I witnessed a piece of history tonight. I watched Vin Scully, the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the voice of baseball, accept the praise and honor of his people at his retirement ceremony. While that was memorable, it wasn’t fascinating. What was fascinating to me were two conclusions I walked away with.
What kid growing up in LA couldn’t be touched by Vin Scully? I remember when I was. It was the late 1970’s. My seemingly ancient neighbor, Mr. Milner (probably about 70 at the time) used to listen to the Dodger game on the radio in his backyard. I imagined him doing yard work. It wasn’t until years later when I was old enough and tall enough when standing on the tips of my toes that I could peer over the brick wall between our driveway and his home, and finally see what up until then I could only imagine. Mr. Milner wasn’t working on his yard nor was he completing his wife’s “to do list”. Instead, he was doing something else entirely. He was sitting upright, quietly and motionless on a lawn chair of nylon and aluminum beneath the shade of a broad, low hanging tree. Beside him was a small wooden table. On it, rested a glass of lemonade and a blue transistor radio. I thought he was dead. I thought a dead man was living next door. How else could someone possibly sit still for those ten seconds of eternity before my feet finally gave out? While I would sometimes spy an empty chair (presumably when he went to use the restroom), I never caught him walking and I never saw him move. As a child, my imagination always included motion. It wasn’t until adulthood that I was able to appreciate the introspection and leisure of America’s favorite pastime.
When tonight’s first speaker, the mayor, took the podium and talked of a radio, I and the rest of LA immediately understood and identified. We conjured our own images of childhood and a much simpler time. The mayor’s story wasn’t much different than my own. He recalled coming to his first Dodger game as a child and asking his father why people brought their radios to listen to a game they were watching from the stands. His father explained a Dodger game looked better when listening to Vin Scully. As he said this, the camera cut away to catch Vin’s reaction. He was smiling politely.
When Kevin Costner from “Field of Dreams” came up and rightly corrected us, that Vin was more of a “poet” and a “wordsmith” than he was an announcer, the crowd nodded. Vin didn’t blink.
With each speaker, Vin remained polite but seemingly resistant and ill at ease. There was one exception, Sandy Koufax. When Koufax, a man as classy as Scully himself spoke, Vin’s smile went from one of politeness to one of sincerity. It’s the kind of smile you flash a friend. I suspect Vin sees Sandy as more of a peer and a friend than anything else. People can better hear compliments coming from a confidant than they can from an acquaintance… probably because we have an easier time believing them, as friends don’t hand out praise the way fans do. I doubt Vin is any different.
Though the guest of honor smiled when he was supposed to smile, shook the hands he was supposed to shake and accepted the praise being offered to him, he did so begrudgingly and reluctantly. I don’t fault Vin for this. I simply make the observation. He’s very comfortable focusing his attention on baseball and very uncomfortable when baseball focuses its attention on him.
That was my first conclusion, Vin was noticeably uncomfortable. This is the second…
The event wasn’t about Vin. It was about everyone else.
Certainly, Vin was the crowd favorite and he was the main attraction but the evening had little to do with honoring his wishes and a lot to do with honoring everyone else’s. I’m not talking about the owners. I’m talking about the fans, owners included, for if anyone didn’t want there to be a celebration, it was Vin. He’s said something to the effect of “The focus should be on baseball and the game. It shouldn’t be on me.” Such is the man’s humility.
I’ll explain my conclusions, the latter first, then the former.
Six years ago when I left for Spain, some of my family informed me they were throwing me a going away party. I was touched. They asked me what I wanted and I said “Anything with meat. I’m a carnivore.” Weeks later, when the party arrived, along with family, there were balloons and streamers and cards, one containing a compliment I had always hoped to hear but never had: “You are a scholar and a gentleman.” I still remember it and who gave it to me. There were also baked potatoes, but there was no meat. While I was grateful for the attention and appreciated my family for caring as much as they did, I was also hurt. I felt overlooked, as though my wishes were unimportant. I was also at a loss as to why people would throw me a party, ask me what I wanted to eat and then not provide it. Money, maybe? I don’t think so because I wasn’t expecting steak. I would have been happy with hot dogs or ribs. I got neither.
