Vin Scully Meets a San Diego Padre in a Mid-Summer's Night Dream

Buzz Ponce@@buzzponce1Contributor ISeptember 4, 2013

Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully
Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully

When it was announced earlier this summer that the legendary radio voice had agreed to return next year for a 65th season broadcasting for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, it brought back choice memories and a particular mid-summer night in a long ago time.   

I first heard what has been called “the melodious voice” in April, 1958. I was 10 years old and in the back seat of my parents' 1955 Ford Fairlane. We were enjoying what many families did in those days; we were on a Sunday afternoon drive and my father had the car’s radio station tuned to Los Angeles’ KMPC-AM, 710 on the dial. Through the tiny, crackling speakers a sound emerged—a voice—that captured my attention and my respect like no other ever has. 

The Dodgers had just arrived that year to Los Angeles after owner Walter O’Malley choked the baseball breath out of millions of rabid, devoted fans in Brooklyn and uprooted the team to the West Coast, forever changing the visage of professional sports in this country.

O’Malley’s bold move, along with the New York baseball Giants’ shift to San Francisco that year, didn’t just bring Major League Baseball to California; it also brought a 31-year-old red-haired announcer by the name of Vincent Edward Scully to the vanguard of radio history, overshadowing and dwarfing the likes of every sports broadcaster before or since.

Scully’s accession to the height of his profession wasn’t meteoric; he was popular in Brooklyn but overlooked by the then-revered duo of Red Barber and Connie Desmond when he joined the team in 1950. It wasn’t until Barber bolted to the New York Yankees in 1954 that Scully’s fanbase and now legendary skills grew and prospered. By the time he landed in Los Angeles, his future was clear: He would become the best there ever was.

Fans quickly welcomed and worshipped Scully and broadcast partner Jerry Doggett in the team’s early years in the cavernous Los Angeles Coliseum which was built for the Olympics and football—not baseball. The massive venue held over 100,000 spectators when the Dodgers called it home from 1958 to 1962 before Dodger Stadium opened. It was in the Coliseum, where fans had difficulty seeing the action because many of them were so far removed from the field, that a craze was born and remembered still; you didn’t need to see the game. You could hear it, thanks to their transistor radios and to Scully’s magnificent resonance.

By the time the LA Dodgers won their first pennant in ’59 and Scully shouted, “We’re going to Chicago!” to meet the White Sox in the World Series, Vin Scully’s popularity was soaring.

Growing up in San Diego, I was without a regional major league baseball team to root for until the Dodgers landed in Los Angeles. When I heard Scully in the backseat of that Ford Fairlane on that Sunday afternoon all of those years ago, my life bumped and changed for the better.Through the years—grade school, junior high school, high school, college, my first job and beyond—my timeline can be charted by the ever-present Vin Scully and his descriptions of the Dodgers’ many up-and-down seasons.

Scully’s voice has been the background music—the soundtrack—for nearly my entire life. As a school kid like thousands of others, I’d hide a radio under my bed sheets into the late night, listening as Scully would describe yet again another incredible Dodgers game. Would there be a Wally Moon-shot or would Sandy Koufax strike out the side again? Would Don Drysdale side-swipe Willie Mays, or would the Say Hey Kid get his revenge?

Only Vinnie could tell the story. And he told it like no other.

In my early 20s when Scully himself was only in his 40s, I remember needlessly fearing and fretting his retirement, when he would no longer be telling his stories. “When Vin quits the game,” I would say, “I’m done, too. No more baseball for me…”

His constant presence has grown into a constant reassurance through the years; Vin is back, all is good, the world is steady on its axis.

In the 1970s when the Dodgers were assembling a remarkable team and a remarkable run on pennants and World Series appearances, I met Vin Scully in what now seems a dream.

It was in the middle of summer—July 30, 1974 to be exact—and I was at San Diego Stadium (later named Jack Murphy Stadium and now called Qualcomm Stadium) with a group of friends to catch a Padres-Dodgers game. Included in that cluster of acquaintances was a Catholic priest whom I had never met and I have never seen since.

The priest, like me, was a huge Dodgers fan. We were solid mates for that one game as we sat next to each other, dropped philosophical differences, and learned we were members of the same faith in our worship and reverence for Vin Scully.

