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Vin Scully; The Gift of Visual Story Telling

Much has been written in the way of tributes to the Los Angeles Dodgers longtime play-by-play announcer Vin Scully who died August 2nd. The many heralded events he called include announcing games when Jackie Robinson was a player for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Sandy Koufax perfect game and more recently Clayton Kershaw’s no-hitter. The list is long.

Scully’s gift for storytelling was an offshoot of his first ambition: sports writing. Scully’s skills as one of the most descriptive broadcasters began in a time when more people listened to sports on the radio than watched it on TV. There was no such thing as watching a sporting event on a stream in those days. Most of America was dependent upon audio first. You could see the green of the field and thought that you could smell the new cut grass.

The very best play-by-play talent paint a picture by describing everything they see as if they’re describing a game to a person who lacks the sense of sight. Describing the obvious important parts of a game, but adding the vision that acknowledges surroundings, atmosphere, the intangible feeling that is created by the crowd and allowing the sounds associated with a game to bleed through in the background.

Vin Scully also knew when and how to use silence to magnify a moment and make the audience a part of the experience. A grand slam in a critical game? After making the call, he paused and you heard the roar of the crowd, and suddenly … you were there. The fact that the average person listened to Vin and never thought about the uniqueness of what he was doing, is proof that he made the “hard” to appear “easy.” That’s something all of the great ones do. It’s easy, until you try to do it, too.

Baseball may not be America’s pastime anymore, but it still signals so many things that many of us who grew up listening to it, think of when we hear a game today. It means summer is coming when you hear the first game in late March/early April. It’s a part of the time of year when the sun rises early and sets late. When kids are out of school. When you starting counting the days to a vacation. When the playoff’s approach, it means school has started, football season has begun, leaves are turning and winter isn’t far away.

The homerun call, that exciting statement that is exclaimed enthusiastically when a ball leaves the ballpark, adds to the game’s excitement level. It also is a part of the memory fabric of the game. My hometown team is the Cleveland Guardians, formerly known as the Cleveland Indians, and Play-by-Play artist Tom Hamilton’s “It’s back, wayyy back, gone …” is one of my favorites. Hamilton is an efficient personality who uses only the words necessary to completely explain or describe the purpose of his talk. The word economy he presents is punctuated enthusiastically, never losing his genuine enthusiasm.

Ken Levine, who is well known for the many shows he’s written, (M*A*S*H, Cheers, Frazier and more), in addition to having been “Beaver Cleaver” as a Top-40 DJ, has experience as a Baseball play-by-play talent. We worked together at KTNQ/Los Angeles, which is where I first saw and heard his creativity, given that he is a powerful storyteller. Ken once told me that, when he was with the Baltimore Orioles, he started the season using the home run call “Elvis has left the building.” That worked until he had to say “Elvis … is off the wall.” That certainly creates a visual.

Bob Prince, the Pirates PBP announcer when I was a child growing up in Pittsburgh, created “The Green Weanie.” He was known for always following a close win with the words “We had them all the way.” Joe Nuxhall and Marty Brennaman worked for the Cincinnati Reds. The duo would froth each other into a frenzy during tight spots on the diamond. They made me long for a rain delay just to hear them converse with each other. You likely have your own favorite announcers. Think about what they did/do that stuck with you? What’s the one thing they said that made a lasting impression on you.

There are few on-air personalities that really focus on the practice of telling stories efficiently. That is, too few possess what many major league baseball play-by-play personalities do in regard to being a visual communicator. One can argue that baseball, being the slowest of the pro-sports to broadcast, allows for more time to paint a picture. Yet, it’s not really about the amount of time it takes to be descriptive, but using pointed descriptions that are relatable. Which is something that all talent can do. If you can enable the audience to visualize your story, you will have connected with your audience. That enriches their listening experience.

Think of the gift given to us by the great Vin Scully. Remember and appreciate him for his pioneering style. Communicate in stories. Tell those stories visually and descriptively. Use audio, when more appropriate than words, and engage silence or use an abnormally long pause, when a moment is to be magnified.

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