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Alone In The Booth

Vin Scully strolls into the Dodger Stadium press box that bears his name, does a little vaudevillian shuffle and says, "Ta-da!" He's an hour later than he hoped, fresh off a classic LA County freeway snarl, and he's singing, riffing off the old My Fair Lady tune: "And yet, I've grown accustomed to the pace." The drive from his Westlake Village home, about 30 miles from the ballpark, took almost two hours in the stop-and-go of a Friday afternoon. It should have ground him to a nub, but instead he's laughing, cracking wise. "Sorry I'm late," he says. "I left yesterday … from Bolivia." At age 77, and finishing up his 56th summer with the team, Scully is still going strong, doing 120-odd broadcasts a year. "He's always upbeat," says his former Game of the Week partner, Joe Garagiola. "I've never seen anyone bring as much energy to their work, day in and day out, as Vin." On Aug. 28 at Dodger Stadium, Scully emceed the 50th anniversary celebration of Brooklyn's World Series title. In 1955, he was already a six-year vet with the Dodgers. And though Scully no longer travels east of the Rocky Mountains, it appears he's not considering retirement anytime soon.

These are the days of satellite television and radio, and with the first three innings of each of Scully's TV broadcasts simulcast on the Dodgers' radio network, his influence is growing in his twilight. Folks who knew him from the old Game of the Week days are discovering him all over again. "Hey, have you heard this old guy who calls the Dodger games? He's really good" He's reaching out to new territory, touching new hearts and minds every night. "Vinny can't retire," says Giants play-by-play man Jon Miller. "We're not ready. He's the best there ever was. You can't walk away from it when you're the best there ever was."

Scully doesn't cotton to such talk. "I'm probably the most ordinary guy you've ever met," he says with a shrug and a grin. "I'm fortunate. God has blessed me. I have had the opportunity to do something I love for a long time. But I'm not special. Truly, I'm not."

It's not false modesty. He's thinking of the guy who enjoys reading crime novels in the hotel and singing show tunes in the car, the guy who goes to mass on Sundays and loves to steal afternoons in the swimming pool with his grandkids and Sandra, his wife of 31 years. He's thinking of the guy who spends three or four hours every game day surfing the Net and studying player bios and stats because he's never quite shaken the Catholic school sting of a nun's ruler across his knuckles. He's remembering the lanky kid at Fordham who stood in the outfield practicing game calls, never really believing he'd get to announce in The Show. And he's seeing himself, even now, as the little boy from the Bronx who curled up under his parents' radio and listened to the crowd noise of college football games coming through the speakers. "Like a showerhead, it just poured over me," he says, mimicking the waterfall with his wiggling fingers.

But the Ordinary Guy is an icon, too. It's his mellifluous voice, coming through the speakers of transistor radios, car doors and television sets, that has intoxicated millions of listeners for half a century. "I get a bit off-kilter when I talk about him," Dodger radio announcer Charley Steiner says. "He's The Man to me. The first time I heard his voice, I knew this was what I wanted to do too. I couldn't get him out of my head."

Scully has resonated all these years-with Steiner, with a grandfather and grandson working the jigsaw in a Long Beach garage, with the folks tuning in at the Short Stop bar on Sunset Boulevard, with a family listening to a radio beside a campfire up in Yosemite, with anyone who's ever heard him, really-because he's just ridiculously good at what he does. Still. "I'm stunned every time I listen to him with how prepared he is," Cardinals voice Joe Buck says. "He's got stories on visiting players that the guys he's speaking of don't even know about themselves."

When Adam Dunn steps in against Derek Lowe, he isn't just a hitter with 28 home runs and 104 strikeouts. He's also a kid from Porter, Texas, where there are streets named Dunn because every house on the block belongs to one of his relatives. And Ramon Ortiz isn't just a diminutive pitcher from the Dominican who's had an up-and-down ride in the bigs; he's also a man whose first glove was a folded-over piece of cardboard and whose mother stitched together his baseball pants out of old dresses. "He puts the game in human terms," Miller says. "This is not mythology. These are flesh-and-blood human beings. And when we're mindful of that, we care more, we feel more connected to the game."

