One of the things I enjoy least about getting older is the loss of certain constants in my life that I never dreamed would disappear. And in this sped-up digital age, it seems like more of those towers are falling every day. How much longer will a physical newspaper be part of our daily routine? Where will all the good journalists go? We have already mourned the demise of most of our favorite bookstores and record stores, and every good spot in the city to change into our superhero costumes. And although I read and listen to music more now than I ever did, and though I am surrounded by news, things are somehow different. The rituals change, as they always must. Time marches on. And what of the stalwarts that give voice and face to these institutions? It is especially heartbreaking when someone who has been part of the public consciousness for so long passes on. Several years back now, legendary Lakers basketball announcer Chick Hearn took a fall while doing some gardening at his home during the off season and never returned to the microphone, dying shortly thereafter. It was only then that I realized how much Chick’s voice was contributing to my enjoyment of the game. His colorful, insightful words-eye-view accounts of the games were what I really tuned in for. It didn’t matter if the game was on the radio or on television; in fact, I often preferred the radio, where I could really focus on Chick’s poetic ability to bring the game of basketball to life. When Chick put the game “in the refrigerator,” it always put a smile on my face, not just for the guaranteed Laker victory, but because I was listening to a true original at the height of his powers.
The post season of baseball is upon us, and for the first time in 68 years Vin Scully is not at the microphone. He’s undergoing a medical procedure and needs to rest up. Well, yes. He’s 88 years old. He’s been calling about 160 baseball games a year since before African Americans were allowed to play in the major leagues. He is the poet laureate of baseball, and truly an institution.
Vin is the first voice I remember ever hearing on the radio. My grandmother listened to every Dodger game and Vin seemed like a member of the family, there in the living room, part of the conversation. And it didn’t matter what the score was or who was ahead in the standings. Vin is a storyteller, and his calm, lilting voice encouraged me to pay attention. He finds humor, poignancy, irony, and empathy in the lives of the players, and makes the game less about the statistics, and much more about the human condition.
When I was in my early 20s I got my first real job out of college as a photographer for the Associated Press. I’d drifted away from the game of baseball when I discovered skateboarding, girls and music in my early teens; and now ten years later I found myself on the field at Dodger Stadium, sometimes several times a week, making pictures of baseball games. I was trying to figure out how to make better pictures and understand the game for the sake of the job, so I started bringing a transistor radio and an ear bud to work. Vin’s magic charm immediately brought back my love of the game. His insights not only made my pictures better, but I started really enjoying my work. I soon found out that Vin ate his dinner in the press dining room with all of the other journalists. Up until that point, I’d just been grabbing a Dodger dog and a bag of peanuts to take back to the AP darkroom (there’s another example of a fallen institution: film). The AP had its own darkroom at Dodger Stadium; you’d shoot a few innings and then run up and develop and print your picture, and type your caption on (wait for it) a typewriter, before sending it out over – drumroll, please – an analog phone line called the wire service. Needless to say, I started eating in the pressroom and occasionally snagged a seat at Vin’s table. For someone who knew he had to talk for the next three hours, he certainly didn’t worry about saving his voice. He was usually holding court in his understated, fatherly way, telling his rapt audience a tale from baseball’s past. I was enthralled.
A few years after my tenure at the AP came to an end, I was really struggling. I’d broken up with my live-in girlfriend, and had still not figured out what I was doing with my career. I dealt with my anxiety and depression the old fashioned way: I’d ride my bike up a mountain until I was physically exhausted, and then put the Dodger game on the radio, waiting for Vin’s voice to work its way under my skin and into my heart. And I swear I would find peace, calm and the certainty that that everything was going to turn out okay. (Throw out your Xanax and Klonopin, folks! Fire your psychiatrist, and tune in to Vin).
I guess what I’m really doing here is beginning to grieve the twilight of the hallowed institution of Vin Scully. Vin promises to be back for next season, but many are predicting it will be his last. I have no doubt he will be replaced by two perfectly genial, statistic spewing, generic looking ex-athlete types that will tell me all about bat speed and quick hands and O.P.S. And I will half-listen to them in the background while I download a book from Amazon and back up my digital photographs to the cloud and check my cell phone for texts. And I will realize that maybe I never was a Dodger fan, or a baseball fan at all. I was a Vin Scully fan.