“It’s a perfect beginning to the end of the day.”
— Vin Scully, remarking on the weather prior to last Wednesday’s Dodger game
When I was about eight years old I hid under my blankets past my bedtime. I did this because it was the only way I could listen to Jon Miller call baseball games. I had a little Walkman radio that picked up WTOP out of Washington DC, and if I turned its only knob just barely past the “off” position, I could put it to my ear and be at Memorial Stadium in North Baltimore and my parents wouldn’t be the wiser. Until now, I guess. Sorry, Mom and Dad! I spent many nights with Jon Miller and, in that way, I learned about baseball and fell in love with the game, the team, and the voice in equal measure. Years later, Peter Angelos bought the team and soon after fired Miller and, in doing so, ended my time as an Orioles fan. The point is, announcers matter. They are the adhesive that binds fandom to a team. And there is no better illustration of this fact than Vin Scully.
Scully began calling Dodger games in 1950 while the franchise was still in Brooklyn. That Dodger team contained a pitcher named Rex Barney. Barney would go on to become the PA announcer for the Orioles games that eight-year-old me listened to on the radio under his bedsheets. Ain’t life something? Sadly, Barney died almost two decades ago, his voice the last to grace the loud speakers at old Memorial Stadium and the first at Camden Yards. Through it all, Scully has called Dodger games. I’ve heard Vin Scully referred to as an institution, but Scully is more than an institution. Brookings is an institution, but nobody cares whether it’ll be around next baseball season or not. Scully is beloved in a way an institution is not. He makes baseball better, which, when you think about it, is no easy feat.
Scully was in the booth last Wednesday as Clayton Kershaw threw a complete game against the Giants in Los Angeles. He gave up six hits, one run, one walk, and struck out 15. It wasn’t even Kershaw’s best outing which is what makes it so amazing because for many pitchers it would easily be their best outing. If there’s anything that can enhance a Clayton Kershaw start, it’s Vin Scully. Here are his calls of each of Kershaw’s strikeouts.
Let’s listen together!*
*Note: to hear audio, place mouse on lower left-hand corner of each video and click speaker icon.
Strikeout One: Angel Pagan, 1st Inning, Slider
“Clayton ready and the strike one [sic] pitch on the way… check swing… they look… and swing. And Pagan tries to hold up and strikes out.”
Perhaps one of the most wonderful things about listening is the certain sounds a person makes around a specific word. Scully has a way of saying the word “two” that is just wonderful. He draws out the “oo” part in a way so delicious to the ear that we don’t want the word to end.
Strikeout Two: Marlon Byrd, 2nd Inning, Slider
“Clayton ready and the 3-2 pitch, swung on and missed. And down goes Byrd.”
Not every event, even a Clayton Kershaw strikeout, is world-changing. Scully knows that and we know that from listening to Scully. Sometimes a strikeout is just a strikeout. Thanks, Mr. Scully.
Strikeout Three: Kelby Tomlinson, 3rd Inning, Curveball
“[T]he 1-2 pitch on the way. Big, slooow curveball. See ya later.”
Scully accentuates the “oo” in “slow” because Kershaw’s curveball came in a good 20 mph slower than his fastball. Lest you think it’s all words and no substance with Scully, know that at this point in the game, he brought up Kershaw’s ERA which at the time was 0.98 since the All-Star break. Scully does numbers, too.
Strikeout Four: Mike Leake, 3rd Inning, Fastball
“Kershaw turns on the rubber, 1-2 pitch on the way. Fastball, grills him. Strike three called. So there it is, four strikeouts tonight, 240 Ks in the book for him for the second time in his career, and at the end of two-and-a-half innings, 1-0 Dodgers.”
Scully goes from the pitcher on the rubber, to the pitch, to call, to the context, to the game, to the end of the inning. It’s all tied together in a few smooth baseball-sentences. The funny thing about transcribing these is I could really put the commas and periods anywhere, or just not use them at all. Scully has his own language with pauses where sentences could end or not, clauses bleed into each other, and it’s all as close to poetry as you’ll find where baseball is concerned.
Strikeout Five: Angel Pagan, 4th Inning, Slider
“Pagan grew up in a very, very tough neighborhood in Puerto Rico. Angel, in fact, coming up under really tough times, started thinking about being a fighter — he used to hang out with Felix Trinidad — but after slugging in the ring and hitting a baseball he opted for baseball. Strike-two pitch. He’s badly fooled and strikes out. Kershaw now with five strikeouts. He’s struck out five of the ten, and Pagan with his head coming out, that pitch was in the dirt. He didn’t stand a chance. So Angel goes to school, one away, and Gregor Blanco coming up.”