When the priest and I met before the game he was introduced simply as, “the real San Diego padre.” I laughed at that and soon fell into a quick and affable discussion regarding our mutual love for baseball. By the time we meandered to our seats along the third base line before the Star Spangled Banner blared through the loudspeakers, the padre and I were fast friends, enjoying the first of several beers during the game. And I remember thinking, for a preacher, this guy gets my vote.

Around the second or third inning one of us mentioned Vin Scully. Some of my recollections are hazy at best of that decades-ago time, but this I recall as though it was yesterday: our eyes lit up and for the remainder of the game—an 8-0 Dodgers’ blowout—it was all about Vin Scully for the father and me.

In our seats mid-way up the stadium, along the left field line, we were able to gaze over our shoulders—back and up high—to a get a view of the press box where Vin sat. Looking, as into the heavens, we could see him peering down onto the masses below, blessing us with his stories. And to my wonderful amazement, the padre had his stories, too.

“You know Vin is Catholic, don’t you?” he asked. In fact, I did. “Oh yeah, sure. Went to Fordham University,” I replied.

“That’s right,” the Father said, anxious to get to the crux of his story. “I met him once in San Francisco a few hours after a Giants game. He came into the restaurant I was at and sat just a couple of tables from me…”

I gasped. The priest met Vin Scully? Tell me more.

“I had my clerical collar on and thought that might give me license to say hello. And it did. He asked me to join his table and sit for awhile. Ended up being there for about an hour, talking Dodgers baseball and all sorts of stuff. It was incredible—he was a true gentleman.”

I sat transfixed, thinking the priest was indeed a chosen one, having a private audience with Vin Scully. I made a joke—something along the lines of, “that had to be better than meeting the Pope”—and we laughed and stared out at the field, sipping our beer.

And then it happened, like a simultaneous vision from above. Almost in unison we both said, “Why don’t we go visit with Vin right now?”

And so we planned what we hoped was sure-fire strategy. It was simple; we wrote a note on a wadded-up, stadium-issued napkin, smeared probably with hot dog mustard. It read something like: Hello Mr. Scully. We are two of your biggest fans and would be forever grateful to meet you. Can we come inside and say hello?

The plan included going up to the press box and knocking on heaven’s door. From there, we were sure to be ushered in like archangels and seated next to a true baseball god.

Instead, note in hand, we climbed up the two stadium tiers above us and found a tunnel that read, “Authorized Press Only.” From there we slipped into a passageway with foreboding signs that warned of “No Trespassing” and just like that, we were stopped, stumped at heaven’s gate. Like Stooges, we wandered around a bit, scratching our heads and trying to figure out a better approach. Suddenly a door banged open, a bright light appeared, and out stepped a burly, mustachioed security guard. At first glaring at us and demanding to see our game admission tickets, he warned that we were in a “no fan zone” and to promptly return to our assigned seats.

The priest, without his saintly clerical black robe and white collar, just stood there. But then, quickly regaining his poise and presence, like a magician he pulled from his pocket a business card with his name and stature typed in a simple font. The hefty guard never blinked—he just melted.  “Father, how wonderful to meet you. How can I help…?”

Ah, the power of religion, I thought.

Once he understood our request—that we wanted to meet Vin Scully—the guard did an about face and went back into the shuttered door, asking us to, “Just stay right here—I’m gonna do everything I can to get you inside…” For good measure the padre, handing the guard our scribbled note said, “And be sure to tell Mr. Scully that I’m a priest and that we had dinner together in San Francisco a few years ago. I’m sure he’ll remember…” That sealed it, I thought then.

But once left alone in the “Press Only” tunnel, we waited. And waited. By the time the top of the 7th inning rolled around and we had been slowly stewing for over 30 minutes, our earlier self-assurance began to fade.

Finally, the Press door banged open again. And there stood the guard, grinning. “Father, great news. This is kind of a first—I’ve never had this happen before.  Mr. Scully says for you two to be here after the game. He’ll be out to say hello.”

We looked at each other. And then we broke into large hurrahs and smiles. We did it; the priest and his unlikely cohort were really going to meet Vin Scully.

