Thursday, October 6, 2016

Master of Stories

            Most of the time, life’s moments seem to pass by in fast-forward. We find ourselves standing at the counter at 10 p.m., making the kids’ lunches and wondering where another day has gone. The list of things to do and places to be is ever-growing, and the social media overload vies for any free time we might have.
            In short, 21st-century society is desperately lacking in downtime – in a chance to reclaim ourselves and reconnect with life beyond that to-do list. Perhaps that’s why, despite the BuzzFeeds and Snapchats and Twitters, many Americans have been reaching for podcasts and longform journalism in recent years. It’s as though they are saying, “Enough is enough,” and crying out for the power of deliberate storytelling.
            We all have known people in our family, friend group, school or workplace who knew how to tell a story. We have sat down and listened to these people share details and narratives that painted pictures in our minds. For my brother and me, our grandparents were the key storytellers in our early lives. Our dad’s mom told us about her Norwegian mother and Icelandic father immigrating to America and adjusting to this new world. Our mom’s mother regaled us with tales of her brother, who could light up a room, yet had passed away before we were born.
            Our dad’s father died when we were young, but not before he had told us all about his favorite baseball player as a child, Zack Wheat of the Brooklyn Dodgers. And our mother’s dad, who lived until we were in our 30s, filled our lives (and tape recorders) with tales of his brothers and sisters, minor-league baseball career, marriage to our grandmother and battles with alcoholism. He was our personal podcast before there were any, giving us stories we could file away and download when life called for it – stories that were by turns gritty, nostalgic and at times hilarious.
            Our grandparents, and their generation, are almost all gone now. But not completely. Sunday, an 88-year-old California man bid goodbye to his job as baseball’s premiere storyteller. His name is Vin Scully, and he called Dodgers ballgames for 67 years, from 1950 all the way to this past weekend. His longevity is unparalleled in baseball, but Scully’s gift was much more than sheer perseverance. He was the best storyteller in a sport flush with them, and he could make even a passing baseball fan feel enraptured in tales about players’ lives, American history and the unique quirks of baseball.
            There were a number of years in which Scully called World Series games for NBC, and many of us heard him add stamps of literary brilliance to dramatic October moments. For those who lived in Brooklyn and then Los Angeles, Scully’s voice was part of the soundtrack to spring and summer, guiding them through three score and seven years of Dodgers: from Jackie Robinson to Sandy Koufax to Maury Wills to Steve Garvey to Fernando Valenzuela to Mike Piazza to Clayton Kershaw to Corey Seager. And for those who used streaming or cable services to subscribe to every Major League Baseball broadcast, Scully’s voice could still be heard across the nation as he called Dodgers home games by himself in the broadcast booth.
            I listened to Scully’s final broadcast on Sunday, as he told stories of great Dodgers-Giants rivalries of old, while calling a game in which the San Francisco Giants defeated the Dodgers to earn a playoff berth. Scully had grown up rooting for the Giants, then spent more than three-quarters of his life working for the Dodgers. It was a perfect sendoff for the great broadcaster, and he signed off in class modest style, telling his listeners that he always needed them much more than they needed him.
            He also departed by paraphrasing a quote from Dr. Seuss, telling us not to be sad that it’s over, but rather to “smile because it happened.” With these words, Scully was connecting his career with the essence of storytelling. We do tell stories so that we can smile about the things that have happened, and this in turn helps assuage the losses we experience, as well as the relentless passage of time. These stories give us moments we can’t forget, and which we will pass along to those younger than us. Be it a grandparent, a teacher, a good friend or even a broadcaster, storytellers give us the chance to press pause on life, and savor what is richest and most beautiful about this time we get on Earth.
            Vin Scully is still very much alive, and he will keep sharing stories with his children, grandkids and great-grandchildren. He might even pop into a broadcast booth now and then. But wherever he goes, he will leave us all much richer for the time he spent with us, turning a nine-inning ballgame into the fabric of life.

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