You remember when Kirk Gibson hit perhaps the most unlikely home run in baseball history. Hobbled with injuries, he pinch-hit with two out and a man on first base, and the Dodgers were one out away from losing the first game of the 1988 World Series. Gibson could barely walk. But Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda fired him up and he was motivated further by Vin Scully, who, covering the game for national television, kept his eye on the dugout and reported on the dim possibility that Gibson would get into the game. Gibson stepped in against Dennis Eckersley, the Oakland A's ace reliever. Two strikes: the Dodgers were down to their final strike when with one swing Gibson reversed the team’s fortunes, The series pivoted on that seemingly miraculous moment but play by play men don't have any time to prepare. On the radio Jack Buck said “I don’t believe what I just saw.” Beautiful: a totally colloquial line of iambic tetrameter. Scully, describing the same at-bat, let a few seconds of silence pass before saying grandly, “In a year of the improbable, the impossible has just happened.”
I am going on memory and it is possible that I may have a word or two wrong there but the point of this piece has to do with memory -- I am typing an appreciation of play-by-play announcers and the memorable things they say. This is Vin Scully’s last go-round in his astounding sixty-six-year career as the voice of the Dodgers, and I dedicate these musings to him, the red-headed gentleman who invites viewers to "pull up a chair" and join him in Dodger Stadium. He did that at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn from 1950 to 1957, before the team abandoned the city in favor of Chavez Ravine. And in 1957, an eight-year-old boy got hooked on the Dodgers of that era (Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo) and the broadcast team of Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett.
As we head toward Vin's final days in the broadcast booth, the accolades are coming his way. Everyone loves his call of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in 1965. Later that year, in October, when Koufax on two days’ rest shut out the Minnesota Twins to win the World Series for his team, Vinny said, “Sandy, two days ago you said you felt like a hundred years old. How do you feel now?” “Like a hundred and one,” Koufax replied. For weekly anecdotes from long-time listeners, read Houston Mitchell's "Dodger Dugout" columns (such as this one) and get on his e-mail list. From a recent e-mail: "With Clayton Kershaw returning this week, what better time to revisit Vin Scully's best calls from Kershaw's no-hitter? Watch and listen to it here."
Every so often Scully will sneak in a literary allusion, and he usually doesn’t repeat himself, though Milton’s “They also serve who only stand and wait” has served him well over the years. When a great pitcher (Zack Greinke) has a miserable night, Scully quotes Horace: "Even Homer nods." In the summer of 1993, when he broke the news of the untimely death of Don Drysdale, the great pitcher who had become his broadcast partner, Scully said, with simple eloquence, “Never have I been asked to make an announcement that hurts me as much as this one. And I say it to you as best I can with a broken heart.”
On Labor Day, I watched the Dodgers trounce the Diamondbacks, 10-2, for the pleasure of watching the action under the guidance of Scully. The TV execs are smart enough to show us a lot of Dodger games called by Scully this year. Unlike most announcers, he does the whole game unassisted, unaccompanied by what used to be called a color man -- usually an ex-star who is articulate, amiable, and knowledgeable (e.g. Don Sutton with the Braves, Rick Monday on the Dodgers' radio broadcasts, Bill White with the Yankees in the 1970s, the late Ralph Kiner with the Mets). To go solo is quite a feat. Even experienced play-by-play men consider it a challenge. But Vinny, who has had excellent partners over the years, doesn't need one.
One reason Vinny is the best is that he is unafraid of silence, unafraid to let the action and crowd reaction speak for itself for precious seconds. (I wish Aaron Boone and Jessica Mendoza took this hint.) A second attribute is a lesson the Fordham graduate learned from Red Barber, his mentor: never make it too apparent that you favor the home team. And be fair. Zack Greinke took a shellacking on Monday evening but Scully made sure the audience knew what an anomaly this was, Greinke being a terrific pitcher. Red Barber also advised Vin Scully to stick to facts and avoid opinions. Barber, a longtime Dodger announcer, joined Mel Allen and Phil Rizzuto in the Yankee booth in 1957. I always liked Red’s way of describing a failed pickoff attempt. "Nothing doing.”
On Monday evening, Arizona's Socrates Brito stepped to the plate. Scully explained -- "for the kids, really" -- who Socrates was. Vinny had done his homework. We learned "what Labor Day is all about." It was in June 1894 that the first Monday in September was designated Labor Day. In 1916 the eight-hour working day became the norm and the obscenity of child labor was put to rest. Canada is said to have originated the idea of a holiday to celebrate the labor force. I didn't know these facts. But I did appreciate it when, after the history lesson, Vinny described Greinke at the plate. Greinke, not an easy out, obliged the pitcher to make a lot of pitches. "And after all that laboring," Scully said, "Greinke goes down for the second out." Possibly my favorite moment of the evening came when: a wicked curve ball -- can't remember whose -- caused the batter to fall down "for a mandatory eight-count," It was "a genuflection for a great breaking ball."
