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HECTOR TOBAR

Vin Scully's is a rare voice

In the late innings of a long and distinguished career, the Dodgers' master storyteller is once again keeping fans glued to the radio.

October 19, 2009|HECTOR TOBAR

Before the Internet, before cable television or even color TV, there was radio.

Back then, we sat by the speakers and listened to radio announcers make pictures with words. Using just a little bit of imagination, we could actually see the things they were describing to us.

Vin Scully is one of those master storytellers. He came of age in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the era before television took over sports coverage. In 1958, he moved to Los Angeles. Ever since, he's been telling us all about the adventures, triumphs and defeats of that band of blue-capped men known as the Dodgers.

On spring and fall nights 30 years or so ago, I'd plop a transistor radio on the dining room table of my south Whittier home and listen to Vin while I did my high school homework.

There would be the usual chorus of crickets outside, a cool breeze through the windows and Vin saying in his singsong baritone: "Dodger baseball is on the air," and "Why don't you pull up a chair and join us."

Back then, Dodgers home games were not on television, generally speaking. We Dodgers fans tuned to KFI-AM (640) -- and later KABC-AM (790) -- listened to Vin and heard the crack of bat striking ball. And sometimes, too, we heard the bounce of a foul landing in the stands near Vin's broadcast booth.

We listened and we were there at Dodger Stadium.

Eventually Vin would tell us what the weather and the sky looked like over Chavez Ravine, much like he did Thursday afternoon when the Dodgers played the Phillies in the first game of the National League Championship Series.

"A canopy of blue and bright sunlight in left field. . . . It's one of those lovely days in Los Angeles, when you look beyond the palm trees to the mountains. . . . It's really priceless here."

In this transient, ever-changing city, Vin's voice is a rare constant.

A lot of the voices that have united us as Angelenos over the years are gone now. Chick Hearn is no longer with us, nor is the late, great Times columnist Jack Smith. But Vin is still going strong on the AM dial.

"We've arrived at the bottom of the ninth inning," he said near the end of a recent playoff game. "And it has been a stormy ride indeed."

Vin is 81 now, and in the late innings of a long and distinguished career. These days, a lot of people are listening to him religiously again -- in part because both the Division Series and the League Championship Series have been available only on cable and satellite TV. A lot of us Angelenos -- myself included -- don't have either.

As one Dodgers fan wrote to The Times' Jerry Crowe: "Once again the poor, infirm and cheap are robbed of seeing the playoffs on regular TV."

But really, the blank television screens in our cable-less L.A. homes are a gift.

On Thursday, I plugged in a radio, sat out on my deck on a warm autumn evening and listened to the man whose voice is like that of a Boy Scout leader spinning tales by the campfire.

"No score, bottom of the first, we're just getting started."

Listening to Vin call a playoff game is like listening to Bernstein conduct Beethoven. Take his Oct. 8 call of the Dodgers' late-inning victory over the Cardinals, which was a work of art.

Cardinals' outfielder Matt Holliday made a crucial error in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs, and it started a dramatic Dodgers rally. On television, they showed the replay of his gaffe again and again.

On radio, we had Vin to tell us what it looked like, and what it meant.

"Oh, what a big break! Matt Holliday had the game over -- and somehow missed the ball with his glove. It hit him right in the groin. Hopefully he's wearing a cup. . . . You talk about a painful error. . . .

"There was no reason -- no sunshine [in his eyes], no dappled shadows and sun as we had earlier. It was just a ball hit at the left fielder. And it seemed to handcuff Holliday. . . . It never even touched his glove, it just caught him right amidships. . . .

"Matt Holliday can only stand there and be the loneliest man in Los Angeles, while 51,819 echo to the skies!"

Vin reminded us that some innings earlier Holliday had hit a home run. "One minute he's wearing the cape of the hero, now he's . . . wearing the horns."

That's one of Vin's great gifts. Every game he creates a cast of characters and scratches out the plot of a diamond drama.

The Cardinals reliever who lost that Oct. 8 game was "the guy with the red goatee," a former bartender with "a reputation as a hard-luck pitcher," Vin told us. "Among other things, his Arkansas home burned to the ground when he was in high school. He's had all kinds of bad breaks."

Once upon a time, Vin's stories were all about American kids -- Arkansas boys like Ryan Franklin or Jewish guys from Brooklyn like Sandy Koufax. Baseball's changed, so now Vin's stories take in the world.

"Even at the tender age of 14, they talked in Korea about how hard Chan Ho Park threw a baseball," he said Thursday when the Phillies' relief pitcher entered the game.

With Vin at the helm, the hours and innings roll by pleasantly. We hear the stadium organ play "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," and Vin describes a pitcher who's "got a pretty good kick with that right leg," and a ball that doesn't just roll but "squirts" foul. I can see it all.

I've never met Vin Scully, but I'd like to thank him. When I was a kid, he taught me the joys of listening, and showed me the way mere words could bring distant worlds to life. And today he's taking me back to a simpler, purer version of baseball, without 3-D graphics and crawling tickers and electronic ads behind home plate.

"Oh, is this great?" he said with a laugh as the Dodgers rallied to that improbable victory. "I mean, Game 2 of the postseason. Who knows how long it will go?"

Not long enough, Vin. Not long enough.

--

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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