VIN SCULLY AND THE “BEST PILLOW IN THE WORLD”
Vin Scully, the voice of the Dodgers, is calling it a career this weekend after 67 years in the booth. If you will indulge me, I’d like to tell you about one of my favorite moments from Scully behind the microphone, and about one night at Dodger Stadium that will make me miss him even more.
But first, a little background. I was never a big baseball guy growing up, even though I played a couple of seasons on a local Little League team. (Our squad was called the Firemen.) During those days, when I wasn’t playing the game, either in Little League or somewhere on my grandma’s farm with my cousins, the presence of a baseball broadcast usually meant that something I’d rather have been watching on TV was unavailable to see because someone else wanted to watch the damn game. (I tried to sit down, watch and spark an interest in it several times, but it never really worked.) That disinterest lasted for a couple of decades, until I moved to Los Angeles during the spring of 1987. A friend of mine made sure that, as part of my cultural acclimation to Southern California, I attended the occasional game, though for me it was still more about the experience of getting to know the vast, magnificent enclosure of Dodger Stadium than what was actually going on down on the field—the notion of stats and standings and averages and the like continued to baffle me.
Then one night I drove myself out to the Winnetka Drive-in, deep in the San Fernando Valley, for a double feature of Whoopi Goldberg in Fatal Beauty and (!!) Robert Altman’s OC and Stiggs, which I’d seen the previous week during its blink-and-you-missed-it theatrical “engagement.” No Whoopi Goldberg fan, I was there for the Altman movie and quickly tired of the grim spectacle of the main feature, so I shut down the movie sound and turned to 790 KABC, thinking that, underneath the light rain that had begun to drizzle over Chatsworth, listening to the Dodger game might be an atmospheric diversion. It certainly couldn’t be any less boring than what I’d paid to see at the drive-in.
I heard Vin Scully call the game that night, with occasional insight and input from another Dodger mainstay, Ross Porter, and all thoughts of any and every drab Whoopi Goldberg movie I’d ever seen, past and present, drifted away happily. If I could ever possibly pinpoint precisely when the seeds of my Dodger fandom were planted, it would most likely be that night, pulled into and seated securely in the theater of the mind conjured by Scully’s voice, and by his words which were thoughtful, expressive and would occasionally approach a sportscaster’s poetry. My interest in and understanding of baseball grew stronger over the next few years, and by the time of the strike-shortened season of 1994 I had a coworker, who would become one of my best friends, whose knowledge of the game would inspire my own fascination and teach me immeasurably about how to really see and appreciate and understand it. But Vin Scully was always there to help guide me along and keep my enthusiasm high, even when the team wasn’t able to live up to expectations.
If you listen to Dodger radio broadcasts today, you’ll hear Scully only through the first three innings, after which he is replaced by the team of ex-Yankee broadcaster Charlie Steiner and ex-Dodger/Cub center fielder Rick Monday. But in the 1990s and into the first decade of the new century it was still possible, as it had been ever since Scully and the Dodgers arrived in Los Angeles in 1962, to bring a radio to the stadium and hear, without a noticeable delay, the game as it unfolded, with Scully on the entire call. One night, after attending games in person became more of a habit for me, I was in the stands listening to Scully call a game between the Dodgers and their division rival, the Arizona Diamondbacks series, and there was a moment during that game which capsulized the particular quality of joy and insight that has made hearing Scully on the job such a privilege for Dodger fans over the years.
As he does always, this night the Hall of Fame play-by-play announcer had many thoughts and stories at the ready about all the players from both the home and opposing dugouts, and at one point Scully latched onto the compelling story of that night’s opposing pitcher, Livan Hernandez, and how Hernandez had dramatically defected to the U.S. from Cuba. “This’d make a great movie,” Scully exclaimed, and down the rabbit hole he went. He explained how the pitcher, whose desire to leave his homeland was apparently widely known, was throwing in a game in Monterey, Mexico, when he was approached by an apple-cheeked young lady with an autograph book. She extended the book and Hernandez opened it, ready to sign. What he discovered inside, instead of a blank page, was an open-faced note which said somewhat ominously, “El gordo quiere verte (The fat man wants to meet you).” (In the story, El Gordo turned out to be the man who facilitated Hernandez’s escape from Cuba via life raft. Cue dramatic stinger.)
You could almost hear the stars stirring in Scully’s eyes as he began to let the story expand in his head and in our imaginations, all the while never missing a beat as the game kept interrupting the flow of his reverie. But he kept on the mike with both threads and began to speculate as to who could be cast in the great movie he speculated could be made from Hernandez’ dramatic story. His first and only suggestion for the role of the large, none-too-sculpted pitcher—the far-too-old and far-too-dashing dashing Antonio Banderas—betrayed a surprising lack of imagination. I, of course, took Scully’s bait and played along, coming up with a better idea, Luis Guzman, who would have been more interesting but, at only 5’ 7”, hardly any more physically convincing than Banderas.
But when Scully began to think of who would make a great El Gordo, the great announcer took listeners of a certain age on a real trip down memory lane, and left 99.9% of the rest of the radio faithful likely scratching their heads. “The first fella I think of is, of course, Sydney Greenstreet,” clearly assuming the young punk sports fans in the audience would be culturally literate enough to know Casablanca or The Big Sleep without mentioning them by name. “But if you really wanna go back–“ And my ears perked up, anticipating something great— “You have to think of one of the great character actors of all time, who was always filling out the card when it came to rotund, scurvy villainy… Akim Tamiroff!”
Never mind that Tamiroff was actually 20 years younger than Greenstreet. As one of my baseball-loving, movie-literate friends who also heard the broadcast noted, “We know what Vinnie was going for—big and swarthy,” before he himself offered up Alfonso Bedoya or Pedro Armendariz— 13 years younger than Tamiroff even– as more ethnically appropo suggestions. What, no William Conrad? But ultimately, no matter: Vin Scully had made a reference to Akim Tamiroff during a Dodgers game. Nobody else then, and certainly nobody else now, would ever dare such a move, and do it with such delight and panache.
Then Casting Director Vinnie, likely jostled out of his Cinema Paradiso daydream by one of two spectacular defensive plays, chuckled with satisfaction and went back to his day/night job, undoubtedly adrift throughout the game on further unspoken memories of Turhan Bey or Lionel Atwill or J. Carroll Naish, and leaving it for the Great Unwashed to go to their Internets, Google away and get their Tamiroff on. As if we needed one, it was just another reason why Vin Scully has always been the absolute best at what he does— within that expansive encyclopedia of experience and understanding that is his baseball mind, he’s never more than a pitch away from another expansive story about Adrian Gonzalez or Clayton Kershaw… or maybe, if we were lucky, Peter Lorre.
During the summer of 1997 I won a raffle sponsored by one of my coworkers which snagged me season tickets for left field loge level seats at Dodger Stadium—a beautiful view and a good location for the occasional foul ball. What a gift for a fledgling baseball fan. On top of that, my wife Patty and I were expecting our first child that August, so there was plenty of excitement to spread around—and good thing too, because even if we weren’t pregnant there would be no way the two of us could ever use four seats over 82 games just for ourselves. Naturally, we became very popular in our circle and many of our friends and coworkers managed to benefit from our good fortune— suddenly there were a lot of Dodger fans around our office that summer.
But the good fortune didn’t extend all the way through the summer. Patty and I lost our son, Charlie, who was stillborn to us a week before his scheduled caesarean delivery. A lot of dreams were shattered that summer, including the one I’d allowed to expand in my imagination about what it would be like to play baseball with my own son and, of course, to take him to the game. All the shards of that dream still haven’t been picked up yet, and not for lack of trying, but we learned the hard way that healing, if there was ever truly to be any, would have to take its own time. (Almost 20 years later, I’ve decided that the idea of healing is a myth, and maybe even a dishonor to my boy—I don’t want to forget him, to get over what my hopes for him were, because that pain is all I really have.)
