In 1947, an old friend Howard Frederick, who was six at the time, was diagnosed with bronchial asthma. Doctors told his parents, then living off the coast of Maine, that the best remedy for the boy was to move to a hot, dry, climate. Shortly thereafter, Howard said his family packed up their their old Hudson Terraplane and headed West, landing in southern Arizona where he could play outdoors unencumbered. The vacant dusty lots, with scattered brush and chain-link fencing in his mid-town Tucson neighborhood sufficed for spring and summer baseball games. Whatever kid was around, was good enough to play on a team. Two teams loosely formed becoming daily entertainment for Howard as his family hadn’t yet owned a television. His interest in baseball grew on afternoons his father had the radio on, with Vin Scully announcing every play of the then Brooklyn Dodgers, turning Howard into a lifelong Scully/Dodgers fan.
He envisioned the game through the airwaves, through Scully’s calls of the game, such as occurred when Sandy Koufax pitched ‘the perfect game” against the Cubs in 1965, sending Scully into radio broadcasting history for his mastery in painting the essence of baseball.
“0 and 1 the count to Chris Krug. Out on deck to pinch-hit is one of
the men we mentioned earlier as a possible, Joey Amaltifano. Here’s
the strike 1 pitch to Krug: fastball, swung on and missed, strike 2. And
you can almost taste the pressure now. Koufax lifted his cap, ran his
fingers through his black hair, then pulled the cap back down, fussing at
the bill. Krug must feel it too as he backs out, heaves a sigh, took off
his helmet, put it back on and steps back up to the plate.
But it wasn’t only Howard. Scully’s name kept surfacing as ‘the voice of baseball”- the standard by which all other radio announcers are judged, the guy who’s responsible for cultivating baseball and Dodgers’ fans like Howard’s Father, Howard himself and his now nearly 40 year old son, that spans the generations. Scully’s the guy whose voice even Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, credits for making him feel better although Howard attributes it to baseball’s being a better game on radio which Scully’s ability to tell a good story only enhanced.
“Vin Scully has trained me to be a better spectator. He knows the rule book by heart and is aware of everything going on in the field and reports on it so the listener can see the whole picture. There’s no editorializing or predictions coming from him like on television where there’s a camera behind the catcher, first base, trying to get all the angles which instantly get replayed. It gets hyped too much. Scully is able to stay in the moment and give his best judgment about a play without getting involved in one side or the other.”
I look over at Howard. The sparkle in his eyes remain through the top of the 6th inning at a Spring Training game we’ve attended in 2007 between the Chicago White Sox and the Kansas City Royals in Tucson. Passing through the press box, reporters are picking up the phone, calling in updates to their papers. I can’t quite make out what’s being said although I hear things like “1st base outfielder throws a foul back into the stands” and “Player on 1st steals 2nd and is safe”, “Bases loaded, Sox on deck.”
Ed Farmer and Chris Singleton, former Major League players turned Chicago White Sox announcers, are the closest comparison I can make to Scully. Opening the door, there’s five men with their backs toward me looking forward onto the field. I don’t know who’s who although its obvious Farmer and Singleton are the two guys in the seats in front of the window wearing microphones and headsets. The guy on the left is older, looking something like a lanky, overgrown teenager in blue jeans, black lace-up Adidas sneakers w/white stripes. He’s not wearing any socks and has on a purple shirt, looking dated with his graying, longish, unkempt hair. I assume it’s Farmer, thinking of the 2005 USA Today poll, naming him and his former partner John Rooney as the number one baseball radio broadcasters of the American League and the team of Vin Scully, Charlie Steiner, Rick Monday and Al Downing as number one for the National League. To be number one, most likely you’d been around. Looking over at the other announcer, an attractive, African American man, Farmer says “Did you ever get picked off at 2nd Chris Singleton?”
“No, no I haven’t”
“Do you remember Dennis Eckerly giving up that shot?”
Singleton continues his commentary on what is happening on the field. I can sense his and Farmer’s intense focus even as they banter back and forth, multitasking with keeping score on the sheets laid out on the desk. Farmer’s media tag is swung around behind him facing backwards. He asks Singleton
“Do you have any tattoos?”
