• Sports
  • remembrance

‘I Think He Stands Alone.’ Remembering a Perfect Vin Scully Call

6 minute read

Vin Scully, the universally-recognized great sports broadcaster who died on Tuesday, at 94, is rightly synonymous with the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball franchise. Scully, born in the Bronx in 1927, the son of a silk salesman, spent 67 years with the team. He first joined the Dodgers in 1950, when they played in Brooklyn, until his retirement after the 2016 season. When the Dodgers moved west to southern California for the 1958 season, Scully migrated with them. Many fans at the L.A. Coliseum brought transistor radios to their seats in the early days, so Scully could teach them the game. “It’s time for Dodger baseball,” later became his signature phrase.

Fortunately for those of us who resided outside SoCal, Scully also worked for national networks, allowing his economical narratives and poetic incantations to resonate far beyond Los Angeles. So San Francisco 49ers fans heard him call a franchise-altering moment, the Joe Montana to Dwight Clark touchdown pass in the 1981 NFC championship game—a.k.a. The Catch—on CBS. “Montana … looking, looking … throwing in the end zone … Clark caught it!” On NBC, St. Louis Cardinals supporters got Scully on the call of Jack Clark’s game-deciding home run in Game 6 of the 1985 NLCS, the second straight game in which a Cardinal hit a heartbreaking homer off of Dodgers reliever Tom Niedenfuer. “You would think that the fates would be a little kinder to one man in such a short amount of time.”

Cat on my lap, and tears in my eyes, I sat in my living room on the night of Oct. 25, 1986, in despair. When you’re 10 years old, the fate of your favorite team is the most important thing in your world. My New York Mets, after rampaging through a 108-win regular season, were down 5-3 in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. They trailed 3-2 in the series, and were now down to their last out. Boston was on the cusp, finally, of winning its first World Series since 1918, forever shedding the Curse of the Bambino.

Scully was not popular in my household at the time. Throughout the series, we thought he and his partner on NBC, color commentator Joe Garagiola, were sort of rooting for the Red Sox. Looking back, that was ridiculous. From my 10-year-old eyes, I was surely interpreting Scully’s professional approach, his refusal to be a homer for the Mets, as some sort of slight.

The Mets began an improbable rally. Three straight base hits cut the Red Sox lead to 5-4 and brought the tying run, in the form of rookie Kevin Mitchell, to third base. Ray Knight, the winning run, was on first. Mookie Wilson came to the plate. My life hung in the balance.

Wilson fouled off the first pitch. “55,078 here at Shea, and they’ve really been put through the wringer,” Scully said. Yessir.

Through Wilson’s now legendary at-bat, Scully offered a clinic in the old adage “show, don’t tell.” His sparse words, and the pulsations of the Shea Stadium crowd, built overwhelming tension. “Fouled away again,” Scully said as Wilson nicked a two-strike pitch, barely keeping the season alive.

A couple of pitches later, Boston’s Bob Stanley unleashed a ball that kept sailing, sailing, toward Wilson’s feet. Mookie jumped out of the way. “It’s going to go to the backstop!” said Scully. “Here comes Mitchell to score the tying run!” The crowd went berserk. I leapt off the couch, hurling my cat; her four feet landed safely on the rug (my bad, Smokey).

Scully paused for 30 seconds, letting the moment speak for itself until Wilson’s at-bat resumed with Knight, the winning run, now on second base. “5-5, in a delirious 10th inning,” Scully intoned, stretching a few vowels to keep building anticipation.

“Can you believe this ballgame at Shea?”

The count now full at 3-2, Wilson made contact. “A little roller up along first,” Scully said, in a pinpoint description. Then, at the moment the ball went through the legs of Boston first baseman Bill Buckner, Scully’s voice rose to the appropriate level. “Behind the bag! It gets through Buckner. Here comes Knight and the Mets win it!”

I’ve heard Vin Scully say those words on, oh, dozens, if not hundreds, occasions in the ensuing 36 years. They still give me chills. Every time.

“What resonates there is that here you have Vin Scully, the ultimate professional, and yet the 10th inning was so startling that even he registered not just excitement but surprise in his voice,” says former NBC broadcaster Bob Costas, who during the inning scurried out of the Boston locker room, where he was preparing to cover the victory celebration. “But what also was distinctive is that he never loses his place. Every little ‘i’ is dotted and ‘t’ is crossed. Vin Scully is shocked by what he’s just seen. But not shocked out of his professionalism.”

Play-by-play broadcasters trade in spoken words. Their impulse, for good reason, is to leave their mark on a moment. But after witnessing one of the most improbable endings in sports history, Scully declined to speak to the 44.5 million people watching Game 6 in their homes. He stayed silent for more than three whole minutes. We saw the crowd noise shaking the cameras. We saw Bucker trudge off the field. We saw an exhausted Knight splayed out on the dugout bench, being mobbed by his teammates.

Finally, Sully’s coda.

“If one picture was worth a thousand words, you have seen about a million words.”

He mastered perspective. After Sandy Koufax’s 1965 perfect game: “He struck out the last six consecutive batters. So, when he wrote his name in capital letters in the record books, that “K” stands out even more than the O-U-F-A-X.” Following Hank Aaron’s 715th home run in 1974: “What a marvelous moment for baseball, what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia, what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.” After Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers, on hobbled legs, hit a walk-off home run off of dominant Oakland A’s closer Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series: “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!”

“If one picture was worth a thousand words, you have seen about a million words.”

For Costas—and so many others—Scully is the GOAT. “There have been many other great announcers,” says Costas, who currently calls games for MLB Network. “I’m very partial to Jack Buck, who was fabulous with the Cardinals. And there are people that love the raw emotion and that larger than life personality of someone like Harry Caray. And there are a lot of really good broadcasters working today. But when you take the combination of everything, the history, the radio and TV aspect, the longevity, forget about ‘you can’t put anybody ahead him,’ I think he stands alone.”

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com