After about two years of thinking it would never happen, Patty became pregnant again and we cautiously eased our way through nine months until we finally welcomed, with a great sigh of relief, our daughter Emma, who was born in March 2000. I’ll probably have to be retroactively forgiven by Emma at some later date for projecting my waylaid dreams onto her and buying all sorts of baby-sized Dodger gear for her to wear—when she was two years old a friend of mine even gave her a nifty little Dodger cheerleader outfit which she wore to several games. But I could not help it—I wanted going out to the stadium to be a part of her young life, and maybe, if I was really lucky, she’d learn to love the experience of the game the way I had. (She never really did, but that’s not what matters.)
On September 27 of that year, when Emma was six months old, I managed somehow to talk Patty into letting me take Emma to a ball game by myself. I dressed her up in a nifty little red, white and blue shirt-and-short-pants outfit with a Dodgers baseball logo on the front, packed up a bag with all the survival essentials– diapers, change of clothes, snacks, a juice cup, Handi-Wipes and God knows what else—and prepared to head out to Chavez Ravine. Since I was by myself in the eyes of the box office I decided to splurge a little and grab a field-level seat for a slightly closer view than the one I usually had. (The seat I picked was in left field as well, more or less directly below where we sat during the summer of 1997.) I also knew that the field level was where fans usually ran into the roving Dodger camera crews tasked with supplying all the live footage for the Jumbotron looming above the left field pavilion, so I left the house in the hopes that my little beauty, all decked out in her Dodger finery, might be just the creature to attract their attention.
As I was getting ready to head out the door, another thought occurred to me—being in proximity to the closed-circuit camera crews, if we did manage to get her on the big screen we might also end up attracting the attention of the Fox broadcast cameras. And wouldn’t that be keen to be holding one of the babies that would so often catch the eye of Vin Scully himself and cause him to go into one of his mid-game non-baseball-related reveries! So, on the off chance that such a thing might happen, I tossed a VHS tape into the trusty VCR and set it to record the game against the hated San Francisco Giants in its entirety. At the very least, I might catch a nifty play on the field that would be worth taking another look at, right?
I left early enough before first pitch to have time to stop by for a quick visit with my in-laws, who were excited to see the baby and horrified that I was taking her out to a baseball game all alone. Of course I was not allowed to leave their house without first promising that I would check in with them after I left—I’m sure they were imagining all sorts of awful things happening as a result of my insanity, like me leaving her unattended on the diaper changing table of the men’s room so I could run and catch a big play, or worse, Emma taking a foul ball off of her newly-minted skull. I assured them I would call on my way home so they could dial down the worry to its usual low-level thrum.
We made it to the ball park, settled into our seats and immediately attracted the attention of several folks seated nearby, all of whom were apparently fascinated by the novelty of a dad taking his newborn baby out in public without the protective backup of Mom. But ever since I’d managed to clear the hurdle of changing that first fecally compromised nappy six months earlier I’d never felt uncomfortable being left totally in charge of Emma’s well-being, so to me it was just another night out, albeit with a really special date. We hung out and enjoyed the sights, played together in the cool evening air and got caught up in the company of our new friends and, occasionally, the game itself.
Around the second inning, I spotted the camera crew heading up the aisle a couple of sections over. I took Emma up the steps, managed to choreograph a bump into them as they made their way onto the concourse behind the stands and asked if they’d be interested in sharing the sight of this little Dodger with the rest of the stadium. The lead cameraman got a good look at her and agreed that she’d make a great Jumbotron subject. So I showed them where we were seated, they told us to watch for them in between the top and bottom of the third inning, and we returned to the game, me pretty pleased with myself that I had managed to pull off the appointment, but still doubtful that they would actually show up.
