“Must have been 30 years ago, at least, Jacoby Ellsbury’s mom was still in school and won a contest to design the Navajo tribal flag . . . groundball to Ellis, and there’s two down . . . That Navajo flag, they tell me, the brown represents the earth. The blue is for water and the river gives life to the earth. The orange rays are for the eternal rising and setting of the sun. And the four feathers, one for each tribe. That’s the Colorado River Indians reservation . . . and it’s 0-1 to Victorino.”
The Red Sox and Dodgers played a big time series this past weekend in LA. By interleague standards, it was about as big as it gets. It featured two classic franchises with a history that dates back to the 1916 World Series. Two first place teams, facing off on the year anniversary of a blockbuster trade that quickly turned them both upside down and then right side up again.
As a result, the series was a source of overwhelming national attention.On Saturday afternoon, the game aired on FOX. On Sunday night, it was on ESPN. Only Friday’s game was broadcast by the local stations. And sadly, that meant that there was only one chance to hear the most legendary voice in baseball history call a Boston Red Sox game.
If you’ve never listened to Vin Scully, you need to change that as soon as possible. At the very least, hop on YouTube and sift through the hours and hours of available Scully footage. Although to be honest, highlights don’t do him justice. While he’s no slouch when it comes to one-liners and classic calls, Scully’s genius lies in subtlety; in the seconds, minutes and sometimes hours in between those highlights. When a baseball game between two franchises with a combined payroll over $350 million can slip into a story about the inner workings of the Navajo flag without skipping a beat.
If you’re unfamiliar with Scully’s work in general, here’s a brief recap.
He’s currently in his 64th season as the voice of the Dodgers.
If it’s too early for math that means Scully’s been calling Dodgers games since 1950. Back when they were in Brooklyn, when they were run by Branch Rickey (who initially interviewed Scully for the job) and when they featured a roster of names like Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese and, most memorably, Jackie Robinson. Over his time with Big Blue, Scully’s called Don Larson’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, Sandy Koufax’s 14-strikeout perfect game in 1965, Hank Aaron’s then-record-setting 715th home run in 1974 and Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit walk off in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.
On a national level, he was behind the mic when the ball went through Buckner’s legs in 1986 (don’t hold that against him). In a nod to his versatility, Scully’s voice was also the soundtrack for one of the most famous catches in NFL history: Dwight Clark’s “The Catch” in the 1982 NFC Championship.
These days, Scully, now 85, sticks to the Dodgers. Mostly home games — though he still also travels within the state of California and to Arizona. Before last Friday’s game with the Sox, the Dodgers, who will launch their own network next year, held a press conference to announce that Scully will return in 2014 for his unprecedented 65th season. And later that night, when the lights went on, Scully was there, ready to welcome fans with same line that he has for longer than most of them have been alive.
In life and business and just about anything else, there’s a common notion that humans have two choices: Adapt or die. But Scully’s in his seventh decade of proving that statement wrong. Very little has changed in the way that Scully calls a game, but in a weird twist, today, the fact that it’s so unchanged is what makes him so unique.
Scully works alone in the booth. That’s because Vin Scully has no use for a color man. He has no use for the forced and generally uninteresting and unfunny banter that exists inside most major league booths. The only conversation he needs is his ongoing dialogue with the TV audience.
Over the course of that dialogue, for nine innings, Scully is your baseball professor emeritus. He teaches you. Not always about the game (although that does happen), but about the people who play and have played it. Things that you’ve never considered before, or in some cases, had just forgotten. He’s perpetually calm and even-keeled. He doesn’t try to be funny, but instead works humor in rather seamlessly, and sometimes unintentionally. He talks and thinks about baseball in the way that we all did before being jaded by big contracts, PED scandals and everything else around us.
For instance, in Vin Scully’s world, John Lackey isn’t the 34-year-old veteran who’s spent the last three seasons battling with the Boston fans and media, and just now making good on his massive free agent contract. Nope. He’s “Big John Lackey. The former Angels star, who still lives over in Newport Beach. He’s a product of Albiline, Texas and was quite an athlete in high school. He was the starting QB and captain of the football team, the starting center for the basketball team, and an all-state first baseman for the baseball team. In high school, he might have pitched 14 innings. That’s all. When Lackey was a kid, he used to collect covers of Sports Illustrated magazine, so you can imagine how it must have felt when he made the cover himself after leading the Angels to victory in the 2002 World Series.”
When Jarrod Saltalammachia steps to the plate, we’re quickly reminded, “that he has the longest last name in MLB history — 14 characters — so it’s almost a rainbow effect on his back; it’s an arch. And naturally, he’s Salty.”
After Salty, the next batter steps in, and as Scully points out, “You know, it’s rather interesting how you can go from all those syllables to simply N-A-V-A.”
And Daniel Nava? He’s not the fourth outfielder/utility man scrambling to keep pace with his torrid start. He’s still “One of those guys who really started off on the right foot, as he hit the first pitch he saw in his career for a grand slam. He’s only second player to ever do that. The other was Kevin Kouzmanoff. Remember Kevin? He played third base for numerous teams, most notably the Padres. Nava was born in Brentwood city, but currently lives up in Los Altos.”
In this particular at-bat, Nava’s in the box against Dodgers starter Ricky Nolasco, the former big prospect in the Marlins organization, who could never quite get over the hump before being traded to Dodgers in early July.
“Like so many others, Ricky Nolasco is a local boy who’s grown up to become a Dodger,” Scully says. “Carlos Enrique Nolasco, better known as Ricky, born in Corona, currently living in Rialto.”
This is a baseball game with Vin Scully. Simple. Honest. Purer than the molly that Miley Cyrus took down before Sunday’s VMA performance. It’s a little bit like watching the Little League World Series, when the players are still people. Where who they are and where they’re from matters as much contracts and statistics.
When Dustin Pedroia walks up to the plate, he is “5 feet 8 inches of dynamite, who was raised up in Woodland.”
When Jacoby Ellsbury steps in, he’s more than just a guy with Native American roots, but one who still greets his mother in her native tongue every time they speak on the phone. Whose mother designed the Navajo flag!
Will Middlebrooks? He’s the son of a high school football and basketball coach who became the first player since Enos “Country” Slaughter to pick up five extra base hits in his first five major league starts, and who, they say, had the potential to become a great NFL punter if he hadn’t decided to sign with the Sox.
When the conversation turns to the aforementioned 1916 World Series between the Sox and Brooklyn Robins, Scully goes into detail about the amazing pitching performance of a young Babe Ruth, who pitched all 14 innings in Boston’s Game 2 victory. In reflecting on Ruth’s prowess as both a pitcher and hitter, Scully notes: “And certainly, one of the great quotes about Babe Ruth was made by a man named Daniel Okrent, a baseball scholar, who once said, ‘It’s as if Beethoven and Cézanne were the same person.’ That’s about as good as it gets . . . Beethoven and Cézanne.” And then, after a brief pause: “If you like French impressionist paintings, then you really liked that one.”
And honestly, if you like baseball. If you like people. If you like history. If you like just about anything. Then you’ll really like Vin Scully. And if you’ve never heard him call a game, then make a point to do so. Even if you’ve heard him before, make a point to do it again. If you’re ever out west, find the Dodgers on TV. If you’ve got some cash to spare, hop on MLB.TV and watch online. However much it costs, I guarantee you it’s worth it.
Thankfully, Vin Scully will be around for at least one more season. But once he’s gone, there will never again be anything or anyone like him.
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine