By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
Editor’s note: On Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Dodgers announced that broadcaster Vin Scully would return for his 66th season in the booth in 2015. The 86-year-old has influenced and informed countless broadcasters over the course of his legendary career in ways both large and small, and this is one account.
(CBS) Spring break of ’91 felt different than that of the other years, in that we knew it was the last. Not that we talked about that fact at all as we haphazardly planned who would sleep on which floor where, but there was a shared awareness of some kind of finality. That’s probably why it wasn’t Myrtle Beach again, the usual bacchanal of choice, with our mini-golf marathons, 10-cent oyster binges and clumsy efforts to conclude each late, Bell Biv Devoe-soundtracked night out with something a bit more interesting than frozen pizza.
It was to be Key West and a well chosen co-ed crowd, too, all of us sharing some rooms somewhere that someone had reserved. We were on our own for transportation from Duke University in Durham, N.C., breaking off into smaller groups for the 19-hour drive, and my roommate and I figured we’d make some stops along the way.
Steve at the time appeared to be the embodiment of something I wasn’t: certain and secure about the immediate future. He and a few others in our close circle of friends were set for law school, confident in a top-shelf LSAT score and the ensuing acceptance to at least one elite institution. I was envious of how focused they seemed to be, grinding through their public policy and political science classes, preparing for professional lives already imagined in vivid detail.
When that dread of the unknown rose as graduation approached, I tried to push it toward the mind’s recesses. This trip wasn’t going to be about that, I reassured myself, completely naïve about the inwardness that would be afforded by endless stretches of I-95 and the jangle of Peter Buck’s guitar.
I had begun college four years earlier with the lukewarm intention of becoming a lawyer of some kind, only to be fully realizing that spring that I had been pulled in another direction.
The student television station was entirely extracurricular, with no faculty involvement whatsoever, and when I first descended into the west campus basement studio of Cable 13 in September of 1987, there wasn’t a single thought that I would be a broadcaster for the next 27 years.
It wasn’t a tightly run operation, as one would expect when kids are given toys and no supervision. The sports department, though, had some competent upperclassmen and a flagship “Sports Center” program, even if viewership was limited to the drunk in the student center in front of a broken TV and some comatose patients in the north campus hospital complex. The producer, a junior named Suzanne, had the primary job of making sure host Billy King would actually appear in time for the show each Sunday night, considering that his active social life and responsibilities as the starting small forward on a top-ranked team rendered him somewhat unreliable.
Billy was busy more often than not, so I volunteered to take his place at the anchor desk, voicing over endless highlights and interviewing players and coaches of everything from football to fencing. I soon was recruiting assistance from friends as volunteer editors, directors and production assistants, building a group invested in the show’s quality.
We had a van equipped for live broadcasts of games, too, and with the selfless help of one insanely intelligent electrical engineering student, our ragtag crew was able to figure out a three-camera production for the basketball and football games that weren’t worth the time and effort of the regional commercial network. All I cared was that I was doing real play-by-play of real games, not thinking so much about it being part of a resume tape.
With each passing year the station and that work mattered to me as much as the actual academics, and my summers home began to reflect a turn toward something other than a future as a litigator. First it was a $15-per-game job as the PA announcer for the Madison Muskies at Warner Park. The Midwest League Class-A affiliate of the Oakland A’s hired me to read commercial copy, play music and intone the names of batters and pitchers to sparse crowds cheering for Scott Brosius and Ozzie Canseco. I got the chance to see one-man-band radio broadcasters lug their bulky suitcases of equipment up the aluminum stairs into a rickety, spider-infested press box, and I started to think that I wanted to do that.
One of those guys, Mario Impemba, was the voice of the Peoria Chiefs that year. He wore a satin Cubs jacket on cooler nights (the Chiefs were a Cubs’ team), and I noticed that he sounded remarkably like Vin Scully – the same kind inflections and cadences that mark the accepted “professional” sound of a baseball radio call.
The next summer was a news internship at WBBM-TV in Chicago, and the languid ballpark life was supplanted by big-market intensity. Newsroom shouting matches, mammoth egos of overpowered anchors, alcoholic executives pounding on tables, nervous reporters chain-smoking in back hallways as they gossiped about producers and videographers, the whole deal. It was as intimidating as it was thrilling, and I understood that this too, was something I could do, save perhaps for the table pounding.
Studies continued at school, with nothing to do with either broadcasting or law. The pile of class credits told no real story and showed little direction: Theatrical Farce, Horror and the Uncanny, History of American Comedy, Russian History, Abnormal Psychology, The Works of Lord Byron, Edgar Allan Poe, Social Psychology and others, in a desultory pattern under the vague constraints of a major in English.