“No…but I wanted to get a ghost buster one that said death before disco…8 to 5 Royals at the top of the 9th…Whoa Nelly, isn’t that what they said?” The song playing is Staying Alive and Farmer says, “His name oughtta be John REVOLTA”. I can’t help but feel I came in at the middle of a conversation I wasn’t privileged to be part of. They’re announcing live, yet talking to each other like two friends who knew the inside story yet leaving the rest of us to guess. But I think that is perhaps the motivation to become a fan, to become part of the baseball scene by knowing the quirks, patterns and personalities of the game announcers. It’s the thing you can talk about to other fans, something to share with your baseball friends or even something to complain about.
Mark Zerang, the radio booth sound tech, senses my puzzlement, most likely from my furrowed brow. He hands me a set of headphones, “Put these on, you can hear the broadcast on the radio in Chicago, W-S-C-R”. I wiggle them over my ears, giving him the thumbs up as he mouths the word “VOLUME,” pointing his finger up and down to see if I’m good to go. The sounds and voices of Farmer and Singleton actually, are different with them on. I’m in the room, but not in the room, almost out of body because I know I’m in the room but all the sounds are isolated- the roar of the crowd, the crack of bats, guys hocking ice cold beer and peanuts. It’s a world within a world with the headphones on- containing the game both within my head and through my sight onto the field. It’s now all about the game.
I close my eyes just long enough to imagine a younger Howard rocking his baby boy to sleep but I hear Farmer and Singleton. The ball is halfway to second base as the relief pitcher for the Royals is warming up in the bull pen. The 8th batter for the Sox is up. The conversation between Farmer and Singleton largely consists of interpretations and analysis of what’s going on. They slide their headphones off. I do the same. Farmer spins his chair around, saying “Where you from?”
“Tucson” I respond, handing him my business card. “I’m a freelance writer doing a story on baseball announcers. Do you mind my sitting in here with you for a few games?”
“No.” Farmer says looking down and reading my name, then back up at me “Korean?”
“Yes, and Irish.” I reply.
“Well, there you go” he says and stands up to stretch along with Singleton. As Farmer moves, it’s hard not to notice he’s got a problem with his legs. He’s a tall man, over six-feet, well proportioned although his knees touch when he moves as if one leg is partially lame and needing the other for support. He makes his way over to the door, walking with a slight limp. Farmer played in the majors between 1971 to 1983 and broke into announcing the White Sox games full-time in 1992 after a kidney transplant in 1991 and has been doing so ever since.
It’s become more common for ball clubs to choose ex-players like Farmer, to better represent their interests where the old school broadcasters like Scully and his mentor Red Barber, Harry Caray, announcer for the Cubs, Mel Allen, announcer for the Yankees and Jack Buck, announcer for the Cardinals had all chosen radio broadcasting as a lifelong career. Johnny Bench, catcher for the Reds, Bill White, first baseman for the Giants, Phillies and Cardinals, Jose Mota, second baseman for the Padres, Royals and White Sox, Bob Uecker, for the Braves, Cardinals and Phillies, Jerry Coleman, second baseman for the Yankees, Ray Fosse, catcher for the Indians, A’s, Mariners and Brewers, on the other hand, all became baseball radio broadcasters, along with numerous other players, after they retired from the game like Farmer. But it obviously takes more than retirement from the sport to have qualified these guys for one of the most important positions outside of playing, otherwise Farmer never would have been ranked the top ABL announcer and quite possibly, there’d be a surplus of wanna be announcers/players to choose from.
Scott Reifert, Vice President of Communications for the White Sox agreed to meet me in the press box at the end of the third inning of the second Sox/Brewers game to explain how Farmer and Singleton were chosen as the voice of the Sox. I had hoped Bob Uecker, aka ‘Mr. Belvedere’ and ‘Mr Baseball’ would also be at TEP broadcasting the game back to Milwaukee so I could interview him as well. However, a call to the Brewer’s public relations office shut down the possibility of even a phone interview. They said the popularity of Uecker, a former baseball and acting personality, led to his having to “decline all requests for interviews.” So just before Reifert and I chatted in the press box amidst journalists pounding away at their laptops, Farmer and Singleton were in the radio booth spontaneously joking on and off the air about Singleton’s trip to Maui to play winter ball several years back. They sounded like college roomates- a style that’s become their schtick in the two years they’ve been broadcasting partners after Rooney left over a salary dispute.
“I went deep sea fishing during winter ball…ate spaghetti prior to going out on a fishing expedition..the spaghetti was up and out but I still caught a fish..got bit by a jelly fish too …but played that night.”