Trying to make sense of this, on the drive home, I called a friend. I explained my quandary and asked what I missed.
“Peter, the going away party wasn’t for you” he explained.
“What are you talking about? Of course it was! I was the only one going away!” I protested.
“Right, but it wasn’t for you” he continued.
“Alright if it weren’t for me, who was it for?” I pressed.
“It was for them. Going away parties are always for the people who throw them, not for the people who are going away.”
“What? That’s nonsense! Why would you say that?”
“Because it’s true. If going away parties were about the people leaving, the people throwing them would ask ‘Would you like to do something before you leave?’ They don’t ask that. They don’t ask anything, they announce. They say just what your family said, they say ‘We’re throwing you a going away party!'”
“Hmm.” He had me. I hadn’t thought of that until then and I didn’t have to think about it any longer.
While I was busy playing the victim and making it all about me, my friend helped to adjust my perspective. “Pete, it may feel like your wishes weren’t being respected, and maybe they weren’t, but what’s bigger is that the party allows the people who throw it to process your absence in a way that brings them comfort. Instead of being angry at the thought of being overlooked, maybe you could be thankful that they’re thinking of you and maybe you could care enough about them to let them share their send-offs.”
Fast forward years later to my blog posting. This same lesson repeated itself. For months, my muse had encouraged me to build a blog and post my pieces. To put it mildly, I was resistant. Absolutely. As often as she would suggest it, I would defiantly disavow it. I’d dig my heels in and I’d refuse. This lasted for months if not more than a year. I was hoping my muse would let go of her prodding. Finally, I thought she did and as far as I was concerned the matter was settled. Until one day, my muse presented the situation through an entirely different lens.
She didn’t tell me what she thought I should do like she had done, instead, she spoke plainly to me in a language I could understand. She said “Peter, you’re being selfish. This isn’t about you. It’s about others, because as much as you may or may not like your words, they’re supposed to be written. You’re given words so that others may read them. When you’re not sharing them, you’re being selfish.”
That, along with the previous praise and prodding of a few friends, was what it took for me to create my blog.
In thinking about this evening’s ceremony and Vin’s reaction to it, I also thought about a few other things. In the days leading up to this, local media reported Vin had repeatedly responded to requests to honor him with reluctance. He’d say what I said above about not wanting to be the center of attention.
Back in January, when the LA City Council made the motion to rename Elysian Park Avenue “Vin Scully Avenue”, Vin is widely rumored to have resisted, at least privately. When interviewed and asked about his importance, Vin again would respond that the game was far more important than he was.
During the ceremony, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Vin knew how much we love him. I read the letter he had written to his fans and handed to us as we entered the stadium. There, in the most subtle of lines, was the answer: “Did I put you to sleep with the transistor radio tucked under your pillow?” he asked. From that line alone it was obvious he knew exactly how close to him we felt for no person invites a stranger to share their spouse’s pillow or tuck their children in. Vin, we permitted.
As the game ended, I wondered what could have happened, what could the Dodger organization or the political figures of the city of Los Angeles have done or said to convince Vin to permit a celebration he didn’t want to celebrate? Granted, I doubt Scully could have said anything to stop it because, just as I attended my own going away party, he would attend his. The celebration was about allowing us, the fans, a time to feel, express and pay homage to a man we think of as a father figure and a friend.
On the drive home, the answer to my unanswered question came to me. It wasn’t the Dodgers or the politicians or the media who talked Vin into accepting the applause and the praise and the pageantry of a send-off ceremony, he would have said what he had always said “The focus should be on baseball and the game. It shouldn’t be on me.” Instead, who Vin listened to was probably his wife, Sandi. She said what my muse said, “Vin, you’re being selfish. It isn’t about you. It’s about allowing people who love you a way to express their appreciation the only way they can. Let them have it. Let them have a chance to say to you what you’ve always said to them. Let them say their ‘Thank you.'” I think Vin could hear that the way I did, anybody could. It’s human and it’s humble.
So, along with my thanks to Vin for being the beloved voice of Dodger baseball through my childhood, my adolescence, and a good portion of my adult life, I’d like to thank Sandi for reminding Vin it wasn’t all about him. In other words, I’m glad Baseball listened to his wife tonight and allowed his fans to say goodbye.