In the summer of 1999, Nike ran the most brilliant series of commercials I ever saw. It was geared to the New York market and aired in sync with that season’s Subway Series.
Maybe you recall it, too. There were six Mets — Ventura, Ordoñez, Yoshii, McRae, Olerud and John Franco — playing four Yankees — Jeter, Posada, Stanton and I think O’Neill — at stickball. The longest version (and it wasn’t long enough, that’s how good it was) featured a heated dispute between the players about whether a ball hit down the street was fair or foul, a ruling determined by the parked Lincoln that was serving as third base. Yoshii and Ordoñez went back and forth in their native tongues; Olerud wore a helmet and said nothing; Franco was characteristically feisty; even the icy Yankee stalwarts were unusually amusing. What made it extra special was the surprise presence midway through of three neighborhood kibitzers — Tom Seaver, Keith Hernandez and Willie Randolph — on a nearby stoop taking up the cause of their respective kids. All the arguments droned on and on until the old man of the block, overcoated Phil Rizzuto, wordlessly left his brownstone, removed his car keys from his pocket, entered said Lincoln and drove away with the base, the argument, the game and the commercial.
That my favorite Phil Rizzuto moment involved him being silent is not intended as a backhanded tribute, I swear, even if I didn’t care for the announcing style of the man they called the Scooter when I first caught it in dribs and drabs. But I was spoiled. Anybody who broadcast a game in a way different from Lindsey Nelson, Ralph Kiner or Bob Murphy was obviously doing it wrong. What’s with the birthday wishes? What do you mean you’re leaving in the seventh inning? And why can’t you stay focused on the game? How do people put up with this?
But people did, lots of them. Rizzuto’s inhibition-free warmth sucked in a lot of viewers and listeners. He was himself. He was genuine. Over time (amid albeit limited exposure because I didn’t really watch a lot of Yankees games), I got it. The Scooter was just being The Scooter. There was only one of him and nobody else could have made it work the way he did.
We had our guys, they had theirs. We were all winners in those days.
So here’s to a man who made Fran Healy sound personable, made Tom Seaver sound comfortable, made Meat Loaf sound amazingly cool and made many a New Yorker’s ears very happy.