“Must have been hard to be in Maui.” Farmer says
“Someone had to do it” Singleton replies in a youthful voice, Gatorade cup in hand, sunglasses, yellow sport phone, binoculars, sun visor, calculator and bag of chips in an arc around his mic stand. Farmer brings up a story he’s already told several games ago “Would you have taken that helicopter ride back to Tucson?” he says looking at Singleton and referring to a player who had done so when the Sox were playing the Mariners in Peoria, Arizona, but then goes into a commentary about a play involving Perez, the Sox first baseman “You’ve got a job to do for three and a half hours, you go do it.”
“These guys are looking at someone else instead of the base coach who’s trying to give the runner a signal” Singleton adds, dropping the repartee as Farmer continues with “Pitch to Germain, inside and high, ball one…” Farmer, Singleton, Zerang and I stand up to stretch. Farmer carries on about a dust storm they drove through while this player flies back in the helicopter. Hugh, the stadium organ player starts blasting the organ from the p.a. booth marking the break between innings and I remember that Reifert’s waiting in press box. Singleton glances back “Did you bring a win today? If you didn’t, you can’t stay” he jokingly says to me. The Sox, now midway through Spring training, have won only five out of fifteen games.
Despite that, Farmer and Singleton maintain their composure on the air, blending play by play with color and comedy, making one broadcast indistinquishable from the next when it comes to wins and losses for the Sox. It prompts me to get in one last question before meeting Reifert, the Sox leading eight to three, “Is any of your broadcast rehearsed?” Singleton and Farmer look at one another and smirk. Singleton responds “No, no, it wouldn’t be fresh if we did.” He’d come to tease me for asking that question over the next few games.
Reifert on the other hand, seemed well rehearsed in answering questions from the press, but I wasn’t like I was asking him to address some scandalous issue involving a player, it was simply “Farmer and his former partner John Rooney were voted the number one radio broadcasters in the American League in 2005. Why? What is it about Farmer that people like?”
“Well, for one, he’s a Chicagoan. He grew up on the southside and understands the fans, the culture and the players. He’s someone they can relate to.”
“I know, I’ve been sitting in the booth with them. He’s pretty funny but is that why did you chose him to represent the team?”
“He does have a wry sense of humor and he’s comfortable to listen to because there’s a familiar nature to him. Fan’s build relationships around that but in every case, the different teams choose a broadcaster who becomes a partner between the ball club and the station.”
“I can see that with Farmer, since he’s a native, although when Rooney left, did you just pick Singleton or did he just want to become a broadcaster or what?”
“The broadcasting department reviewed the tapes of candidates and there was a cost benefit to hiring Chris. He was right from the field, he was a teammate with some of the guys, and he’s a player from today. He can address the constantly changing culture in the clubhouse.”
“But what did the fans think since Farmer and Rooney were the one’s rated number one? Do you think that will change in the next poll?”
“Chris has improved over the course of last year. The difference in era’s from Ed to Chris means there’ll be a nice mix the kind of stories you’re going to tell. The feedback we’ve gotten from the fans and the media has been skeptical but he’s been doing more play by plays and we’re hoping to appeal to more people…you know, you grow up with these voices and it builds a relationship. Ten years from now, Chris will be working with the next generation.”
“Do you think listening to the games on the radio will lose it’s popularity, especially with t.v. and if the few old timers left, like Scully, retire?”
“No, theres’s a tradition to it and history of passing it down from generation to generation, season to season. In the summer, it becomes part of your life. There’s nothing like working in the garage and listening to baseball. It’s not like listening to basketball where there’s no playing out and no drama. The feel of baseball is just different, there’s something special about it. “
“Ed is certainly different from Scully though. Everyone mentions Scully.”
“Jack Buck, Vin Scully, John Miller. These guys had that voice that felt like you knew them. Vin had the national stage for years too. Ed’s humor though, it sometimes goes over your head on the radio but if you’re in the booth and you see his expressions, he’s funny.”