The Mets at the moment have an outstanding trio calling their games on television: Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez, and Ron Darling. The versatile Howie Rose and Josh Lewin handle the radio. Columbia graduate Cohen (a government major) is like a one-man encyclopedia of Mets’ history. Here is his description of one of the greatest catches in Mets’ history, the catch made by Endy Chavez in the National League Championship Series in 2006, which the Mets ultimately lost to St. Louis. “Edmonds at first and one out, and Pérez deals. Fastball hit in the air to left field, that's deep, back goes Chávez, back near the wall, leaping, and....he made the catch!! He took a home run away from Rolen! Trying to get back to first is Edmonds... he's doubled off! And the inning is over! Endy Chávez saves the day! He reached up high over the left field wall, right in front of the visitors bullpen, and pulled back a two-run homer! He went to the apex of his leap, and caught it in the webbing of his glove, with his elbow up above the fence. A miraculous play by Endy Chávez, and then Edmonds is doubled off first, and Oliver Perez escapes the 6th inning. The play of the year, the play maybe of the franchise history, for Endy Chávez. The inning is over.” This one I didn't know by heart except for "He went to the apex of his leap, and caught it in the webbing of his glove."
All announcers have their signature phrases. When the Mets’ win, Howie Rose says, “Put it in the books.” Bob Murphy would conclude every Mets’ victory by saying that he’d be back “with the happy recap” after the commercial break. Win or lose, Cohen says “and the ballgame is over,” strongly accenting the “o” in “over” when the good guys prevail. John Sterling, the Yankees' voice on the radio, stretches the phrase "the Yankees win!" -- and then repeats it -- with a kind of euphoria implying that God is in heaven and all is right with the world. Joe Nuxhall would sign off his Cincinnati Reds' broadcast by saying goodbye from the "old leftander, rounding third and heading for home." Nuxhall, who did Reds' games for forty years, was the youngest player ever to appear in a major league baseball game.
Cohen’s home run call is “it’s outta here!” The classic home run call is from Mel Allen when, with his straw hat and friendly smile, he covered the Yankees of Mantle, Maris, Berra, and Ford. Mickey would launch one, and Mel would follow the course of the ball and conclude “it’s going. . going. . .gone.” I cannot leave unmentioned Russ Hodges’ immortal call of Bobby Thomson’s home run off Ralph Branca in the 1951 National League playoffs between once and future opponents, Brooklyn and New York (and, after 1958, Los Angeles and San Francisco). “The Giants win the pennant!” he exclaimed and repeated the sentence four times
Sometimes the humor of play-by-play announcers is wonderful if unintentional. Michael Kay, the Yankees’ TV announcer, remarked that some pitcher had a zaftig ERA.” The color man, I forget who, a former player, looked blank. “What,” Kay said. “You don’t know zaftig?” The other guy said sheepishly that he may heard the word “in English class.” Phil Rizzuto unabashedly rooted for the Yankees, In the 1970s Bill White and Frank Messer were the straight men and Rizzuto provided ardor and comic relief during Yankee games. "Holy cow!" he would exclaim. And he wouldn't forget to say happy birthday to a friend in Boca Raton or Delray Beach.
I hate the phrase "If the season ended today. ." and all the hypotheticals that follow. But I admit to a soft spot for this common play-by-play sentence: "And the Mets are down to their final out." I used that phrase with a big grin when I told my wife about the tenth inning of the sixth game of the 1986 World Series between the Mets and the Boston Red Sox. Roger Angell headed his brilliant New Yorker piece on that unforgettable post-season with a palindrome: "Not So, Boston." In danger of wandering off message I think of the greatest cover phrase in the history of Sports Illustrated. It was when Pete Rose, after playing for Philadelphia and Montreal, returned to Cincinnati. "Rose is a Red." Gertrude Stein couldn't beat that.
A heartfelt apology: There are so many great play-by-play men whom I haven't named. . .but only because time is finite.
Lastly,the art of radio announcing is very different from calling a game on television. The radio announcer cannot afford to let the camera tell the story. It is his (or her) responsibility to make the game come to life in the listener's imagination. It is a craft bordering on an art. There is no better illustration of Marshall McLuhan's contention that radio is a "hot" medium while television is "cool." There is no better preparation for a TV play-by-play man than to have done the job on the radio -- as Gary Cohen did for many years before the Mets' management joined him with Darling and Hernandez, alumni of the '86 World Champs.
-- David Lehman