One of the things that makes Scully so fun to listen to is the little bits of humanizing information that he weaves into the broadcast. Back in 2013 I had a Dodgers game on in the background when I heard Scully’s voice say this:
“When I was growing up, Washington Heights was 95% Jewish, mostly Jewish refuges escaping Hitler. Barmes, a strike, 0-1.” – Vin Scully
— Matthew Kory (@mattymatty2000) April 6, 2013
Only Vin Scully could go from his childhood to Adolf Hitler to Clint Barmes in once sentence.
Strikeout Six: Buster Posey, 5th Inning, Slider
“Of course, Posey is all of 28. Gerald Dempsey Posey the Third. Buster Posey winning the batting title, which is really against all odds… and down he goes. So Kershaw is on a tear now, he has struck out six.”
It’s a shame Kershaw struck Posey out when he did because it seemed like we were going to be treated to a story on how unlikely it was for Posey to win the batting title. Curse you and your greatness, Clayton Kershaw!
Strikeout Seven: Brandon Belt, 5th Inning, Fastball
“Belt was hitting third in the first two games [of the series]. Stays in, only now bats sixth against the left hander… and what a left hander. Fastball. Whoa! And I mean a fast ball. So seven strikeouts for Kershaw in five innings.”
For someone as adept with words and stories as Scully, you don’t often hear him gush over a player. But Kershaw is that rare outlier that proves the rule. Also, the moment when Kershaw’s fastball goes flying past Belt’s bat elicits a exclamation that could only come from a fan. Scully is one of us, even after 65 years.
Strikeout Eight: Ehire Adrianza, 6th Inning, Slider
Before the first pitch: “For Kershaw he’s really going after the hitters. He’s had the first strike fifteen of sixteen batters on the first pitch. Fastball strike.”
After the second pitch: “Fastball. Mmm. At 95. You always hear about the high hard one, but these fellas hit 95 down around the knees. I always wondered how in the world can a hitter hit a ball at 99 mph, but I also wondered how can an umpire spot a pitch going 99, for two reasons.” [Kershaw blows Adrianza away.] “That’ll do it. Strikeout number eight. I mean, the plate umpire is looking at a pitch at 99, he has a big catcher, usually a big catcher, in front of him and a hitter. Try that one on for size. That’s eight strikeouts for Clayton.”
Strikeout Nine: Gregor Blanco, 7th Inning, Fastball
“Interesting: through six innings, the Giants have not left a man on base. 1-2. Check swing. Did he? Yep, the umpire said ‘Ya did’ and Blanco is not going to argue. So that is nine strikeouts for Clayton Kershaw.”
I love the way Scully goes from referring to the pitcher as “Clayton Kershaw” to “Kershaw” to “Clayton” depending on the requirements of the moment. Sometimes a bit of informality rolls more easily off the tongue, but others the moment demands the stamp of the protagonist’s full name.
Strikeout Ten: Matt Duffy, 7th Inning, Slider
Before the first pitch: “In looking at your scorebook, Matt Duffy is your only Giant not to have struck out.”
After the last: “There he goes, welcome to the club, Matt. Everyone has now struck out at least once. Kershaw has 10 strikeouts. The extra man, he’s struck out Pagan twice.”
We weren’t able to get video of this one, so as far as you know, Matt Duffy is still the only player in the Giants’ starting lineup not to strike out against Clayton Kershaw.
Strikeout Eleven: Marlon Byrd, 7th Inning, Slider
After the third pitch: “[Byrd] tries to golf it. Every time he tries to golf it, it’s a bogey. Tries to lift that thing. Ah yes, I know that so well. Ha!”
A little self-deprecating humor thrust into a Clayton Kershaw start never hurt anyone.
Two pitches later, Byrd chases a slider in the dirt for the third time: “And there’s that golf swing, again.” [The catcher throws to first.] “Grandal puts him away. That’s 11 strikeouts, as Kershaw strikes out the side.”
