InVincible

I long ago quit arguing with people who think that watching/playing/knowing anything about professional sports is dumb, just like I long ago quit arguing with people who think that professional sports are more important than books, film, painting, politics, and all the other stuff that gets repped on Arts & Letters Daily. If I did still argue with the former group of boring dweebs, I would just repeat, “Vin Scully Vin Scully Vin Scully Vin Scully.” I would keep telling my interrogator to go listen to that man call five minutes of an LA Dodgers game. To not even look at the TV if they couldn’t stand it. To just keep the volume on low. To use a radio if they want to feel good about not buying into high-def capitalist bread-and-circuses. To just listen.

Here is Vin Scully in 1964, looking like he’s ready for Don Draper to polish his shoes (because VS is a real person who exists in the actual world):

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Now it’s 2013 and we have Twitter and wi-fi and stuff, and he is still going way more than strong. When he started calling Dodgers games, the team played in Brooklyn and Harry Truman was president; at 85 years old, he still calls games by himself: no second or third commentator in the booth, as is the case with almost every professional sports broadcast on earth. Just hours and hours of a fundamentally slow-paced game, with one guy working to keep you interested, and game after game, year after year, he remains the most compelling, mellifluous, learned, humane, quietly swaggy voice in American sports.

See, his astonishing longevity aside (85!), Scully’s style (it is hard not to write “Vin’s,” because that is what any baseball fan would say when talking about him) of broadcasting is what makes him an honest-to-God cultural treasure. Most sports talking heads are idiots. Anyone who has ever suffered through Tim McCarver (baseball), Jon Gruden (football), or–ugh–Reggie Miller, the congested, brittle ex-jock who stinks up TNT broadcasts (basketball), can attest to that. But even if the sports commentariat weren’t clogged with the mental equivalent of Applebees franchises, the  intensely tan, blow-dried Scully would still reign.

This has a lot to do with the pace of baseball, which you might call a tense languor punctuated by moments of fierce geometric action. Someone who can tell compact stories and make perceptive observations but who also knows when to shut up is priceless for a baseball fan with a functional brain.

First of all, he expertly handles the basic structural aspects of a baseball telecast. That is, he continually provides contextual information a viewer might enjoy or need (like where on the field a player’s hits tend to land, or how double plays work) and crucial narrative guidance: the man’s between-innings spiels are often pithy masterpieces, and he can even make an ad for Sprint sound dignified.

More broadly, his rhetorical style and range of knowledge are informed by a kind of open-minded, good-hearted humanist curiosity about the world that is increasingly rare in narcissistic, smartphone-addled America. Scully might relay an anecdote about Arnold Palmer’s favorite clubs, eulogize some knuckleballer from the 1930s, paraphrase Keats, make a weird comparison between hitting a baseball in cold weather and punching a wall, or wax philosophic about tattoos (using puns), but his style is also structured with silent pauses and genuine exclamations of joy. He comes across as a beguiling older neighbor–even if you’re fifty–without mocking, bemoaning, or expressing bitter confusion about contemporary baseball culture. 300-pound Dominican guys with heavy ink don’t spook him: the worst the young bucks incur is a “Whatever gets you through the night” and the trademark chuckle that is hokey but sweet. At the same time, he does not go in for the canned, bombastic masculinity that ruins most broadcasts. (MIKE, THAT’S HOW YOU HIT IN THE N-F-L!)

He links midcentury coastal America with 2013 Los Angeles, for fuck’s sake. Samuel Johnson says that the worst thing a writer can do to hir audience is bore them. If you are a baseball sophisticate, Scully does not ever bore you, and he usually teaches you something new about the game and its history; if you’re a newbie, he won’t lose you. He sounds like baseball.

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This can’t go on forever. It probably won’t go on for much longer. I’m not even a Dodgers fan. I root against the Dodgers much of the time. When Vin goes–whether he retires before dying or not–I will cry some. Not kidding.

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