Every Scully call is full of welcoming gestures ("Hi again everybody, and a very pleasant good evening to you wherever you may be"), signature turnsof-phrase (a seeing-eye grounder is "a modest thing but thine own"; a pitcher waiting in the bullpen conjures the Milton line "They also serve who only stand and wait"), newly minted flourishes ("Swing and a miss and down goes Griffey, glistening credentials and all") and a singular, easy-like-Sundaymorning pace. "He's seen everything there is," says former Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda. "What's going to rattle him? Why would he rush?"

That simply isn't Scully's style. "I have no style," he insists, wrinkling his forehead at the self-conscious thought of it. But don't believe him. The heart of his approach is understatement. When the Dodgers rallied to beat the Giants in the ninth inning of their home opener in April, he was at his haiku best. Down 8-6 with two outs and the bases loaded, Milton Bradley stood at the plate with a 2-2 count and a career 0—for—7 against closer Armando Benitez. When Bradley connected, Scully played it like this: "Line-drive base hit to left. And the ball gets by Ellison. Iiiiin comes Izturis, iiiiin comes Drew, iiiiin comes Kent, and the Dodgers win it, 9-8."

And then he backed off the mike. For almost a minute. And all that came over the air was the frenzied buzz of the ballpark and the echo of his surprise at what had happened. It's the way he called Hank Aaron's 715th back in 1974, and the way he handled Kirk Gibson's Game 1 clincher in the '88 Series. "I love to step back and be quiet," he says. "There really is nothing I can say that is better than the noise of the crowd in a moment like that."

In other moments, Scully's storytelling shines. One night in July, he set a Dodger Stadium scene during the fourth inning of a Reds-Dodgers game that came on the heels of a heat wave back in Cincy: "A beautiful sunset coming now. And there's a light breeze rippling the flags. Seventythree degrees at the start of the game, and a nice crowd on hand on a lovely summer's evening. Earlier we were talking about playing in the heat, back in the days before air-conditioning. They say the old-time ballplayers would sometimes go back to the hotel at night and take water and pour it all over the bed and then sleep on a wet mattress. And I remember one time in Milwaukee when it was really hot. The Dodgers stayed at the Schroeder Hotel in those days, and everyone slept with the doors open, and a lot of guys, I remember, actually slept on the floor, with their pillows and heads in the doorway, just hoping to catch a bit of air coming down the hallway."

Only Scully could do this bit, only someone who's been the constant, from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, from Koufax to Valenzuela to Gagne. His longevity, his stories, his smooth Irish lilt and his welcoming style are the fabric of an intense and enduring connection with the team, the fans and the city. "The sound of his voice, like the sound of your dad coming home and throwing his keys on the kitchen table, is the sound of comfort and security for so many of us," says actor and longtime Dodger fan Robert Wuhl. Says a fan named Vishal, whose father immigrated to Los Angeles from India a few years before the Dodgers did from Brooklyn, "When you turn on a game and he wishes you a `very pleasant good evening, wherever you may be,' it's a signal that things are all right with the world. Or even if they're not, that at least something is right with the world."

Scully will tell you it warms his heart to know that listeners feel "a rapport." But he won't tell you much else. Opening up isn't his thing. He's done only a handful of interviews in the past quarter-century. The man at the center of this vast network of emotion and memory works alone. Literally. Except for some network stints, Scully's flown solo in the booth all these years. Even when he emceed the Brooklyn Dodgers event, he stayed in the booth. Alone. "He does nine innings of TV by himself every night," says Buck. "I can't imagine that. I can't imagine even wanting to do that. He's unbelievable."

Even more unbelievable: Scully has never so much as listened to another announcer. "Jerry Doggett told me Vinny would introduce him for the third inning back when they were alternating on radio," Miller says. "And then he would get up and leave the booth. And Jerry and Vinny were the closest of friends." Some people might take that for an ego thing, but it's not. Scully began as Red Barber's understudy in 1950, and Barber told him to steer clear of other influences. "Red's philosophy," says Scully's former colleague Ross Porter, who did Dodger radio for 28 years, "was that it should be a relationship with the listeners, a conversation between you and them."

