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AN APPRECIATION

A city hangs on his every word

March 31, 2008|Christine Daniels | Times Staff Writer

One in a series of stories marking the Dodgers' 50th anniversary in L.A.

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His voice belongs to then and now, an audio clip that carries us back to a bygone era even as it keeps us up-to-the-minute updated.

It has been there as long as big-league baseball has been in this city, actually pre-dating the Los Angeles Dodgers by several years, which was the biggest advantage the Dodgers had when they first arrived in 1958, certainly more important than any of the fading stars on the playing roster.

When Vin Scully settled in behind his microphone at the Coliseum 50 years ago, Los Angeles had the narrator it needed and the Dodgers had the pitchman they required to break the ice, to melt any pockets of resistance that might have been scattered around the Southland.

He has been at it ever since, his tenure an L.A. story unlike any other, providing a sense of permanence to a city perfectly captured by Steve Martin's line in the movie "L.A. Story": "Some of these buildings are more than 20 years old!"

But as the Dodgers crank up the celebratory machine to mark their 50th anniversary in Los Angeles, a different emotion surfaces when considering Scully's place with the Dodgers. Scully is 80 and in the last year of his contract with the club. He hasn't yet decided on his plans for after this season. For the time being, anyway, every game, every inning Scully's calls carry with them an underlying, undeniable theme for listeners: Let us enjoy them while we can.

Scully represents more than an era in Los Angeles sports history; he also represents an era in sports broadcasting when announcers were as indelibly linked to the teams they covered as the logo on the players' caps.

When Scully was hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950, his contemporaries included Mel Allen with the Yankees and Russ Hodges with the Giants. They were icons, with larger-than-life personas, as they served as the immediate conduits of information and news to fans hungry for details about their teams.

That was the template that served baseball for decades. Jack Buck with the St. Louis Cardinals. Ernie Harwell with the Detroit Tigers. Bob Prince with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Harry Caray with the Cardinals, then the Chicago Cubs.

Over time, that part of the job description changed. More teams meant more job movement among announcers. New media, such as the Internet, meant more sources for information.

By 2008, Scully might not be the last of the great baseball play-by-play icons; Jerry Coleman in San Diego and Dave Niehaus in Seattle remain franchise and community fixtures. But the pool is shrinking.

What has Scully meant to the Dodgers since 1958?

"Everything, with an exclamation point," former Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley said. When the Dodgers first arrived in Los Angeles, O'Malley said, Scully was "the face of the Dodgers. It wasn't the manager. It wasn't a player. It wasn't the owner. It wasn't where they played. It wasn't any of those things. He was the face and the voice of the Dodgers. And he made so many friends for us, then and now."

More than just defining L.A. baseball culture, Scully invented it. For a city perpetually on the move, Scully became essential listening for harried freeway drivers who, once grounded, continued the habit with portable transistor radios -- and today with audio supplied via satellite and the Internet.

"L.A. may be the most important radio market in the country," O'Malley said, "because of people traveling in their cars. And Vinny's impact on radio is major. We've all heard about the transistors in the ballpark, but that's one thing that gets overlooked -- the importance of the radio market in L.A., which has embraced and adopted Vinny."

Bob Costas notes that when the Dodgers first arrived in Los Angeles, "virtually no Dodgers games were televised, except for the San Francisco games. Every road game, night game, in the Central time zone or the Eastern time zone -- and games used to start at 8 o'clock, not 7 o'clock local time -- every one of those games started when people were stuck in traffic.

"So they're in traffic for an hour, an hour and a half, two hours, and they're listening to Vin Scully. They're getting attached to the Dodgers, they're listening to Scully, this was how they first came into contact with major league baseball -- at least West Coast major league baseball."

Major League Baseball 101 never had a better instructor.

"The combination of ability, distinctiveness, longevity and association with one team -- there's nobody that stacks up to Vin," Costas said. "And I say that with great, great regard for other great announcers. But he's at the top of the list."

Al Michaels listened to Scully as a kid growing up in Brooklyn, then followed the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958 when his father had to relocate because of work.

"I never missed a beat," Michaels said. "I've listened to Vinny almost since Vinny started.

"When I think back, right now, I think about him in terms the way Chick Hearn was through all of those years. You could turn on the radio at any given moment and it's almost as if something very memorable would be said, or something tickled your fancy. Or was said in a way that you never heard before. And the enthusiasm level in both men is astonishing. To be able to do it over that period of time, and to still watch a game and broadcast a game with a sense of wonderment . . . to me that's the most astonishing thing about Vin Scully."

Suppose, Michaels said, the Dodgers declared their lead play-by-play job vacant today, open to all applicants.

"Just find somebody this season who would do a better job than Vinny," Michaels said. "I'm not sure I could think of somebody. You know what? He's the best guy for the job, and he still is."

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christine.daniels@latimes.com

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