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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2016 — #3: Vin Scully calls his final game

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We’re a few short days away from 2017 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2016. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were creatures of social media, fan chatter and the like. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

Most teams have had a broadcaster who was deeply loved by local fans. Mel Allen or Phil Rizzuto in New York. Red Barber in Brooklyn. Ernie Harwell in Detroit. Jack Buck in St. Louis. Harry Caray in Chicago. Harry Kalas in Philly. Bob Uecker in Milwaukee. The list — almost exclusively consisting of announcers who called games before the advent of the Internet and 1,500-channel cable television plans — goes on and on.

Nothing I say here about Vin Scully takes anything away from any of them, as one cannot truly quantify or judge fans’ connection to the voice of their team. Heck, Scully would be the first to say that he was no better than the equal of those men and would likely list a dozen others to whom he looked up while downplaying his own accomplishments. But I do think it’s fair to say Vin Scully was a bit different than them, for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, he had a greater national profile than a most of those guys, having done nationally-broadcast games for years and years, including NBC’s Game of the Week, which brought him into more households than his peers.

For another thing, he simply outlasted most of his contemporaries. Uecker still does Brewers games, but despite the tenure of broadcasters being exceptionally long, only a handful of broadcasters have been calling the same team since the 1970s. Scully, in contrast, called Dodgers games for 67 years. Harry Truman was the president when he started for crying out loud. At some point, tenure matters, and Scully’s unmatched tenure behind the mic entitles him to some kudos.

Ultimately, though, a broadcaster’s work is a matter of subjectivity. And in my subjective view, there was none better than Scully. Not because he handled any specific part of broadcasting a game better than anyone, but because the way he called the game matched the way I prefer to experience a game perfectly.

It was relaxed. It was comfortable. On some level Scully knows that we all have lives full of important and stressful things and that, baseball, however wonderful it is, is a diversion, not the most important thing in our lives. As such, he did not treat his broadcasts as destination viewing or listening. He did not act like the game he was calling or the fact that he was calling it was the most important thing going on at that moment. No phony superlatives. No unwarranted hype, hot takes or artificial intensity. He never, ever, pretended that he had any superior insight into the game than you the fan did, even though he obviously did. He simply talked about what was happening in plain terms and let you know things that he knew that might make the game more enjoyable for you. He didn’t style himself some baseball expert. He took ample time during breaks in the action to tell us interesting and amusing stories and make our diversion pleasant in any way he could.

On October 2, a Sunday afternoon, Scully called his last game for the Dodgers. It was simulcast on TV and the Dodgers radio feed. As I wrote at the time, I started watching the game on TV. By around the fifth inning I had to do some household chores and then started making dinner, so I switched to the radio feed on my phone. The inferior sound quality of the phone to the TV was, in some ways, preferable. It made me feel like I was listening to Scully on some transistor radio the way so many Dodgers fans in Los Angeles did in the 1960s during which their love for Scully grew and during which his legend was forged. Both baseball and Scully were made for the radio.

The game was a blowout. The Dodgers, who had already clinched the division and were resting regulars, were listless and the Giants, who had to win to clinch the Wild Card, rolled easily. It was just one of over 2,400 other baseball games each season, important for the Giants’ playoff hopes, but not in and of itself indispensable for any other reason.

I listened to the game as I folded laundry. I listened as I chopped vegetables and cooked dinner for my family. At times I lost track of the count or how many runners were on base but Scully would always get to that after coming to a stopping point in one of his stories. Scully also realized that there were stopping points in the game which gave him room for those stories. Indeed, at one point, as he was in the middle of a good one when a Giants batter fouled a ball away. Scully tipped his hand and said “good, that gives us a chance . . .” and went on and finished the story when the batter stepped out and a new ball was rubbed up by the pitcher. Scully knows, and has always known, that what happens when there is no action in the game can be just as important as what happens when there is action.

The rice on my stove finished cooking in the top of the ninth inning. It was only then that, for a few brief moments, what was going on at AT&T Park was far more important than what was going on in listeners’ lives. Rather than call the kids down for dinner right at that moment, I stopped and listened to Scully’s last half inning as a broadcaster. As always, it was the perfect blend of baseball and something else, seamlessly and calmly mixed together:

I’ve always thought it was attributed to Dr. Seuss, but apparently not. It’s still a good line, and it’s one certainly I’ve been holding onto for, oh, I think most of the year — here’s Barnes, and Romo ready, and the first pitch for Austin, taking first strike.

“Don’t be sad that it’s over. Smile because it happened.” And that’s really the way I feel about this remarkable opportunity I was given, and I was allowed to keep for all these years.

0 and 2 the count.