That conversation has brought comfort and joy to untold millions who have come to rely on Scully's voice and persona as the great Dodger baseball ambassador. He prepares for the role, mustering a remarkable consistency of tone and spirit broadcast after broadcast. "He sounds the same to me now as he did when I was a kid watching the Game of the Week," Buck says. Listeners can lean on him, project onto him, read their lives through him, because he never seems to waver. Like an athlete putting on his game face, Scully plays his musical comedy CDs in the car on the way to the ballpark, singing along, "getting up, getting ready" to be Vin Scully, capital V, capital S. In part, he's acting out of what he calls "a sense of responsibility" to Barber, to the game, to every listener. And in part, he's doing what comes naturally.

"He's a very private person," says Porter, who in 30 years of friendship has never been to Scully's house. There has been profound sadness in his life. In 1972, his first wife, Joan, died in her sleep of an accidental overdose of cold and bronchitis medication. In 1994, his son Mike died in a helicopter crash at age 33. "We all felt terrible for him," Lasorda says. "But he's kept that sadness to himself. He doesn't want to make people feel bad. He doesn't carry it into his other world, into baseball. You would never, ever know."

Scully relied on his faith and his family in those times. He dove back into the work, into the responsibility. He grieved and no doubt continues to grieve in his own way. He doesn't like to talk about it now. "I guess I'm a pretty good actor," he told Rick Reilly of the Los Angeles Times in 1985. "I just refuse to allow my feelings to show." Ironically, that nature enables him to be available to his audience. It's the triumph, in a way, of the Ordinary Guy (We've all got problems; I'm not special). It's the core of the on-air impulse toward saying less and sometimes saying nothing at all. "He always makes fans feel more important than he is, which is a remarkable thing for a man as popular as he is," Porter says. "In all the years I've been with him, in a ballpark, at a hotel or a restaurant, wherever fans find him, he takes time for them, smiles, shakes their hands."

Those are scrapbook moments for the Dodger faithful, but Scully admits to a kind of unshakable loneliness. He has a line he uses from time to time about paying the bill, as in "Sammy Sosa pays the bill for those home runs; he leads the league in strikeouts again this year." The same might be said for his own love of baseball and of the adrenaline rush he gets from being swept up with the crowd. He pays the bill by being away from Sandra and his four kids and 14 grandkids. He pays the bill by sitting alone in a hotel room. "Oh, there's a definite loneliness," he says, his rose cheeks sagging and his bright voice dipping a bit. Does it help to know the audience is out there? Does it help to know how close the fans feel to him? "That loneliness always stays," he says. "The fact that you're working three hours talking on television doesn't touch that, doesn't do a thing, not a thing." He settles into these last words like they're a familiar refrain, in his heart anyway. There's no lilt in them. He says them as though he's been traveling with their weight for 56 years.

You're sitting across from him at a table in the pressbox dining room, and you find yourself wanting to thank him for carrying it. You want to tell him you understand it hasn't always been easy. You want to give back some small part of what he's given you. You want to tell him you were that kid in the garage in Long Beach, soothing the pain of your parents' divorce with the sweet song of his steady voice. You even think maybe, Miller's protestation notwithstanding, he should retire, just so he could hear the roar of a crowd cheering only him, just so he could feel it washing over him like water.

Then, just like that, he's up, shaking your hand, thanking you for the chat and heading to the booth, sparing you both the emotional awkwardness you were about to spill all over the joint.

The sign on the press-box wall says no one is allowed in the broadcast hall without clearance. But you sneak down anyway, just to get a peek in the booth. You linger there, in the open door of a closet across the hall, listening as he settles in and talks with his producers. A sound guy comes to close the door, and as he does, you hear just the first couple of syllables of Scully's familiar opening, "It's time for Dodger baseball!" It sounds so right, and you're reminded of something Ernie Harwell said, about how your favorite announcer is like a comfortable slipper, and about how someday, when he's gone, a new shoe is going to pinch. So Miller is right: Vinny can't retire.

We're not ready.