I needn’t have worried. The break in the third inning arrived and here was the camera crew, right on schedule. They zeroed in on the Dodgers logo on the breast of Emma’s little shirt and slowly zoomed out so that her face, which was set right into the gaze of the camera, filled the entirety of the giant stadium video screen. It was such a thrill to hear everyone in our section, and maybe elsewhere in the stands, burst into cheers and applause as Emma’s cheeky mug seemed, for a few seconds anyway, to be the electronic queen of all she surveyed. And it was, for a dad who never got to fulfill the dream of bringing his son to a baseball game, pretty much the definition of a dream come true.
We stayed for a little while longer, but not long after her big-pixeled coming-out presentation Emma fell asleep in my arms. So I decided after a couple more innings that it was time to take her home and get her ready for one last meal before a night’s sleep that would hopefully be quieter than the one she was getting in the company of 46,000 baseball fans. I bid good evening to those folks sitting around and headed back to my car, and I once I got there I thought it would be a good idea to call my mother-in-law and assure her that all was well. I was also still buzzing about Emma’s Jumbotron appearance and looked forward to beginning the bragging process right away.
My mother-in-law was indeed relieved to hear we were still alive and that I still had possession of her precious granddaughter. I then told her the whole story of how I managed to get Emma on the stadium big-screen. Her response, however, was a bit puzzling: “I know! We saw you!”
How is that possible, I thought? Did Fox swing their TV cameras up, take a picture of Emma Big and Tall and put it in the broadcast? If so, I thought, hey, I’ve got the VCR recording at home! I’ll have it on tape! Yippee! But before I could ask her about it, she said, “We saw you. But that guy stood up in front of you and kind of blocked the view.” What the hell is she talking about, I thought? And then I realized that she wasn’t talking about the Jumbotron shot. “Vin Scully was talking about you!” she said, and I could barely register what it was she was saying. But if I was interpreting her correctly, the Jumbotron shot must have caught the attention of the director of the TV broadcast, who then, sometime after Emma had fallen asleep, instructed his guy to get a shot of us so that Vin Scully could talk about us in between pitches. As Slim Pickens once so eloquently put it, holy mother of pearl!
I tried not to race home, and believe me, never has safe driving been such an arduous responsibility. When I got home I calmly described the Jumbotron scene to Patty as we got Emma ready for a late dinner and bed, which, because of all the activity that night, was a relatively easy task. Only after she was asleep did I detail to Patty the rest of what her mother had clued me in about. By then the game had ended, so we rewound the tape to the beginning and began the fast-forward scan…
We spun all the way to the top of the 7th. The Dodgers were losing to the Giants 4-0, with reliever Matt Herges on the mound for the good guys, when we saw it. So we backed up the tape, turned up the sound and listened as Scully interrupted his description of the game:
“Herges gets an out, and now (the batter Marvin) Benard. Dodgers have had one look at the—Oh, wow. Good night, lady. Sweet dreams. On Dad’s shoulder—best pillow in the world.”
The picture Scully was looking at was of Emma crashed out, me holding her in my left arm while reaching for something with my right and talking to someone a few seats away. The visual was interrupted by a guy a couple rows in front of me who chose that inopportune moment to stand up and block the shot. But no matter. It was a clear look to begin with, one certainly good enough to inspire a classic Vin Scully moment of poetry that I will cherish until I can breathe no more. And I got it on tape, so I won’t ever be able to begin to believe that I imagined the whole thing.
Vin Scully is coming to the end of a 67-year-career of vivid play-calling, as well as games full of little side-trip flights of fancy and moments of wonder, like that Livan Hernandez fantasy casting session, and especially like the one he gifted Emma and I with 16 years ago this past Tuesday. I will miss everything he did to enhance the game and impassion his audience during that incredible, historic run. But of all the great calls for which he is justly revered, I think “On Dad’s shoulder– best pillow in the world” will always be my favorite.
To refashion one of those revered calls to my own purpose, thank you, Vin, from the bottom of my heart, for 67 years, of course, but for also making one improbable dream come true on top of another that I once thought might suddenly be impossible.