Tuesday, August 14, 2007

White, You Huckleberry..

"Bum cheese on rye with ham and prosciutto
Got more Louie than Phillip Rizzuto"
--Beastie Boys

I was born in 1975, the same month that Carlton Fisk hit his famous home run. At that point, Phil Rizzuto was already 18 years into his fabled broadcasting career calling Yankees games for radio and television.

For me, like so many other Yankees fans who came of age after 1957, Phil Rizzuto was the Yankees. More than Don Mattingly, more than Billy Martin, more than George Steinbrenner, more than Guidry, and Pags, and Boggs, and Rags, and Jeter and O'Neill, The Scooter represented what being a Yankees fan meant.

Other than grainy highlight videos, I never got to watch Rizzuto play, although by all accounts he was the original Captain Intangibles. So I only know him by his broadcasting. Which means I feel like I know him as well as my own grandfather. His rambling personal anecdotes during boring stretches of games introduced me to his wife, Cora, his kids and his grandchildren, not to mention Rosie from Newark who is turning 87 today.

Watching baseball has never been quite the same since Scooter retired following the 1996 season. No one else can match his combination of passion, charm and humor. Those who try fall miserably short. Those who don't try come across like bland robot announcers, endlessly reciting the same statistics and analyses.

Rizzuto had an effortless chemistry with every broadcaster he ever partnered with. He and Bill White were like an old, bickering married couple sitting at the next table over at dinner, except you wanted to join them and listen to their stories (at least until Rizzuto left before dessert to beat the traffic). His presence and cajoling allowed Bobby Murcer to loosen up in the booth, and he even drew some drops of personality from Tom Seaver, who has never been as likable since. Scooter would endlessly razz newcomer Rick Cerone, until the former catcher lost his facade of professionalism and broke down into gales of hearty Italian laughter.

Sure, Scooter rooted for the Yankees, but he was never a dick about it. He was the anti-Hawk Harrelson. It wasn't for show, he was a New York kid, and you could tell he genuinely lived and died with the team, even long after his playing days were over. Maybe if I was a fan of another team watching the games, the homerism would have pissed me off. But I was a Yankees fan, so I loved it.

(And while we're talking about other broadcasters, Harry Caray can fuck himself and go die all over again with his claim that he originated "Holy Cow!" Rizzuto says he was using that expression all his life, and I believe him. Scooter earned my trust. He brazenly admitted on air when he wasn't paying attention or when he was leaving early to get over the bridge. Harry Caray was a slurring drunk, so it stands to reason he was a liar also.)

Rizzuto had so many idiosyncrasies as a broadcaster, they're impossible to list or count. He loved cannoli, this we know. And he grew to love Seinfeld in his later years, often recounting the exploits of Kramer and Newman on-air after watching the re-runs in syndication.

1996 was Rizzuto's last year on the air, and the first year of a budding new Yankees dynasty. Scooter had a blatant crush on Derek Jeter, often commenting on the amusing facial expressions and tics of his heir apparent. Like Jeter, Rizzuto did all the little things right on the field, and stood as the centerpiece of a team for the ages.

Being a Yankees fan means having a lot of heroes. And being a Yankees fan means watching a lot of heroes die. Thurman Munson went suddenly, tragically, inexplicably. Billy Martin went like he lived, drunk and violent, poignant and sad. Mickey Mantle went before his time, after treating his body like a punching bag for too many years. Joe Dimaggio went with grace, solitary and resolute to the end. But nothing's ever been sadder than saying goodbye to the Scooter.

Phil Rizzuto's left early to get over the bridge one last time. Fuck, I'm going to miss him.