Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Living The Scooter Life

Ask Mr. Long IslandBy Michael Watt

If I could figure out a way to do it, I would walk around with the number 10 sewn onto my shirtsleeves, at least for the rest of the baseball season. That’s how upset I was last week to learn of the passing of Phil Rizzuto, even though his demise was not unexpected. (Does anybody else find it weird that Phil died on the same day – albeit 12 years later – that Mickey Mantle died, and just three days before the anniversaries of the deaths of Elvis and Babe Ruth? It’s just weird is all I am saying.)

Forget about Rizzuto the baseball player, or even Rizzuto the announcer. How about Rizzuto the living representation of how much we should enjoy life?

Even as a kid growing up watching Yankee games on TV and listening to them on the radio (back then announcers did double duty, rotating between radio and television duties), I marveled at the good fortune this man enjoyed. He grew up in Brooklyn and despite his diminutive size played on a string of championship Yankee teams the likes of which may never be seen again. Once his playing days were over – and he was rather unceremoniously dismissed from the team’s roster – he just moved upstairs to the broadcast booth and plied his art there for another 40 years. Forty years!

His success on the field was all the more remarkable because of his size. His “success” – some people would argue that he was a terrible announcer – in the booth was even more amazing because his initial two broadcast partners, Red Barber and Mel Allen, were living legends themselves and non-athletes who resented his lack of formal training and announcing skills. Yet Phil persevered and, as a result, never had to lift anything heavy for the rest of his life.

The man played the game his entire career with a piece of chewing gum on top of his hat for good luck! Can you imagine any of today’s self-important, image-is-everything athletes running around with gum on his hat? Not going to happen – unless, of course, a chewing gum company paid a small fortune for the exposure.

Then there were the games he broadcast. As I mentioned earlier, like many New Yorkers I grew up listening and watching the “Scooter” do his thing during Yankee broadcasts. His voice and persona are as integral a part of the soundtrack of my youth as my grandfather’s – and that’s saying something. Both had a certain way of talking that just could not help but entertain, and both lived and loved to tell a story.

On the night of his death my family and I were watching the Yankees being pasted by the Baltimore Orioles. It occurred to me that I had a copy of a televised Yankee game I recorded – WITHOUT expressed, written consent from Major League Baseball, I might add - in 1996. I had taped the game because my son Alex and I had tickets to it and the tickets were right along the leftfield foul line. I wanted to preserve the game for posterity just in case the camera caught us in the crowd (it did – for a fleeting second or two). Of course I forgot all about it until last week.

I dug out the tape, popped it into the VCR (yes, we still have an operating VCR hooked up in our house) and relished the dulcet sounds of Mr. Rizzuto wishing half the world a happy birthday and thanking the other half for sending fresh pastries. He bantered with his broadcast partner, former Yankee Rick Cerone, about this and that and, oh yeah, occasionally noticed that there was a baseball game going on. His storytelling meanderings notwithstanding, Phil knew the game as well as any of the other pontificating poof-heads working the baseball airwaves today. I had forgotten how much fun it could be to watch a Yankee game.

And let’s not forget the fact that Phil Rizzuto is the answer to one of the all-time great trivia questions: Who is the only American League MVP to earn a Platinum Album award as well? Phil, of course, was immortalized for his “play-by-play” interlude in “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” on Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out Of Hell.” The story goes that when my man Todd Rundgren (who produced “Bat Out Of Hell”) was told that Phil Rizzuto agreed to be on the album, Todd’s reply was, “Really? What instrument does he play?”

I still haven’t figured out whether so many things worked out well for Phil Rizzuto because of his positive outlook on life or whether he had a positive outlook BECAUSE so many things worked out for him. They just did. God bless him.

So thanks, Phil, for the laughs and the great baseball and, mostly, for being such a fun part of my life. You will be missed.

Thank you for reading this column.

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