Monday, September 23, 2013

How to Referee, Part 3: Vin Scully Edition

I have two favorite baseball teams: the San Francisco Giants and whoever is beating the Dodgers.

I viscerally dislike anything to do with the Dodgers, with just two exceptions: Dodger Stadium, which, despite repeated attempts to trash it up, remains a wonderful place to watch a baseball game, and Vin Scully, the Voice of Summer.

My grandfather was a recording engineer, and he gave me my first transistor radio, with its single button earpiece, and with that radio, and the succession of radios which followed after I'd break or lose one, I would listen to Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett's call on KFI and later KABC in bed at night - and if the vagaries of the atmosphere were working against me, I'd spin the tuning knob to the other end of the dial and listen to Jaime Jarrin on KWKW instead. (Stan Ridgeway wrote "Mexican Radio" for me, or at least that's the way it seemed the first time I heard it.) Like many other fans, I would take that same transistor radio to Dodger Stadium each year when I'd go see games with my dad, to listen to Scully's call even as I was watching the game live.

A ton of ink was spilled over many years describing what makes Vin Scully the dean of sportscasters, but here are the things that stand out for me: meticulous preparation, a deep understanding of the game - unlike most sportscasters, he doesn't work with a retired ballplayer as a 'color man' - and an unequaled ability to extemporize amazing prose. In a post on his blog, the Giants' Jon Miller - no slouch in the broadcast booth himself - writes about Scully's call of Sandy Koufax's perfect game:
Vin’s call of that game later became nearly as famous as the game itself. Charlie Einstein, who used to be a columnist here in San Francisco, came out with a book every few years called the "The Fireside Book of Baseball." It was a compilation of the best baseball writing in recent years – columns, feature stories, well-written game stories. In one edition, he included a transcript of Vin Scully’s ninth-inning call of Koufax’s perfect game.

All the sentences are grammatically correct, elegant, descriptive and filled with the drama and tension of the moment. But it was totally extemporaneous as the action unfolded in front of him. No chance to ponder it after the fact and say, "This would be a good line."
Many gamers compare refereeing to being a writer or a director, and I always cringe when I read or hear those analogies. If I have to use a movie analogy at all, I prefer to think of myself as the location manager, the set dresser, and the production assistant assigned to hear the extras around. But at the table, during actual play, I'm a sportscaster; at least, that's my goal. Sportscasters know the teams and the players, the stats and the standings and the scouting reports, but once the ball is in play, they must respond to the action as it happens, whereever that action may take them. Sometimes they get a tight game, seesawing back and forth; sometimes they're dealt a blowout, and to me the sternest test of a sportscaster is the ability to keep me listening when my team is just getting worked. And sometimes they get to be the voice of history itself.

The very best of them do it all so well that they sound like they're reading from a script, even while they're making it up as they go.

Preparation and an understanding of the game to extemporize a narrative in real-time from unpredictable events. That, for me, is the heart of refereeing.

No one will every confuse me with Vin Scully - I'm more like the "boom goes the dynamite" guy - but it's what I aspire to.


  1. One of the greatest things about growing up in LA when we did was the amazing fact that we had 3 Hall of Fame announcers, Vin, Chick Hearn with the Lakers, and Bob Miller with the Kings.
    Will be going to the Rose Parade this year just to shout my appreciation of the greatest baseball announcer of all time!

    1. Don't forget Jaime Jarrin, who's also a HoF announcer as well.

  2. Whenever I hear Vin Scully's voice it takes me straight back to my childhood, in my parents' car on the freeway with my mom listening to the ball game.
    GM as sportscaster... and interesting analogy and a good one I think.

  3. the "boom goes the dynamite" guy

    Ow! That was painful to watch. Did that poor guy's teleprompter go on the fritz or what? He certainly makes your case for the importance of extemporization skills.

    1. Read all about it.

      Last I heard, he's a reporter for a teevee station in Minnesota.