Before I can take up any more of his time, Reifert motions to leave as the fourth inning is underway. The next time I see Farmer and Singleton is when the Sox face the Angels. The Sox had won the game against the Brewers and then the Cubs prior to that. I had also cornered Jerry Coleman, when he was broadcasting for the Padres, two days before the Sox played the Brewers, going so far as to plant myself firmly in the Padres dugout up to the point the players entered the field to warm up. Someone had said Coleman routinely hung out there. Long, blue duffle bags, scattered bats, a few gloves and pairs of cleats to my right, two water/bat boys to my left with a wide slice of horizon approximately five feet above the dirt straight ahead, accessed by a short stub of stairs. The magic I feel sitting on the bench eyeing a diamond of dirt and grass, the smell of sweat and the energy of muscle and finesse is what I imagine this radio game is all about. This is the story of baseball and something the 82-year-old, former second baseman, Coleman ought to know how to tell. He’s the oldest of the baseball broadcasters.
There’s no sign of Coleman as random players file into the dugout,. “Now that’s a hat” comes out of the mouth of a player who looks about 20-years-old and speaks with a Texas drawl. “Yeah, well, that’s what we wear for the sun here in Tucson” I respond confidently back in my wide-brimmed cowboy hat. These guys are a bit intimidating. A bit larger than life, especially in person, and I’m in their territory, behind the scenes, hoping to get behind one of the voices that has kept this magic going for the millions of fans who have remained in the radio game’s grip since the very first game of baseball was heard on the air in 1921 out of station KDKA in Pittsburgh for a game between the Pirates and the Phillies.
Coleman, born only a few years later in 1924, played exclusively for the Yankees from 1949 to 1957, retiring on an injury before he called games for the Yankees in 1963, the Angels in 1970 and the Padres since 1972. “I think he head up to the press box” a player said, tossing his head in that direction, leaving me to wonder how I could have missed him. The walk through the tunnel up to the stadium occupies my whole attention. It’s where the players enter and exit so they can do so in private, away from hecklers and fans. A woman with a Padres press pass is pacing the corridor outside the locker room at the top of the stairs.
“Do you know where I can find Jerry Coleman?” I ask.
“Yeah, he just went up to the press box” she says pointing to the elevator around the corner.
Coleman is walking toward the Padres radio booth which is the room next to the White Sox radio booth. I know it’s him- he’s the only white-haired guy up there. “Mr. Coleman? Do you have time for an interview, I’m doing a story on baseball radio announcers?”
He responds as enthusiastically as the White Sox P.R. people had said he would. “Sure, let’s go in this room here where we can talk.” Coleman, also known as the ‘Colonel’ for his time spent as a marine pilot in WWII and Korea, opens the door to allow me to enter first. We take the two chairs by the window and have a chat.
“How did you get into broadcasting?”
“I was lookin for a job when I left the Yankees. I met Bill McPhale of CBS and that opened the door. I didn’t know why or how to do it. It was just a sink or swim thing.”
“What is it about baseball and radio? Why do you think you’ve become so popular?” Coleman was ranked tenth in popularity of National League announcers.
“If people accept you in a town, you become part of their community. San Diego is a military town and I was in the military, went to WWII after high school and never regretted it for an instant. People can relate to me, I’m comfortable there.”
“Why is listening to the game so popular though?”
“Well, we’ve all stood at home plate one time or another. It’s 90 feet to first base and it’s hard to get there. It’s a game that’s been built around fathers and sons and their growth. It’s a way to mesh together as a family. There’s been a lot of great ones to listen to as well like Red Barber. He was a good preacher. Cosell, it was the style, Dizzy Dean, John Rooney, Vin Scully…these new guys …they haven’t found their voice yet.”
“Do you see any of these new guys becoming the next Scully?”
“Anyone who tries to be the next Vin Scully is nuts! There’s no one like him. Not even me and I’m older than he is! I broadcast more losing games than any announcer in history,” he chuckles, leaning back in his chair.
“Yeah, and what about these things I’ve read about you called ‘Colemanism’s?” I say, referring to the long list of malaprops I have in my hand, downloaded from the internet “It’s off the leg and into the left field of Doug Rader”, “All the Padres need is a fly ball into the air”, “Hector Torrez, how can you communicate with Enzo Hernandez when he speaks Spanish and you speak Mexican?”, “Ozzie Smith just made another play that I’ve never seen anyone else make before, and I’ve seen him make it more often than anyone else ever has.”
Coleman, basking in the interview, smiling and leaning back in his chair, responds with “In this business, you can’t be sensitive to criticism and I’ve outlasted them. Believe me, the fans let me know when I do something wrong. During one broadcast, I had announced the wrong pitcher and kept doing it until I noticed it wasn’t him in the fourth inning. Then they say I said “Rich Folkers is throwing up in the bullpen” and I actually said something different. I think they’re all wrong! When you lose a lot, you get a little careless…I deny everything.”
It’s easy to see why Coleman is so popular. He’s easy to be around and very candid about his love of the game and the respect he has for the fans and military community in San Diego. His longevity is a testament to that. He’s also as close to Scully as I can get in terms of interviewing baseball broadcasting legends. I also asked two, thirty-something sportswriters if there really is that much of a difference between, and if they had preference for, older or younger broadcasters, traditionally schooled or former players. Joe Cowley, in Tucson covering the Sox for the Chicago Sun-Times and Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune.
“So, what do people say about Farmer and Singleton? I’m sure you guys hear it all the time from your readers.”
“Ha. They either love em’ or hate em’. There’s no middle ground with Chicago. If you accept them, you take the whole package.” Cowley says.
“What do you mean they love em’ or hate em’? Why?” I respond.
“Well, Sox fans like whoever is signed to a contract. With Farmer, he goes out of the box and relays stories about baseball. “
“People like that Farmer’s a former player too but we get readers too who complain that he’s condescending.”
“Do you feel any of the younger guys have the potential of the Scully, Coleman, Barber… the guys who made listening to games on the radio popular?” I say.
Gonzales replies “The new guys try to be creative and cutting edge, but they’re not the legends. They might try to emulate them…” before he finishes, Cowley interrupts to add “I’ve heard of more people now watching the game on t.v. and muting the sound so they can listen to it on the radio”, verifying what I read on a few baseball blogs:
I usually mute the t.v. when I’m watching White Sox games. Actually there aren’t any announcers that I like.
I was in Barnes & Noble the other day and I saw a book written by Tim McCarver with a special foreword by Joe Buck. I couldn’t run away fast enough…I was envisioning it becoming an audiobook and thinking about my ears bleeding.
It inspires me to ask Farmer what he thinks of himself as an announcer. The opportunity arose during breaks when the Sox faced the Angels in game seventeen of the training schedule. There’s three civilians inside the booth in addition to the usual suspects. They don’t stay for long and Farmer addresses them with language clearly marked for friends, “How are you’re kids?”
“Oh, just fine” the man says. Farmer’s attention turns on a dime back to the game. He and Singleton are wearing bright green shirts and baseball hats with the Sox logo standing out in white. I look onto the field and the players for the Sox are also wearing bright green baseball caps and matching green socks. The Angels wear the standard red jerseys and hats with grey pants. It dawns on me that it’s St. Patricks day, I’m half Irish and completely forgot. Farmer pokes fun at the singer for the National Anthem who hits a high note that sends the lot of us cringing, “Don’t hurt yourself there…” he remarks and we all giggle. A staff member asks what Farmer and Singleton want for lunch and Farmer says “Why don’t you get some barbeque” then rehashes one of his stories about Singleton again, only this time about a pulled-pork sandwich.
“There he goes again. The story gets better every time he tells its. Everytime Ed tells it, it gets bigger and bigger” Singleton laughs. The schtick is beginning to show. The game begins and Farmer mumbles “The only surfing I’ve done is on a boogie board” and with barely a gap, Single carries on behind his dark, hip sunglasses, with “It’s been dismal for the White Sox coming in. Even though it’s Spring Training, you still want to win.” Then Farmer “That’s high, one ball and one strike” following shortly thereafter with “One, two, three go the Angels. At the end of the inning, the Angels fail to score and the White Sox coming up.” Farmer then spins his chair around, telling me he had said the work FUCK on the air.
“You’re joking right?” I say.
“No…I’m not kiddin’.. there was one time I said “The fucking Tigers beat the Sox.”
“So what’d you do?”
“We never draw attention to mistakes as they’re happening. If we make one and want the other guys attention, we just do this, we wave our hands or tap it on the desk.” Farmer and Singleton rib each other about the last names of players, saying you wouldn’t want to have a name like ‘Fiasco’ or ‘Balfour’ etc., they’d be bad omens. The sound tech, a sub today, says Farmer and Rooney, were like Abbot and Costello, they never stopped, which seems is what Farmer is grooming Singleton for. Even off the air Farmer’s on a run of one-liners.
Why do they call it 7-11 if it’s open 24 hours a day?
Why do they call it an escalator when you’re going down?
How can you call it a building when it’s already erect?
Why do they call it cargo when it’s on a ship and a shipment when it’s on a truck?
