Column: Dodgers may not be wonder, but Vinny is
Up in the booth behind home plate, where Vin Scully has called games for a half-century now, the sound of his voice echoed through cavernous Dodger Stadium. Game time was still a half-hour away, but the taped greeting welcoming fans was a comforting reminder that, despite the turmoil of recent years, all was still well at Chavez Ravine.
On the field below, Tommy Lasorda was chatting away, while pinch hitter extraordinaire Manny Mota walked past the broadcast booth. As I sat with Scully listening to him tell stories from the Roy Campanella days, former manager Joe Torre popped his head into the booth for a quick hello. Say what you will about former owner Frank McCourt – and Dodger fans said quite a bit, most of it unprintable – he knew something about making sure the team celebrated its links to the past.
It wouldn’t be a good night for the Dodgers, who were deep into their longest losing streak of the season. The lineup resembled something the Albuquerque Isotopes might trot out, with a career minor leaguer patrolling center field, a .154 hitter at first base, and a journeyman past his prime at third. Hardly the kind of personnel you would expect from the best team in baseball, but this was the best the injury-riddled Dodgers had.
The night before, superstar Matt Kemp went down in just his second game back from a hamstring injury, and the bad news was it will be at least a month before he comes back. You can only get by on smoke and mirrors for so long, and things were catching up with Don Mattingly’s team even as it held onto a sizeable lead in the National League West. Mattingly was as upbeat as ever in his office before the game with Milwaukee, but even his constant juggling of the lineup couldn’t hide the holes exposed by the loss of so many key players.
”I called Mattingly when I read the lineup,” Scully said, chuckling at the thought. ”I asked if he had a pocketful of miracles.”
There would be no miracles as the Brewers finished off a four-game sweep. Nothing like the weeks before, when players even the most diehard fans had never heard of were taking turns being heroes, and the Dodgers were winning games they had no business winning.
It was after one of those games, when the Dodgers erased a five-run deficit in the seventh inning against Arizona and Ivan De Jesus got the first double of his career to bring home the winning run in the ninth, that Scully branded them a ”wonder team” that in some ways reminded him of the 1959 team that brought the first World Series title to Los Angeles.
”I only used that once,” Scully said. ”What I meant was it’s either wonderful or you wonder how much longer it can keep on happening.”
When Scully speaks, though, Dodger fans listen. They’ve been doing it for 63 years now, hanging on to every velvety word, whether from a meaningless game in late September or a perfect game pitched by Sandy Koufax.
His words are as much a part of Dodger tradition as the No. 32 jersey worn by Koufax and the extra-large uniform worn by Lasorda. They’re a bridge from the days the Dodgers were Brooklyn’s Bums to today, when they’re a $2 billion franchise with Magic Johnson at the titular helm.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is the man in the colorful coat and tie in the booth. At the age of 84, he still does nine innings, and he does it by himself. There’s no color man to help out, just his notes, his knowledge and his many memories.
Memories like when he repeatedly called out the time on the clock in the late innings when Koufax pitched his perfect game against the Cubs in 1965, still perhaps the most dramatic sports announcing ever. He let the crowd do the talking when Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run mark, and uttered a line that he freely admits came out of nowhere when Kirk Gibson hit his game-winning home run in the 1988 World Series.
”In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened,” he said.
The wonder line won’t be remembered when the great Scully lines are tallied, though that’s partly because there are so many of them. This year’s version of the Dodgers may also not live up to the wonder tag as they employ a badly battered lineup with Kemp out.
What is certain is that a night in August at Dodger Stadium will be special because 50,000 lucky fans will be holding Vin Scully bobbleheads, talking about how their parents and grandparents held transistor radios in the stands because being at a game wasn’t the same without listening to Vinny describe it. The Dodgers expect so much demand for the bobbleheads that fans have to buy at least a 10-game ticket package to get in that night.
The man himself shows no signs of slowing down, other than limiting himself to home games and occasional road trips in the west. He still weaves his stories between pitches in a conversational tone that makes it feel as if he’s in your living room, still keeps you entertained even if the game is no longer entertaining.
After thousands of games and seeing some of the great baseball moments of all time, he still gets excited when someone makes a great play or a team makes a great comeback. He loves the Dodgers, but the only thing he roots for his good play by both teams.
And when he makes a rare mistake, he admits it on air. On the drive home afterward, he’s harder on himself than anyone listening or watching on TV.
”I get in the car and start thinking, `I wish I said this, why didn’t I say that? How could I have messed up a name?”’ Scully said. ”What do you do? It’s like skywriting. You can’t get it back.”
The analogy, as they usually do when uttered by Scully, fits perfectly. I would have liked to hear more, but by now it was just a few minutes before the game and time to get to work. Scully excused himself, then settled into his familiar seat in the corner of the booth, leaning toward the microphone to deliver a greeting Dodger fans can recite along with him.
”Hi everybody, and a very pleasant evening to you, wherever you may be.”
By the end of the night it had become increasingly clear this may not be a wonder team after all. Too many holes in the lineup, too many marginal players, too many puzzles for Mattingly to solve.
Dodger fans may just have to be satisfied with having a wonder in the booth.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg