Friday, April 13, 2012
We miss you, Vin Scully
By Ramona Shelburne ESPNLosAngeles.com
LOS ANGELES -- Jaime Jarrin has been making this walk, at about this time of night, for the past 54 years. It's five minutes to game time on a cold, windy Thursday evening at Dodger Stadium, but there is no hurry to his step. He has a minute, maybe two. Time to stop and meet a new television reporter in the dining room. Time to grab a cup of water. Time to stick his head in the booth his friend and colleague Vin Scully normally settles into about 15 minutes before the game. If there is anyone at the ballpark who can stand next to Scully and see the game and the world through the same kind of eyes, it is Jarrin, a Hall of Famer in his own right, the Scully of Spanish-language broadcasting. But on this night, when Jarrin pokes his head into Scully's booth, Scully is not there. Jarrin talked to him on the phone Wednesday and heard that he was sick from the man himself. He's read the news reports like everyone else. But still it doesn't seem real, so he checks again just to make sure.
"Not seeing him here is very strange," Jarrin said. "I keep hoping when I walk down that hall I'll see him in there. I hope he comes back very soon."
Scully has missed all of the Los Angeles Dodgers' games this week, including the home opener Tuesday afternoon. He is OK, we're told. Just sick, a little weak, and having a harder time shaking a bad cold this time because it's harder to shake something when you're 84 years old. He should be back in the booth this weekend, and if not then, then definitely by the start of the next homestand. But when Vin Scully misses a game, the home opener no less, everything else at the ballpark feels off. The Dodgers' 6-1 record, their best start since 1981, doesn't feel as sweet. Big hits don't sound as big. Heck, even the Dodger Dogs don't taste as good. "For me, he's baseball: baseball season, summertime, Farmer John hot dogs," said new Dodgers second baseman Adam Kennedy, who grew up listening to Scully's calls in nearby Riverside, Calif. Kennedy says that last part just like Scully does during every Dodgers broadcast. Or at least he tries to. "Faaarmer John hot dogs," Kennedy said, laughing a little as he finishes the imitation.
Vin Scully has been a fixture around Dodger Stadium, well, since there was a Dodger Stadium.
Kennedy, 36, has made it home here late in his career, but at least he made it back. As a visiting player he used to ask friends to record the games so he could hear Scully call his name. It was one of the things he was most looking forward to this year. And it should happen soon enough. But the fact that it hasn't happened yet, that Scully is still out sick, that it wasn't just the home opener he missed -- the first time since 1977 he hasn't been here to wish everybody a "very pleasant good evening" and to welcome them back to a new baseball season -- well, it just doesn't sit right. And it especially doesn't sit right this year.
Things were finally supposed to be better this year. Back to normal. Back as they should be. Owner Frank McCourt had agreed to sell the team to a group led by Magic Johnson. Matt Kemp was blossoming into one of the brightest stars in baseball. Clayton Kershaw was back to defend his Cy Young award. Manager Don Mattingly was settling into the job nicely. For the past three seasons, Scully has talked Dodgers fans through the ugliness. Kept them company, held their hand, reassured them just by being the same person and voice he's been the last 63 years. Only once has he referenced it on air. And only then because he almost had to. Last year, almost a year to the day, when Major League Baseball took control of the day-to-day operations of the Dodgers, Scully began the broadcast by reading the first two sentences from the press release, paused a moment to let the news breathe, then returned to the game at hand. "That was a conscious decision," said Charley Steiner, the team's radio broadcaster since 2005 who has been filling in for Scully on television this week. "We all decided that for four or five hours, whatever it is from the pregame show until the end of the broadcast, we were going to be the island. We were just going to talk about the game; no more, no less." It was, quite possibly, the perfect approach. A reminder that the game always goes on and it is always the game that matters.
But now that it's all over, when he should be returning all of us to normalcy, Vin Scully has a cold.
It is a bit jarring to people at the ballpark. On my way in Thursday, I caught one fan wearing a "Win for Vin" T-shirt. Three games and already they're making T-shirts. What's amazing is that nobody wants him to rush back. "He's put his time in," said young Dodgers infielder Justin Sellers. "He can take all the time he needs to get healthy." Sellers has only been here for half a season. A speck of time compared to Scully's 63 years. But like all the Southern California-born players on the Dodgers and opposing teams who come through here each season, he feels like he's known him his whole life. As a kid growing up in Huntington Beach, he'd wake up early before school and turn on the radio in his parents' room to listen to Dodgers spring training games from Florida. "I just liked the way he said all their names. Eric Karros. I liked how he said that. Hideo Nomo, I liked how he said that." So last season, when Sellers earned his first big league call-up in September, what was the first thing he wanted to know? "I called my mom after the game and was like, 'What did it sound like when Vin said my name?'" Today, and probably forever, he carries around a photo of him and Scully taken before Opening Day in San Diego this year. "My dad wants me to get it framed," he said, not entirely joking.
The more you talk to people about Scully, the more they say the same things. Each story is personal to each person. But each one is the same, too. Scully is the man who made them fall in love with baseball. The voice that drew them in to the game one day and never let them walk away. He is a shared treasure. A civic treasure. A constant. The constant. It is an awesome responsibility for one man to bear. Scully somehow manages never to shirk it or indulge in it. He gives of himself during the broadcast but is fiercely private off the air. His closest friends at the park these days are probably Jarrin and former traveling secretary Billy DeLury. But as much as you want to corner both of them and ask how he's doing, it doesn't feel right to pry, so you just tell DeLury to wish him well and make sure he knows he is missed.
Nancy Bea Hefley has played the organ at Dodger Stadium for the past 25 years. Fans love her. Players adore her. You should see the way Kemp acts when she comes down to the field before a game. "I never even knew he knew who I was," Hefley said of her first meeting with Kemp. "But he's always so nice to me." And soon he'll be trading one of his "Beast Mode" T-shirts for one made by a fan that reads "I love Nancy Bea."
"Only for me," Kemp told the fan before Thursday's game. "I'm the only one you give the Nancy Bea shirt to." Like Scully, Hefley has become a constant at Dodger Stadium. As much a part of the place as the infield grass and yellow-backed seats in the lower level. And like Scully, she hates missing games. In 25 years she has missed only eight of them. "It never sits well with me," she said. In 2005, she too contemplated retirement. She took a few games off to see how it would feel, but ended up playing the organ at three Iowa Cubs games instead of getting away from the game. "I'll do it as long as I'm having fun," she said. "And I'm still having fun." Scully is too, which is why he decided to return for another season. It's probably driving him nuts to stay home and miss so many games. Those who know him best say he's a little embarrassed at all the attention and is probably working on a self-effacing joke for when he returns to the booth.
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In the meantime, Steiner has been charged with keeping Scully's chair warm. It is an impossible task, so Steiner does the smart thing: He just does his best. "When players talk about 'We can only take one game at a time,' or 'You can only play within yourself,' it's the same thing," Steiner said. "I've done a lot of stuff for a lot of years, but filling in for Vin on Opening Day on the 50th anniversary of Dodger Stadium -- oh, man." Steiner grew up listening to Scully as a boy in Long Island. He was 7 and the Dodgers were his team. By the time he was 8 the team was on its way from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. The sound of Scully's voice never left Steiner, even as he called World Series and heavyweight title fights and Yankees games. And then one day it was Scully's voice on the line, welcoming him to the organization. "I'm in the house that I grew up in, the kitchen that I listened to games in, I'm telling my mother, who was 92 at the time, that I have a job with the Dodgers, and the guy that I wanted to be growing up is on the phone," Steiner said.
"It was one of those days everybody should have once in their life."
A few months later he was in Florida for spring training. A hurricane had just blown through Dodgertown, badly damaging Holman Stadium. "Here I am, my first game with the Dodgers, I'm about to introduce Vin Scully and I'm trying to paint the picture of how it looks out there. There are trees down and the scoreboard is dangling and now somehow we're ready to play and with the play-by-play, here's Vin Scully," he said. "Vin takes the mike and it's almost as if he's like [the famous pianist] Van Cliburn. He separates the tails of his jacket and sits down and says, 'You look out at the outfield fence and you've got some palm trees. Old palm trees are down and they're not coming back. You've got some mid-sized palm trees that look like they're going to survive, and then you've got some new palm trees that have just been planted. Isn't that what spring training is all about?'
"I was like, 'OK, I gotta leave now. Can I go home? Oh man.' I felt like I was going to be sprinting up sand dunes."
When I first sat with Steiner to ask about Scully he was a little reluctant to share much. Just the facts, just how he felt filling in for him this week. But the more we talked, the more we couldn't stop talking. Scully has this effect on people. I told stories about my childhood listening to him. The way I can still be flipping channels in the middle of August, stumble upon Dodger game that has no impact on the standings and get drawn back in by his voice. Our stories sound like everyone else's stories about Vin after a while. Only the scenes and settings change.
In the seventh inning of Thursday's game, I decided to walk through the stands and see whether I could find a fan listening to the game on the radio. A fan who has missed Scully while he's been out with a cold. A fan whose experience at the ballpark depended upon hearing Scully on the radio while he watched the game unfold. Instead, I found Carlton Shorter. The usher in his section of the top deck behind home plate pointed him out. Said he's here most every night, holding a small black radio to his ear. As I approached Shorter, I could tell the radio was more than an accessory. The way he cradled it tipped me off. Like he needed it, or maybe like he loved it. Shorter, 55, has been coming to games at Dodger Stadium for 40 years. He's been listening to Scully longer. "I grew up in South L.A., right by the Coliseum, where the Dodgers played when they first moved here," he said. "My dad always had the radio on the kitchen table." But seven years ago diabetes robbed him of his sight. Three different surgeries on his retinas didn't work, so now the radio is what connects him to the team. To Vin. "I remember every smell, every vision of this place," he said. "In my mind's eye, I know what it looks like. When Vin talks, his words are the pictures I see."
I ask why he still comes to games when he could just stay home and listen to Scully on television. He shakes his head like I'm missing something big. "This place is like home," he says. "It's one of the greatest sports palaces in the world. Unfortunately we had an owner who didn't see it that way. We had to wrestle it away from his hands. But we've got it back and we're not going to give it back."
Shorter was here on Opening Day and he was listening when Steiner announced that Scully had a cold and he and Rick Monday had been called in for some "long relief out of the bullpen." Shorter likes what Monday's done on the radio these last few games. Said he's done a good job.
It's just different when Scully's on the call. "The man has done so much for all of us," he said. "Of course we miss him. But I want him to feel better. So rest up, Vinny, we'll all be seeing you soon."