Cable 13, though, was on the move. A massive cash infusion from the school afforded us sparkling new studios, and our input was requested as to specific equipment and design. We went in no time from a dingy cellar to a facility that was even the envy of some of the local pros employed by the network affiliates. Still, no faculty to bother us as we expanded the sports department into new shows and coverage.
The summer before that senior year, I hit up some of the Midwest League radio guys I met to see if I could sit in for a game or two as a color analyst and/or offer them an inning or two off from the play-by-play duties. Craig Wallin of the South Bend White Sox was kind enough to oblige, so I met the Sox for some games in Beloit, Rockford and Kenosha for the chance to be heard as part of a radio call of a pro baseball game. When I soon listened back to the cassettes, though, I heard what appeared to be a little boy doing a decent Vin Scully impersonation. While I was pleased that it sounded real enough, the lack of identity was troubling. Sounding like a broadcaster is a far cry from broadcasting.
School wasn’t really about school anymore, with most of my work complete but for two classes second semester of that final year. The timing was right for both student-TV work and a sports internship at WTVD, the ABC owned-and-operated station in Durham. Unlike WBBM, it was a non-union shop in a lower-pressure market that let me actually hold the microphone and conduct postgame interviews of college athletes, prep stars and the Durham Bulls. I was taught how to edit highlights and write copy for air. This was becoming something more tangible and exciting now, even as I listened to my friends debate the merits of Georgetown’s law school versus those of Penn, Michigan and Harvard.
One class even ended up mattering. “Writing for the Media” happened to debut as a new option in 1991, taught by longtime political writer Ken Eudy to a select group of students that had to be interviewed for acceptance in the course. In the weekly three-hour sessions, practical lessons were given in deadline writing, note-taking, the art of the follow-up question, general BS-detection and two key phrases: “Think the story” and “Describe, don’t characterize.” Some of these times around the table were memorable, as Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated and CBS and award-winning screenwriter Lizzy Weiss can also attest.
But whether any of it was practical was my lingering concern, and that’s what continued to gnaw at me as our bright red Acura Integra coupe sped southward on spring break. We had detoured to Charlotte, intending to take in the ACC Tournament, in which Duke was the top seed, and we lasted all of one game – a lifeless 82-68 N.C. State win over Georgia Tech – before deciding on something else and getting back on the road.
Vero Beach, Fla., was an easy stop on the way to Key West, just east off of the interstate from an exit in a town called Yeehaw Junction. We decided on a day at Dodgertown there, with the Mets in for a game at Holman Stadium. The nearby hotels turned out to be full when we pulled in late, so we spent the night asleep in the car, at least in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn.
Sunshine greeted us the next morning, as we skulked into the bathroom off the motel’s lobby for a furtive brushing of teeth. Half a mile away was the entrance to the Dodgers’ spring training locale, and we arrived as both teams were stretching and warming up, interacting casually with fans.
It felt more like a kids’ day camp than the kind of industrial compound we now expect, as only yellow nylon ropes separated us from the no-go areas, and standing sentry there were smiling, geriatric volunteers in white windbreakers, exuding as much stern authority as wet saltines.
There was Tommy Lasorda, in the parking lot, laughing. There was Mets catcher Gary Carter, signing every autograph while telling anyone who cared that, “You’re always smiling when you believe in the Holy Spirit.” Darryl Strawberry launched every next batting-practice pitch skyward and away, lost to my squint into the sun.
We wandered the still-mostly-empty stands, each with a beer and the obligatory, overrated Dodger Dog. Steve stopped abruptly and pointed to a spot in the seats behind the home plate netting toward the third base side, about 10 rows up. It was Vin Scully, by himself. He wore a light blue golf shirt and khakis, and he had a notebook on his lap.
“You have to talk to him. You know that, right?” Steve said.
“I don’t want to bother him,” I responded. “He’s working.”
“Just go say hello,” Steve said.
I walked over, apologized to him for any bother and introduced myself. Scully was as gracious as you would expect he’d be as I explained that I was currently a college broadcaster with no formal training and uncertain aspirations. He advised that I keep working as often as possible, while being a meticulous, honest self-critic.
It was then that I told him what he has heard from any number of announcers before and since, that I worked hard to emulate his sound and style, appreciating it as the gold standard.
“No, no,” he said, warmly. “Don’t try to become anything other than yourself. You do all that hard work so you can sound like you.”