The Dodgers are in the postseason again and that’s a good thing. Third time in a row, actually. Something they’ve never been able to do in their 132 years in existence. But it’s also a bittersweet time for Dodger fans because it means the easy, clockwork cadence of summer baseball is overtaken by the frenetic and grandiose energy of October. The games get tossed to national broadcasters who’ve paid millions of dollars to show them to you. And it means Vin Scully gets demoted to local radio.
It isn’t until postseason that the lucky souls in LA who were raised on Vin get to know how truly barren of quality the field of TV baseball commentary is. The talent runs the gamut from merely OK to non-offensive to pretty terrible. The NLDS games between the Dodgers and Mets are on TBS (a well-known sports broadcasting powerhouse if ever there was one) and will be called by Ernie Johnson along with color commentary by Ron Darling and Cal Ripken, Jr. Darling and Ripken are OK as these guys go (though Darling has a fairly well established bias against the Dodgers), but Johnson is just plain bad (and difficult to listen to due to always sounding like he has a tablespoon of mashed potatoes in the back of his throat).
The object of their coverage is apparently to talk ALL OF THE TIME. Problem is, since they don’t really know these teams and have only followed them superficially all year, what they have to say is often pretty basic or just plan silly and focuses on the names everyone’s heard of to the exclusion of guys who get their jobs done day in and day out. They tend to inflate the games into match-ups between the most popular, well known players as if everyone else is there to support them in their singular quest (like when ESPN used Alex Rodriguez as their Yankees poster boy in the AL Wild Card game even though he, as usual in postseason play, was essentially invisible at the plate).
What got me thinking about this is a wonderful piece in this week’s New York Times Magazine about the unique talent that is Vin.
You can listen to Scully for hours and never hear a familiar platitude or a half-baked thought. His technique, however, is rather simple. He describes the action in front of him just as he encounters it. His demeanor is jovial, neighborly — Mr. Rogers goes to Chavez Ravine. He quotes Dylan Thomas and offers old-fashioned homilies about the weather (Scully still refers to a breeze as a ‘‘zephyr’’). He coos over children and leads viewers, his ‘‘friends,’’ through stories about everything from the time he went ice-skating with Jackie Robinson to the time he dreamed of being chased by a giant clam (he had just shared an Italian dinner with Tommy Lasorda, you see). In his voice, you can hear traces of radio plays, New York’s prewar slums, Broadway — a lifetime of experience spent in what, in its more romantic era, was called show business.
Vin’s regular season schedule is limited to home games and a few road trips in the Western Division (usually to San Francisco) so, at best, he’s calling half the games. On the radio, he only does the first four innings and leaves the rest to guys like Charley Steiner and Rick Monday — a team on the OK side of the scale. Steiner calls the away TV games along with Orel Hershiser and Nomar Garciaparra. Except for the fact that Charley complains excessively about the weather and having to travel and can’t ever seem to know when a ball is going out of the park, this is an above-average team. Orel and Nomar were outstanding players on either side of the plate and have the ability to relate what they know. But they’re not Vin. Nobody’s Vin. (Monday, by the way, does play-by-play for radio when Steiner is on TV and it’s a task he’s uniquely unsuited for.)
As far as I can tell, these are the basic tenets of what makes Vin great:
- Don’t play favorites. Ever. He’s been calling the Dodgers since Harry Truman was president and truly loves the organization, but it never comes through. In fact, I grew up assuming he hated the Dodgers, he was so hard on them. If he has favorites, they’re guys from all over who play really well and are fun to watch, but most of them don’t wear blue.
- Don’t try and show everyone how clever you are. Vin just calls the action and tries to explain the nuance of the game. He doesn’t second guess the managers or predict their next move. I’ve never heard him say, “This next ball will be a cutter.”
- Love the game more than the personalities. Vin admires great players, but you can tell he loves baseball more than any one person who plays it. And he’s known nearly everyone who has since World War II.
- Stop and smell the roses. Vin calls out cute kids in the stands and describes the beautiful views and the pleasant weather. This is all part of the game and people at home like to hear about it.
- Shut the hell up when something amazing happens. Just…shut up. Let the crowd do the talking, even on radio. If Vin can’t come up with something good to say in these moments, what are the odds anyone can?
Of course, nobody can tell the stories Vin can. Those only come from decades in the business. And not everyone can be as lyrical as Vin can. That’s a gift more than a skill. But with perhaps the single best man to do his job around to observe and learn from, it only seems like the guys calling these games are getting worse. When he stops at the end of next season, it will be one of those times when “end of an era” is a factual description.
There is nobody else like Vin Scully. And there may never be again.