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August 15, 2007
The ScooterFourteen years ago, I was supposed to go to three games over four days in Chicago and Milwaukee. As it turned out, I only made it to Wrigley Field, which more than made it worth the travel, but never getting to add the other two locations to my list of parks was disappointing.
I never did make County Stadium, and haven't yet gone to Miller Park, but I did finally knock New Comiskey-now U.S. Cellular-off the list over the weekend. Now, I didn't mean for it to turn into a week away from this space, but Chicago is not a city I, um, work well in while visiting. Among two ballgames, Mavis Staples at Millennium Park, a number of great dinners with friends, and beautiful weather for walking the city, it ended up being a small midseason vacation.
There's a massive notes column in our future. I want to write about something else today.
When you're eight years old and in the thrall of both baseball and your favorite team, the smallest things can make you happy. Those two words were as much a part of my youth as peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, Wiffle Ball and losing my keys.
See, Phil Rizzuto wasn't a baseball player to me. He was an announcer. As a child, I was vaguely aware that he'd played for the Yankees, that he'd been a part of the 1950s teams that won the World Series every year, but to me, he was the funny old man who narrated the Yankee games. Rizzuto was the guy who told stories and wished people "Happy Birthday!" on the air (never mine, to my frustration; the Yankees never seemed to have a game televised in late February), who thought every pop-up to short right field was a Yankee homer, and who never seemed to be around in the ninth inning.
Along with Bill White and Frank Messer, Rizzuto was a part of my life, on radio and TV, as I learned to score baseball games in a black-and-white notebook. He was part of why I fought for later bedtimes during the week and tried to stay awake, listening to a headset radio under the covers, as West Coast games leaked long past midnight. I cannot separate the voice of Phil Rizzuto from the memories of my childhood, and I wouldn't ever want to do so.
I thought it was the coolest thing that people would send Rizzuto cannolis in the broadcast booth. He would get so excited about the gift, one of his favorite foods. It wasn't until much later in life that I learned that cannolis weren't pasta, but pastry. I always pictured Rizzuto and his cohorts digging into a plate of manicotti, basically. Today, I can't eat a cannoli without thinking of Rizzuto and the image of him, napkin tucked, with a forkful.
When I was early in my teen years, the Yankees set up a booth at the Stadium where you could go to call an inning of the game as if you were the broadcaster, for a fee. I begged and pleaded for permission-and the money-to do so for years, and when I finally was granted it, I was ecstatic. Informed by years of Rizzuto's calls, wanting to be like him, I was, myself, an unabashed Yankee fan in my approach, exploding with excitement when Gary Ward-I think it was Gary Ward-blasted a three-run homer in the bottom of the frame. I had a catch phrase, just like Scooter did-"Kiss it goodbye!" I came across the tape recently while unpacking. I'll never throw it away, even though it's frankly horrible.
What's amusing is that this icon of my childhood was the kind of announcer who would likely make me grind my teeth today. Broadcasters who make no pretense of objectivity-think Hawk Harrelson for the White Sox, or Rex Hudler for the Angels-can be among the most aggravating game-callers, forever seeing the game through blinders. Rizzuto is this group's patron saint, but his Yankee-centric view of everything never bothered me. It makes me a bit more sympathetic towards today's generation of homers, because while their way of calling a game is aggravating to me, there are no doubt eight-year-olds in their cities who love them the way I loved a skinny, glasses-wearing ex-shortstop from Jersey.
Rizzuto is a Hall of Famer, and the long campaign for his induction is one of the most interesting stories in the history of that institution. I was asked a couple of times yesterday about Rizzuto's place in Cooperstown, and I have to say that I think the question is inappropriate. We've spent years breaking down his performance on the field and whether it meets the standards for induction, and we can do so next week and on into the future. We can use JAWS to put his career into context, and the Keltner List to catch the things the stats miss.
Today, however, isn't about that. We're not mourning the death of a baseball career today, we're mourning the loss of a man, a man who touched millions of lives, who made fans of little boys and old women, who brought baseball into our homes for more than 30 years. Phil Rizzuto was a father and a grandfather, a husband-you don't need an obituary to remember Cora's name-and a friend, a soldier, and a broadcaster, a friend and a fan. He was a Yankee for 70 years. His playing career is a small part of his life, and a topic for another day.
Thanks, Scooter, for just being yourself, for everything you brought to New York baseball fans, and for making my world better.