Life with Vin Scully, or rather through him

Mr. Chaus was preoccupied during a lengthy test at Serrano Junior High School, and so was I in the corner of his classroom. Thankfully, he had arranged the desks in an awkward theater-in-the-round pattern. Had they been in traditional rows, his sight line would have been clear to me, where I had a garish plug in my ear connected to a transistor radio.

It’s Oct. 19, 1981. The Dodgers are playing a winner-take-all Game 5 in the National League Championship Series in Montreal. I’m 13 years old.

Mr. Chaus excused himself from the room, saying he needed a bathroom break during a test. And there I was, hoping the static would stay clear so that I could listen to Vin Scully tell me if the Dodgers would reach the World Series.

Only it didn’t. The radio feedback had me freaking out far more than the exam. After all, it was open season for cheating if the teacher is in the restroom.

Only he wasn’t in the restroom. He snuck to the teachers lounge to watch the game on TV. He ran — if you could call it a run — and the only thing he could say through an awkward grin: “Dodgers 2, Expos 1!”

Teacher privilege. It would be one of the few times in my life when I didn’t get to hear The Great One call Another Great Moment.

Truth be told, I learned more about the English language from Scully than I ever did Chaus. As the tributes pour in for Scully’s final broadcasts as Dodgers announcer, you’ve likely read about the warmth and the cadence in his voice. That’s a gift God gave him. What he did with that, among other gifts to us, was convert that into a conduit for literacy.

To say Scully is one well-read fellow is to say Beethoven could play a scale. He was more likely to quote Thoreau from the top of his head than to read a statistic that was already flashing on your TV screen. He earned his degree at famed Jesuit institution Fordham University, a school that counts two Pulitzer Prize winners among its graduates.

Yet, it was intelligence that never seemed forced on his audience. Considering the Dodgers draw about 3 million fans every year, that’s a sizable group.

***

Normally, when I post I try to stick with one simple thought. How could I when one considers the magnitude of the Voice of the Dodgers? The youngest man to call a World Series game? The man who introduced Joe Montana and Dwight Clark to the world?

When you have a favorite team, often your impressions are formed through the prism and voice of its play-by-play broadcaster. His words invariably become linked to the events in your life, perhaps by happenstance, perhaps by providence.

How much of an influence was Vin Scully to me? I knew I wanted to get into sports journalism when I was 14 years old. Vin Scully was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame that year, and he continued to call Dodgers games for another 34 years after reaching that pinnacle of a career.

So, how can a stranger impact your life?…

***

When newspapers still had considerable clout to inform the public, The San Bernardino Sun occupied a building that stretched an entire block of its downtown district. Its sports department was influential and respected for a midsized publication. In the summer of 1988, a reporter worked Centre Court at Wimbledon, another at the Summer Olympics, still another at The Forum when the Lakers won the world title.

Yet, the cubicle that department toiled in looked like a battleship grey shoebox. This was my upbringing into sports journalism, crammed into that tin can with malfunctioning computers every night while my friends were chasing girls.

It wasn’t all hard work. I was the office prankster. I had a suicide pact with coworkers about Vin Scully. Who wants to live in a world without Vin Scully calling Dodgers games, after all?

The Dodgers were underdogs against the Oakland A’s in the World Series that year. I was 20 years old.

You know this call.

This was also the last time I truly lost composure watching a sports event. Had I been in a sports bar, although I couldn’t legally drink, it would have been appropriate. Had I worked for another sports department, say in North San Diego County, the only thing that would have been held against me was that my scream wasn’t pro-Padres.

But it was in an accomplished sports department, which meant I damaged my career for a few years. Oops.

Meanwhile, please note that while people were losing their minds at Dodger Stadium over what Kirk Gibson did, Vin Scully kept silent for almost 1 minute, 10 seconds, and let the roar permeate the broadcast while he considered his next line. That line became the exclamation point to one of baseball’s most memorable moments.

Grace under pressure. Wish I had learned that from Vin Scully earlier.

***

Qualcomm Stadium was never a comfortable place. It’s one of the last multipurpose stadiums in the country, which meant it lacked personality for both football and baseball. I was asked to cover the Dodgers minor leaguers as they played the Padres’ prospects before the major league game later that night. I’m wrapping up my career as a sportswriter in 2002. In less than a year, both of my parents will be diagnosed with cancer and I’ll be divorced because I will learn my wife has been cheating. I’m 34 years old.

I don’t remember who won the minor league game. Behind me, as I type, Vin Scully is reading the San Diego Union-Tribune because there’s more to the world than baseball. This would be my last chance to introduce myself to him, tell him how much his work meant to me on a personal and professional level. I didn’t. If there’s no cheering in the sports department, there surely isn’t hero worship in the press box.

The Dodgers shortstop is Cesar Izturis, who can’t hit to save his life but was one of the most dynamic defensive shortstops I’ve ever seen. Scully is a little past his prime — heresy, I know — but even at age 75 he can startle you with flashes of brilliance. Such as when a Padres batter hit a grounder that was a sure base hit, if only Izturis hadn’t drawn gasps from a sellout crowd with an electrifying stop.

“Render unto Cesar that which is Cesar’s!” Scully exulted, and I reflexively looked to his closed press box as if I were the only one who would appreciate the reference to Mark 12:17.

To say Scully is a man of faith … Well, I suppose comparisons to religious figures could come across as blasphemy. What I can say is that players have told me of his regular attendance at Catholic Mass and that while he doesn’t shy away from admitting his faith in God, Scully never told you to go to church. He never lectured us on morality at all. He simply assumed we want to be good people.

Because despite our issues, be they societal strife or microaggression, we do want to be good people. Most of us, anyway.

And if you don’t think having faith matters, take it from a guy who had a few hard knocks. It helps to be reminded there’s a God, sometimes.

***

I mentioned earlier that like ornaments on a Christmas tree, the lives of many Dodgers fans reflect memories crafted by the words of baseball’s poet laureate. Sometimes, in our frustration over injustice, it would do us well to hope that eventually societal wounds can heal. 

It’s evening in Atlanta, a city I didn’t even know existed then. Heck, on April 8, 1974, I didn’t even live in Southern California or know who the Dodgers were. I’m 6 years old. The Dodgers are playing the Braves, and Vin Scully is unafraid to heap praise on the accomplishment of an opposing player:

It’s a high drive into deep left center field. (Bill) Buckner goes back to the fence … It is gone. …

“What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron, who was met at home plate, not only by every member of the Braves, but by his father and mother.

“He threw his arms around his father and as he left the home plate area his mother came running across the grass, threw her arms around his neck and kissed him for all he was worth.

“As Aaron circled the bases, the Dodgers on the infield shook his hand. And that was a memorable moment.

“Aaron is being mobbed by photographers. He’s holding his right hand high in the air. And for the first time in a long time, that poker face of Aaron’s shows the tremendous strain and relief of what it must have been like to live with for the past several months. It is over.”