As funny as it was in the moment, I can’t help blurt out “Why do people like you?” Farmer stops the joking to answer with a semi-straight face “I’m from the southside and I’m Irish. I tell the Catholics to eat fish on Fridays and they listen to me. I haven’t asked them for any money yet though” he finishes, putting his headphones back on and sitting back in the chair. Singleton seems tentative about engaging me. He never looks at me for more than a glance and I wonder, who are these guys really? I want to know more. I want to know what fans like Howard seem to know, the guys who tune in season after season to hear these guys call the game no matter what mood they’re in, what’s happened in their personal life or where their team is in the standings. I want to know what’s so special about listening to Farmer call the top of the third inning “Third strike out for Contreras. Sox and Halo’s 0 and 0.” He’s doesn’t say things like “My arthritis sucks today, I should never have played ball so long.” Or “Man I’m sure glad they make percoset!” or ask deep, political questions like “Can you believe the war in Iraq is still going on?” He’s announcing baseball. And Singleton is too, but they aren’t just any guys off the street talking about the game. And neither is Scully.
“Chris, do you live in Chicago too?”
“Yeah, my wife and I have a home in Chicago and Atlanta.”
“8, 4 and a 2 year old. They’re here in Tucson for three weeks.”
I nod approvingly. Singleton doesn’t give me much more than what I ask for directly. Careful and measured in his responses, I defer back to the gregarious Farmer.
“Ed, I heard you mention you had a daughter. Is your family here at training with you?”
“They’re back in California. That’s where my wife and daughter live.”
“ What do you do when your not broadcasting then? Do you go home?”
“Well, I work out at the gym, then I golf for a couple hours..”
I leave some space. Farmer doesn’t need prompting to talk. He’s got plenty to say and if he doesn’t, he makes it up anyway.
“My wife isn’t a good traveler. She said that she’d go anywhere if we had a motor home though” he says, lifting his eyebrows and cocking his head. The enunciation of some of his words get garbled when he’s on a roll with the jokes, like he’s got a few marbles stored in his cheeks.
“That would be cool to do…travel around like that.”
“My mother-in-law lives with us though and she has alzheimers…makes it hard for my wife to leave.”
“Oh. I understand. That would be hard.” I say, feeling Farmer’s slightly unpolished edge is nothing more than his being openly human, his jokes a matter of keeping folks entertained and perhaps distracting us all from lives we face outside the container of the game.
The last day of Spring Training, the green diamond of grass is cut in swirls instead of stripes and the wind is coming in from the west at 8 miles an hour. No fans are waiting by the catwalk to get autographs, and the players who walk by, wear no name jerseys. The press box however is full and I’m ready to say goodbye to Farmer and Singleton as Number #5, Matt Holiday, hits a home run. But no one, including me knows if it was a grand slam or if other players were brought in. I overhear “This is like a little league game with the minor league”, referring to a string of dropped catches and bungled plays. It occurs to me to check the game schedule. Yes, the Sox are playing, however, the last broadcasted game from TEP was the day before. “Shit.” I open the door of the radio booth with trepidation and the three guys I’ve been accustomed to seeing through a month of Spring Training aren’t there. The room is silent, empty. The giant glass windows we had ducked under from occasional stray balls, were locked closed, the crowd, thinned.
I sit in Farmer’s chair, crossing my arms on the desk, leaning forward like he did, imagining what I would say, wondering what I had learned about the game from the nine I had heard he and Singleton call. “Batting for the Sox is number 8, Pedro Lopez” is announced overhead but no plays are called by the stadium announcer. I can see that Lopez is out by the umpires’ gesture and watch Lopez jog back to the dugout. “Now batting for the White Sox is number twenty-five, designated hitter, Jim Tomei.” It felt like a different game and I felt like a late bloomer for not having had a team and an announcer to follow with the regular season starting in a matter of days. My homestate team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, I barely knew. They weren’t the White Sox who I did and Gregg Shulte and Tom Candiotti, the D’backs announcers weren’t Farmer and Singleton who I had surprisingly developed a fondness for. But the D’backs were playing the Dodgers in a two game series at Chase Field in Phoenix, with Vin Scully in town to announce the game. So off I went.