I’ve been thinking about how to describe Scully’s style and it’s difficult because he’s not really one thing. He’s understated when the moment calls for it, is able to inject frivolity or narrative to underscore or heighten a moment, but isn’t afraid of excitement or exclamation when the play on the field demands it of him. It’s his ability to switch from one to the other that amazes the analyst in me, but the fun part is turning that off and putting myself in his hands.
Strikeout Twelve: Brandon Belt, 8th Inning, Curveball
“Check… They look. ‘Swing,’ says [umpire] Mike Winters, and Brandon Belt goes walking away growling. Bochy is furious, and now Mike Winters, I believe, has given a long-distance toss to Bruce Bochy.” [Later.] “So Bochy kicked out last night, kicked out again, which is no way to treat a three-time World Champion manager, but that’s the way it goes. Bruce, by the way, is a really good solid guy, but he’s done. So Kershaw now 248 strikeouts, a career high, and he has 12 strikeouts tonight.”
Sometimes there’s nothing going on in a baseball game and sometimes there’s too much to describe and you have to triage. Here we’ve got Kershaw spinning a gem, Belt striking out on a questionable check-swing call, the umpire who made the call throwing out the opposing manager for the second night in a row, where Kershaw is with respect to strikeouts on the night, and the historical significance of the strikeout to Kershaw’s career. Scully deals with it all in less time than I’ve spent describing it.
Strikeout Thirteen: Andrew Susac, 8th Inning, Fastball
Some context I haven’t mentioned is that this game was particularly important to the Giants. Having lost four in a row and facing a sweep at the hands of the team they are chasing, the Giants spent the majority of the evening needing a single tying run, a run that, as it turns out, they never got.
“Runner not going, little foul, pretty good fastball again. So three and two the count. It’s a big moment with Pagan on deck. Two runs five hits for he Dodgers, one run five hits for the Giants. We’re in the eighth. Two out.” [Crowd noise.] “Fouled away. [The pinch-runner] Noonan was able to hold on just at the right time, and then was off and running on 3-2. Kershaw looking at him. 3-2… Noonan goes… and strike three called. That’s 13 strikeouts for Kershaw. Susac frozen on a fastball at the knees.”
I’ll note Scully’s use of the cheering crowd as an instrument to heighten the moment and we’ll move on to…
Strikeout Fourteen: Gregor Blanco, 9th Inning, Fastball
“0-1, 0-1, that’s what we’ve been saying every night! We’re talking about 0-1 counts, 27 of the 30 Giant batters were up there, no balls one strike. Brandon Belt can tell you all about it.” [Kershaw blows Blanco away with a fastball.] “Got him. That’s 14 strikeouts, second time this year he has had 14 strikeouts. He had 15 when he pitched his no-hitter. And now everybody up! Kershaw has 250 strikeouts and the crowd of 41,648 is seeing if he can put Matt Duffy away.” [Duffy fouls one back.] “I’m sure you’re tired of hearing this, but no balls and one strike.”
Writing is often about finding a theme and the more I listen to Vin Scully the more I’m convinced he’s a writer at heart. The only difference is his pen is his voice. Scully can pick out a theme, one that illuminates the work Kershaw has done while simultaneously pointing out the mountain the Giants are facing. He can do that and set the moment and not get in the way all at the same time.
Strikeout Fifteen: Marlon Byrd, 9th Inning, Slider
“Oh and one… Oh and two. He’s had fifteen 0-2 counts. Not much to say about this. Just sit up, lean forward and hold on. Kershaw by this time is really pushing it. He’s paid the price of having 14 strikeouts. That always takes a lot of pitches. Well, here it is, his career-high 132. Deuces wild, indeed. Two balls, two strikes, two outs, 2-1 Dodgers.” [Kershaw strikes out Byrd.] “And got him! Fifteen strikeouts for Clayton Kershaw to tie his all-time high and what a time to do it as the Dodgers defeat the Giants 2-1.”
Vin Scully said recently that next season will be his last calling Dodger games. Scully has been calling Dodger games for 65 years. Clayton Kershaw has been pitching for the Dodgers for eight of those years. Scully is very different than Kershaw, but not so different at the same time. It is both pointlessly obvious yet clearly required to say that both are fantastic. If anyone can make a Clayton Kershaw start better, it’s Vin Scully. If anyone can make a Vin Scully-called game better, it’s Clayton Kershaw on the mound. Perhaps one of the differences is, unlike Kershaw’s, we now know when Scully’s brilliance will cease. Let the knowledge of an end wake us up to the necessity of paying attention before that end arrives.