Vin Scully was impressed with me as a broadcaster … at least that's what he told me.
It has been 23 years since I shared a booth with the Dodgers' legendary broadcaster, who's calling it a career this week after 67 years on the job. But when you were in the presence of greatness, you tend to remember all the details.
On May 19, 1993, I was part of a team that delivered the first Mandarin Chinese broadcast from a Major League Baseball game.
When the Dodgers faced the Cincinnati Reds that day at Dodger Stadium, four radio booths were occupied to air the game -- in English, Spanish, Korean and Chinese.
I was just out of college at the time, working at the Pasadena Star-News. When a press release announcing the game would be broadcast in Chinese made its way to our newsroom, I jumped at the chance. I lobbied the radio station to bring me on (pro bono, of course) to be part of the announcing team, selling my ability as a fluent speaker of both English and Chinese as well as my "expertise" in baseball.
It worked. Thomas Kao, the original announcer who was a local talk show host, graciously asked me to be his sidekick. I bounded into Dodger Stadium that afternoon with unbridled enthusiasm. It wasn't that I hadn't covered a Dodgers game before, but this occasion was much different. It was historic, and I knew I'd get to share a booth with the Hall of Fame voice of the Dodgers.
As the game went on, I took over more of the play-by-play duties as Kao did the scene-setting. S.C. Chao and Jerry Sung, famous baseball players from Taiwan, were also in the booth as our color analysts. For a first-time group that's never worked together before, I thought we had pretty decent chemistry.
Then Scully walked in at the end of the third inning. The way the Dodgers radio broadcasts were set up at the time, Vin did the first and last three innings of the game, with him taking a break in the middle innings. He'd spend the fourth inning with us.
I was thrilled and nervous at the same time. I remember telling myself: "Do not stutter!"
But Scully was as gregarious and gracious in person as his listeners have come to know during a career that began in Brooklyn in 1950. He sat down between Kao and me and immediately put us at ease. He asked us some questions (with me translating for our Chinese audience) and I did some in return. At one point, I asked him to call a few pitches and plays for our listeners, and he happily obliged.
As the inning went on, I had the occasion to describe a near double-play ball started by Reds shortstop Barry Larkin. When I finished, Vin was effusive in his praise, telling me my call was "terrific," even though he didn't speak Mandarin and probably didn't understand what I said besides "Larkin." But his reaction was so enthusiastic and genuine, if I had died at that moment it would've been a life well lived.
That call ended up on an NBC News feature and was part of the highlights package on that night's ESPN SportsCenter. We also were visited in the booth by then-Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley. The team was delighted with the broadcast and invited us back for a few more that season. I returned for five more games, doing the broadcasts solo, including the season finale in which the Dodgers denied the 103-win San Francisco Giants a postseason berth with a 12-1 victory.
My radio broadcast career ended after that season, though I had agreed to a deal to do both Dodgers and Lakers games in Mandarin Chinese in 1994, even appearing at a joint press conference attended by both franchises. The radio station I worked for folded a few months later, and I took a newspaper job in San Francisco and headed north.
But I'll always have the rare honor of having shared a booth with the great Vin Scully, with memories flooding back as he wraps up his incomparable career this weekend in San Francisco. I've probably heard thousands of his broadcasts in my life, but of course I'll treasure that one inning while he sat side-by-side with me above all others.
As Scully was departing the booth after that inning, he flashed his familiar toothy grin and said to me, "Mr. Chi, it's been a pleasure!"
No, Mr. Scully, the pleasure was all mine.