Turning the corner of the hallway toward the press box, I had the choice of opening one of two doors. The one clearly marked “Press Box” on the right and the unmarked door just several inches away that a man had just exited from. I thought the two doors were connected so I chose the unmarked door on the left. An older gentleman in a beige sport coat, tan pants, sky blue dress shirt and strawberry blond hair was leaning against the wall, slightly bent over, talking on his cell phone. It would not have been a memorable encounter had I not grazed him in my haste and if we were not the only ones present in this narrow, isolated space. I had the sense enough to pause, noticing his rosy cheeks, as I tried to make eye contact as an apology when in an instant it hit me. I knew who this man was. I knew it from a photograph I had seen and the sound of his voice as he spoke on phone. It wasn’t the specific words but the steady, unrushed and confident manner in which he spoke that stopped me. A manner that had been cultivated over fifty-seven years on the radio. The voice that made the game of baseball different to listen to than football, basketball, hockey and every other sport on the planet- it was Vin Scully himself.
I was so excited I could barely move. He continued to talk on the phone while pacing in short strides across from the room signed ‘Visiting Television.’ As he looked up, we exchanged smiles, sending me into a panic as I pondered how I might approach him. The Dodgers P.R. reps however forbid any Scully interviews for the same reason Euecker declined them- too many requests, so they unanimously say “No.” So as Scully exited the hallway into the Dodgers broadcast booth with his cell phone, I exited toward the press box, disappointed although hoping for another auspicious coincidence.
The Diamondbacks took the field first as I claimed my seat in the upper level, looking over the shoulders of sportswriters for the L.A. Daily News, MLB.com and over twenty other local and visiting journalists. My sense of joy in literally running into Scully, the broadcaster of all broadcasters, turns into a series of text messages sent and received between Howard and I who I know will be living vicariously through me until I meet Scully. He’s having dinner with his wife Pat at a microbrew pub in Tucson, expecting to watch the game while there. When he finds out it’s not being broadcast locally, he sends me a message at 8pm to get an update on the score. I answer ‘ 3 & 3’ when it occurs to me to sit in the D’backs booth with Greg Shulte and Tom Candiotti where more information can be had-on announcers and the game. It’s a warm, desert night and the roof of the stadium is opened, allowing the heat from the blaring lights and the 25,735 people in attendance, to exit as a cool breeze sweeps in.
As I approach the door to the D’backs booth, it’s also propped open, exposing the backs of the two announcers, the sound tech and a fourth man. “Is it ok if I listen in?” I say, feeling a sense of déjà vu from the time I spent with Farmer and Singleton. A hefty man with glasses named ‘Leo’, who was not unlike the White Sox sound tech Mark, nods an OK while the fourth man, the pre and post game commentator Jeff Munn, hands me a set of headphones out of which comes “…Eric Brown singles sharply to left…Burns with 5 stolen bases, 5 attempts…” and the voice switches to Candiotti saying “..So he’s got a career to fall back on if he wants to..” Immediately I know he’s the color guy. Even if Howard hadn’t text that to me earlier. Candiotti, an attractive man with dark brown hair and a weathered, tanned face was sitting to the right of Schulte who was obviously much older and similar in his familiarity and articulation of the game as Farmer. “A 2 out walk..that gives Tracey a chance”
“Early in the game..also, you question, Am I going to get that ball?”
I’m surprised at how similar Schulte and Candiotti are to Farmer and Singleton, making it hard to distinquish when closing my eyes, if the voices I’m hearing are here or am I back in the booth with the White Sox at TEP? Shultes’ focus however is clearer and there’s less joking between he and Candiotti. Candiotti seems fairly laid back although unmoved by the information he’s speaking. “When things aren’t going that well for you, you hit that line ball” sounds like he could have said “I’m going to the store to get a gallon a milk,” his voice becoming more animated as the game wore on. Candiotti, like Singleton, is new to this side of the game and doesn’t have nearly the years or experience or history that could put him in a league with Scully. According to sportswriter Tony Jackson, nobody does because Scully, whom we both catch a glimpse of through the window of the booth to our left simulcasting the game, is in a league of his own. Jackson turns to me and says,
“Besides Scully’s sing songy voice, he’s romanticized baseball in a way that makes people want to watch the game. The park becomes a magical place, more than thrown bats, balls, hits and outs when you’re not there, which is different than when you are. And he’s been at it so long, way before streaming and video, when it was him you followed, like he was having a conversation with you. It says something when even Marty Brennaman, the Reds announcer, said that Vin was the greatest broadcaster there ever was, because when Brennaman said it , it was when he was inducted into the baseball hall of fame.”