We hurried, tripping down stadium steps back to our seats to tell our friends what we had pulled off. They sat there, mouths agape, and then laughed. They were skeptical. “Yeah sure,” they said. “Good luck with that one…”

We waited until there was one out in the bottom of the ninth inning. With the Dodgers clearly in command of the game and not wanting to be a second late, the priest and I marched back up the stadium steps. The big bats of the Padres’ lineup—Willie McCovey, Cito Gaston, and Nate Colburn—were retired in order and by the time we reached the “Authorized Only” zone and stood outside the Press door, the game was over. Where was Vin? For that matter, where was the burly Security Guard? Had we been duped?

The area was hectic with official-looking types coming and going through the Press door and of course we knew that Vin had his usual after-game details to attend to.  This was back in the day when either he or Jerry Doggett would handle the post-game interview. Maybe he was talking to winning pitcher Andy Messersmith right now?  Or maybe Steve Garvey, who went 3-for-5 that night with a home run and two triples. Either way, we weren’t worried. Vin will show up, we knew.

But after 45 minutes, long after all the scurrying-around by the official-types was over, after standing on one leg and then the other until all hope seemed vanished, we began to sense a loss. “Maybe Vin’s too busy or maybe he just forgot,” I told the priest. “Or maybe the goofy guard didn’t know what he was talking about...”

The Father mumbled an assent and we began to turn, to slowly amble back down the stairs and into the dark to find our laughing friends. But just then, the door did its magic once again. It opened slowly, there was light, a hand reached around the corner, The Voice was heard. Vin Scully stepped outside. He was saying, “Hi fellas. Come on in and let’s chat for a bit…”

We were beyond giddy. My foot was in my mouth, I couldn’t talk. I just gawked. After a quick moment the priest took control and vigorously shook Vin’s hand, pushing me with his other to do the same. “So great of you to take the time,” the Father gushed. “This is such an honor…”

He ushered us inside and the priest began to prattle on about meeting The Voice in a San Francisco restaurant a few years before. Vin politely said he remembered and all I could do was continue to gawk, kicking myself and asking: is this really happening? I’m in the Padres press box with a padre, face-to-face with Vin Scully.

Finally I was able to salvage a bit of composure and asked a few questions, marveling at Vin’s responses and his, “I’m just a regular guy,” type of equanimity. The priest and I both asked about pitcher Tommy John who was having a great year with a 13-3 record before going down with what many thought was a career-ending arm injury just a few weeks before. “Is there a chance Tommy is coming back?” we asked. Vin studied the question and in hindsight may have been holding back some inside information. But his answer was a simple, “Geez, we don’t know. It really looks like a serious injury. We’re just going to have to wait and pray for the best. But boy, this team is really going to miss him while he’s out.”

Of course, John didn’t pitch again until 1976 and not until he weathered the first of what was then a radical and revolutionary arm procedure that has since been called, “Tommy John” surgery, pioneered on the southpaw by Dr. Frank Jobe.

We sat in the quiet of the press box—the Father, Vin Scully, and I—for over a half an hour. Never did Scully seemed hurried and anxious for us to leave. His voice, so well accentuated and perfect on the radio was just that in person—perfect. I remember thinking, “I’ve heard that voice so many times.” His demeanor was everything and more than I had hoped: engaging, folksy, honest, and focused on his guests. When we got up to leave we asked for autographs and the priest, with a Kodak Instamatic at the ready, asked if it would be OK for a picture or two. Scully’s autograph given to me that day still graces my office shelf.

Through the decades since my visit with Vin Scully, I’ve grown to admire him even more for his unmatched skills at calling a game.  But more too, for his always modest, unpretentious character. In a career that spans generations of fans and broadcasters that include too many rogues with more tattoos than original thoughts and too many carnival-barking egocentrics screaming, “Look at me!” Scully stands solitary. In words and deed, he has always held true to vocal and visual minimalism that is endearing and enduring.

The two people I met that mid-summer night in San Diego Stadium shared a specialness and a uniqueness. The Father for his boyish enthusiasm and for what he devoutly believed, the baseball announcer for his other-worldly skills.

Following our encounter, the Dodgers went on to win their first pennant in eight years in 1974, then fell to the Oakland A’s in the World Series. Vin Scully went on to broadcast Dodgers baseball for another 39 years and counting. I continued teaching high school for several years and then moved on to other opportunities.

The Father? I never saw him again, but this I know: if he’s still alive, somewhere out there is a priest with a wonderful story to tell when a San Diego padre met Vin Scully.


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