My 2013 Sportsman nominee: Sportscaster Vin Scully
Sports Illustrated announced its choice for 2013's Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 16. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.
His signature sign-on is still, "Hi everybody and a very pleasant good evening to you, wherever you may be," but it's that last part -- the Wherever You May Be -- that has special resonance in 2013, when he can be heard nearly anywhere in the world via tablet, smart phone or laptop. Those places once served by the Voice of America are now served by Vincent Edward Scully, every bit the Voice of America.
Has any sportsman ever been as universally beloved? Many more have been better known, of course, though the Dodger announcer has long had a surreal international following. His colleague and admirer Jon Miller likes to tell the story of turning on the TV in a Tokyo hotel room in the 1980s to hear the Yomiuri Giants play-by-play man speaking and sounding exactly like Scully, only in Japanese. Miller also does a killer impression of a Spanish-language Scully impersonator, which is one mark of international fame: Scully's impersonators have their own impersonator.
Ruth was hated by McGraw, Pele is dissed by Maradona, and so on throughout history. Lather, rinse, repeat. But Scully is a secular saint, beyond reproach, St. Vinny of Wherever You May Be. He might have asked "Why me?" when his first wife, Joan, died at age 35, and again -- two decades later -- when his son Michael died at age 33. But he also acknowledged having "to ask the same question when good fortune comes my way: 'Why me?' Why with the millions and millions of more deserving people would a red-haired kid with a hole in his pants and his shirttail hanging out playing stickball in the streets of New York wind up in Cooperstown? Why me indeed?"
That was at his Hall of Fame induction, in 1982, 32 years into a career that is now 65 years old and counting, which means Scully went into Cooperstown -- how many others can say this? -- in the first half of his career.
That same day he also thanked his wife and children, "who pay the bill of loneliness when I'm away." In the ensuing years, his world has contracted geographically -- he only calls games on the West Coast now -- even as his voice has expanded globally, into media unimagined in 1950. It was a hoot this summer when Scully took over the Dodgers' Twitter feed for a night. The man well-known for his eloquent silence in big moments would appear to be utterly at odds with social media, made for people -- as T.S. Eliot said in a different age --"too vain and distracted for silence."
"What in the world is a hashtag?" Scully asked that night in June. When he began "trending," he declared -- in the least trendy language possible -- "Hot diggity dog! Well, Puig just bunted for a base hit."
Hot diggity dog: Scully quotes the classics but leaves room for the earnest exclamations of his pre-war boyhood. He is still more Nehi than wi-fi. Social media, with its endless stream of self-promotion, violates the only two rules he was taught by his mentor, Red Barber, which were: Shut up and slow up.
And so we offer 1,000 words to call attention to his silence. We honor him for refusing honors. Scully would surely decline a Sportsman of the Year award, which makes him the perfect Sportsman of the Year. In September, when the mayor of Los Angeles expressed a desire to name a street near Dodger Stadium after Scully, Scully demurred, suggesting one be named for former owners Walter or Peter O'Malley instead. "The mayor of Los Angeles has a great deal more important things to do than name a street after me," he said.
When Scully called a Mariano Rivera save at Dodger Stadium this summer -- Rivera "at his tender age" of 43, was half the age of the announcer describing him -- it was a relief to realize that only one of them was retiring.
That night, as ever, Scully did what he does better than anyone who has ever lived, and told a story between pitches: "Before the game, Mariano, very much a worthwhile human being beside a baseball player, received a deep-sea fishing rod. His Dad was a sardine fisherman in Panama. He'd go out with him, spend all day on the sea in the broiling sun, and some days catch nothing. He would love to fish in his retirement. [Pitch.] And down goes Hanley ..."
Scully's every broadcast is a novel, or at least a short story, and the fact that he might talk about an old man and the sea is only part of it. His summers contain multitudes, countless characters whose lives are serialized over a season, the way Dickens did it. Except Dickens never got to use -- as Scully does -- pitches as punctuation: "It was the best of times -- the one-oh -- it was the worst of times -- swing and a miss, strike one."
Next spring he'll return for his 65th season. His career is now a senior citizen, having reached retirement age, but Scully himself is not and has not. He was set to retire in 2008 but had a change of heart. Even so: "There's a beginning, a middle and an end for all of us," he told the Los Angeles Times that year. "I know that I have a lot more yesterdays than I have tomorrows."
Happily, we have at least another season of tomorrows. And this winter -- a month after his 86th birthday on Nov. 29 -- Scully will serve as Grand Marshal for the Tournament of Roses Parade, prior to the Rose Bowl, which will present a neat tableau on New Year's Day: One southern California treasure turned national institution being led by another.
In that role, Scully will no doubt appreciate the distance between the floats, the silence between the notes -- the beats and pauses that make music and comedy and drama and so much else worthwhile. His eloquent silence -- he famously removed his headphones and walked away from the table when Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run -- is needed now more than ever in our age of endless stimulation. Words don't exist without white space.
On June 6, when Yasiel Puig came to the Dodger Stadium plate with the bases loaded, the rookie phenom had already homered twice in his first three major-league games. After Scully set the table, Puig promptly and improbably hit a grand slam. Scully went silent for a very long time, a beautiful nothingness, like the gap between the front teeth of Brigitte Bardot.
It was only when the bases had been cleared that Scully spoke again. He said: "I have learned over the years that there comes a rare and precious moment when there is absolutely nothing better than silence, nothing better than to be absolutely speechless to sum up a situation, and that was the moment." And then he couldn't help but add, "Holy mackerel!"
One of these years, he'll return for good to his wife Sandi -- wiping out that "bill of loneliness" she has long paid -- and leave behind a public silence. Except that he won't, really, because we'll still have all those imitators out there, in various languages. But we'll also have the real thing, his voice carried on the radio waves that travel in space, reaching distant planets and distant life forms.
"Hi everybody and a very pleasant good evening to you, wherever you may be," some lucky alien will hear, wherever he or she may be. And then, for all eternity: "It's time for Dodger baseball."