I said goodbye at Dodger Stadium; I’ll be saying goodbye here in San Francisco shortly. My little, modest message and wish for you will be right after the game.

The inning wore on.

For the Dodgers, Turner had a hit with two out, Gonzalez had a hit with two out, Grandal had a hit. That was the run. And they didn’t have another hit until here in the ninth, 13 in a row had been retired.

Segedin takes low.

This crowd is bursting at the seams right now. Two balls, two strikes, two out. Boy, 489 consecutive sellouts here at AT&T Park.

All right, big pitch coming out. Romo out of the stretch, and the 2-2 pitch on the way.

Sergio deals a slider hit in the air to left center, coming over is Pagan — he puts it away!

And the Giants are the wild-card team. The city is going wild, appropriately enough, and they are heading for New York.

No runs, one hit for the Dodgers, who managed to leave four men on base because they were the only four they got on base. The Giants in the Western division are 45-31, the Dodgers are 43-33, so inside the division, they certainly were the better team.

That was awfully nice. The umpire just stood up and said goodbye, as I am saying goodbye. Seven runs, 16 hits for the winning Giants, 1-4-1 for the Dodgers. The winner, Matt Moore, the loser, Kenta Maeda. I have said enough for a lifetime, and for the last time, I wish you all a very pleasant good afternoon.

Scully came back after the break with some final words and they were, of course, eloquent:

You know friends so many people have wished me congratulations on a 67-year career in baseball and they wished me a wonderful retirement with my family and now, all I can do is tell you what I wish for you:

May God give you.
For every storm, a rainbow,
For every tear, a smile,
For every care, a promise,
And a blessing in each trial.
For every problem life sends,
A faithful friend to share,
For every sigh, a sweet song,
And an answer for each prayer.

You and I have been friends for a long time, but I know in my heart I’ve always needed you more than you’ve ever needed me. And I’ll miss our time together more than I can say.

But you know what? There will be a new day and, eventually, a new year. And when the upcoming winter gives way to spring, oh, rest assured, once again, it will be time for Dodger baseball.

So this is Vin Scully, wishing you a very pleasant good afternoon – wherever you may be.

Touching stuff to be sure. But as Scully so often made it clear, he did not like being the center of attention. He was more than entitled to that final signoff, of course, but I will always remember this last half inning and his quote about not being sad that it’s over, but smiling because it happened as Scully’s true farewell.

Not because it was so poignant, but because it mixed in Austin Barnes falling behind Sergio Romo on an 0-2 count. The baseball elevating the words from Vin Scully and Vin Scully elevating baseball. As he always did.

 

Justin Turner is a postseason monster

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A not-insignificant amount of the Dodgers’ success in recent years has to do with the emergence of Justin Turner. In his first five seasons with the Orioles and Mets, he was a forgettable infielder who had versatility, but no power. The Mets non-tendered him after the 2013 season, a move they now really regret.

In four regular seasons since, as a Dodger, Turner has hit an aggregate .303/.378/.502. His 162-game averages over those four seasons: 23 home runs, 36 doubles, 83 RBI, 80 runs scored. And he’s also a pretty good third baseman, it turns out. The Dodgers have averaged 95 wins per season over the past four years.

Turner, 32, has gotten better and better with each passing year. This year, he drew more walks (59) than strikeouts (56), a club only five other players (min. 300 PA) belonged to, and he trailed only Joey Votto (1.61) in BB/K ratio (1.05). He zoomed past his previous career-high in OPS, finishing at .945. His .415 on-base percentage was fourth-best in baseball. His batting average was fifth-best and only nine points behind NL batting champion Charlie Blackmon.

It doesn’t seem possible, but Turner has been even better in the postseason. He exemplified that with his walk-off home run to win Game 2 of the NLCS against the Cubs. Overall, entering Wednesday night’s action, he was batting .363/.474/.613 in 97 postseason plate appearances. In Game 4, he went 2-for-2 with two walks, a single, and a solo home run. That increases his postseason slash line to .378/.495/.659, now across 101 plate appearances. That’s a 1.154 OPS. The career-high regular season OPS for future first-ballot Hall of Famer Albert Pujols was 1.114 in 2008, when he won his third career MVP Award. Statistically, in the postseason, Turner hits slightly better than Pujols did in the prime of his career. Of course, we should adjust for leagues and parks and all that, but to even be in that neighborhood is incredible.

In the age of stats, the concept of “clutch” has rightfully eroded. We don’t really allow players to ascend to godlike levels anymore like the way we did Derek Jeter, for instance. (Jeter’s career OPS in the playoffs, by the way, was a comparatively pitiful .838.) Turner isn’t clutch; he’s just a damn good hitter whose careful approach at the plate has allowed him to shine in the postseason and the Dodgers can’t imagine life without him.