major cities.
There has already been a lot written about Scully’s greatness as an announcer, his importance to generations of baseball fans in Los Angeles and elsewhere, his humility inside and outside the booth. I cannot pretend to speak about what specifically drew other people to Vin Scully, or what other people will remember when they think back on the time they spent in the company of his voice.
But for me, it was his perpetual capacity to be amazed. Vin Scully was amazed by the sight of a child eating an ice cream cone, by the story of a bird pooping on Mike Matheny’s head, by the history of beards. And he was amazed by what he saw on the field every day. In turn, so was his audience. You wanted to listen to him not just because he knew exactly how to share an unexpected history lesson, drop a funny anecdote, or set up a dramatic moment, but because those history lessons, anecdotes, and dramatic moments always stacked up to build a broadcast that invited empathy and wonder.
You can hear Scully’s sense of wonder in any number of old clips on YouTube, but my favorites are from June 2013, when the Dodgers called up a touted prospect from Cuba named Yasiel Puig. In his debut, Puig had two base hits against the San Diego Padres, then in the ninth inning he made a preposterous throw from the warning track in right field to double off a runner at first base to preserve a one-run lead.
“Hello Yasiel Puig,” said Scully, with a hitch of laughter in his voice. “What a way to start a career.”
There was a lifetime of understanding in that laugh. Over the following weeks and months, as fans in L.A. marveled at Puig’s absurd gifts, his charisma, his towering opposite-field home runs, we did so through the eyes of Scully, a person whose career broadcasting baseball games began in 1950. Vin Scully had seen Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, and here he was, bowled over by Yasiel Puig, and still willing and able to let himself be awed.
During Puig’s second game, he hit a double and two home runs. And Scully was still laughing, still marveling. During his fourth game, Puig hit a grand slam.
“I have learned over the years that there comes a rare and precious moment where there is absolutely nothing better than silence,” Scully said as Puig celebrated in the dugout. “Nothing better than to be absolutely speechless to sum up a situation. And that was the moment.”
Scully’s use of silence in broadcasts was one of his trademarks. But it was more than a stylistic choice, more than an artist using negative space or a writer leaving the real meaning of their story off the page. It was the reflection of a person who understood the power and importance of the crowd, who knew that his job was not only to tell us what was happening in the game, but to communicate the way it felt to be there. In other words, it was not silence that he was giving us; it was one another.
One of Scully’s most famous pauses was on his call of Kurt Gibson’s game-winning home run in the 1988 World Series. After pronouncing the ball gone, Scully waited more than a full minute before speaking again. During that time viewers saw Gibson hobble around the bases, pump his fist, and celebrate with his team. They saw dejected Oakland A’s players in the dugout. They could feel the atmosphere inside Dodger Stadium. Then, finally: “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.”
Scully later explained the prolonged silence to David Letterman.
“When Gibson hit the home run, it was a tremendous emotional experience, and luckily I didn’t have to say anything. I just shut up and let the crowd go crazy until I calmed down. Because there’s an animal magnetism about a crowd. It rubs off on you. It gets you all worked up.”
Watching games with Vin Scully made me a better baseball fan because his broadcasts implicitly acknowledged that baseball is at once a beautiful thing and an absurd one. It does get you all worked up, as well it should. Yasiel Puigs don’t come around too often. Neither do Kirk Gibsons. Scully understood that the game resonates far beyond the stadiums where he did his work.
“What a marvelous moment for baseball,” Scully said after Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record in 1974. “What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the State of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.”
This week I have also realized that watching games with Scully has made me a better journalist and writer. He turned fleeting Dodgers like Chad Fonville and Omar Daal into fully fledged characters of my youth not just because they were on my favorite baseball team, but because through his eyes, I saw them as people, too. As a writer, I try to be empathetic. I try to stay open to the beauty and horror of the world. I try not to get cynical or bored by things I have no business being bored by.
It’s hard not to get cynical when you do the same job for decades. It’s hard to not take greatness for granted when you see it every day. It’s hard to always see the world through fresh and eager eyes, and yet Vin Scully always did.
In 1981, Scully was in the booth at the Astrodome as Nolan Ryan tried for his fifth career no-hitter, which would have surpassed Dodger legend Sandy Koufax. Ryan stalked around the mound, constantly adjusting the brim of his hat as Scully filled in the blanks. With two outs in the ninth inning, Dusty Baker stepped to the plate for Los Angeles. In a moment, he would hit a routine ground ball to third base, and the Astros would carry Ryan off the field on their shoulders, and Scully would let the crowd roar.
But first, the announcer had to appreciate the gravity of the scene.
“Oh what a moment,” Scully said, almost as if he was talking to himself. “What a sweet, beautiful moment.”