“Did you ever hear anything negative about Scully?”
“Never. He’s one of the classiest people I’ve ever known.”
There wasn’t much to say after that. I had covered all the angles, confirming the same response over and over again. No conversation including the words baseball and radio could go on for long without the name Vin Scully coming about, no matter what the topic. At this point, I just wanted to meet the man and had to figure out how. It was as if I were on an epic journey, akin to novelist Peter Matthiessen, in search of the endangered and magnificent snow leopard, guided not to the far reaches of the Kanjiroba Range in the Himalayas by a brown-skinned, young sherpa named Tukten, but rather to the upper reaches of the press box at Chase Stadium in Phoenix inspired by the enthusiasm of a sixty-five year-old white man named Howard and thousands of fans like him. In many ways, Howard’s enthusiasm for baseball, the Dodgers and Scully is the reason that I’m here. He is the fan of fans, listening to Scully for the past 55 years, just two years short of Scully’s epic career with the Dodgers. I almost had to meet Scully for him and those who would never get the opportunity. The only way I could see it happening was through the D’backs booth, hanging out with Leo, Shulte and Candiotti.
Jeff Munn and a colleague whose name I’ve forgotten but remember as Bill, stop me along the way. Munn says “You know this form of radio broadcast won’t die because baseball broadcasts aren’t like McDonalds where you get the same thing wherever you tune in. The announcer has to link the fans with the team and sell the game to the public. They do it by loving the game.”
“But don’t you feel that the era is gone with having one announcer like Scully telling a story versus two guys doing an ongoing analysis?” I ask.
“To a certain degree the radio game will suffer because no one has Scully’s talent. But the game is in good hands with guys like Schulte and Candiotti for instance. If you put the love of the game first, you’re going to do it the right way.” Munn responds before getting called away with his laptop to prepare for the post-game broadcast. The door to the D’backs booth is still open. Actually, it opens across from the mens room and several guys from the visiting television booth enter and exit as I stand just out of the way. The Dodgers are leading six to four at the end of the seventh and I’m feeling a sense of nostalgia for sitting in the stands or imagining myself as a kid on a Sunday, washing the car with my Dad, possibly listening to a game. I find myself not caring who wins, the D’backs or the Dodgers. I know it’s been a good one regardless. I slip the headphones back over my ears as Schulte rattles off another play “Last chance for the Diamondbacks at the bottom of the 9th with the Dodgers on top 6 to 4….here’s the 3, 2 pitch to Callaspo and he’s out!….one away and here comes Hudson…” and it feels like the last chance for me as the game ends and the score remains Dodgers 6, D’backs 4.
I turn toward the door and step outside in the hallway where Shulte’s wife and another woman is waiting. I prepare to say my goodbyes as Shulte and Candiotti wrap up the game when a man passes around to my left, crossing in front of me to enter the men’s room and it’s Scully, leaving me speechless. I do nothing but stand there, frozen, until he comes out a few minutes later when as he passes by me again, face to face this time, I stick my hand out to shake his and barely utter “Mr. Scully, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’ve only heard wonderful things about you…” and Scully smiling warmly, his face aglow and cheerful, wraps his other hand around mine as well.
“I’m not sure that’s a good thing because I don’t know what they’ve said!” he chuckles, slowly letting my hand fall free and giving me a short wave as he walks away and back into the t.v. booth.
It seems impossible that that’s all I could muster. That this sweet, eighty-year-old man’s reputation had become so much larger than life that it rendered me incapable of asking him anything pertinent, like “Mr. Scully, what was it like to be broadcasting baseball in the 1950s?” or “You’ve had the opportunity to call plays for some of baseballs greatest players of all time-Kofax, Robinson, Drysdale, Aaron, yet people consider you as important as the game itself. What do you think about that?” But I couldn’t find the words. Vin Scully had them all, and they were perfect, and through the radio, and they told the story of baseball which essentially, told the meaning of his life so there was really nothing left to say. And so I listened. I listened as I waited, alone, for the elevator down from the press box to the parking garage after the game and heard thousands of people shuffling out of the stadium, kids screaming and cars honking. Then I heard the voice. It was Scully, who showed up thirty seconds later with his bodyguard / driver/ very large and intimidating man in a dark suit, to wait for the elevator with me. “Hi again” I said.
“Hello there,” he replied.
“Yes, it was.”