Joe Davis’ phone buzzed. It was his dad, asking the question that perfectly summed the previous two years.
On this April evening, Davis was sitting in the broadcast booth, calling his second game for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Kenta Maeda, the Japanese pitcher who, like Davis, was L.A.’s notable offseason additions, was making his first MLB start and shocked everyone by hitting a home run. As Maeda touched home plate, Davis punctuated the blast with the right amount of awestruck surprise.
“Is this real life?” he said.
When Davis looked at his phone, he saw the note from his father: “When you said, ‘Is this real life?’ were you talking about Maeda or yourself?”
“At that point, yeah,” Davis says, months later, in what will be the final days of the Vin Scully era. “It probably could have applied to either of us.”
Here he is, a 28-year-old a few years removed from calling Double-A games, being groomed as the next play-by-play announcer for the Dodgers, a job that has the least amount of turnover in sports. Scully, as everyone knows, is retiring at the end of the season. And Davis has the incredibly difficult task of following a legend.
There’s no replacement for Vin Scully. There’s no heir apparent — or even an air apparent. There’s just the person who comes next. Just like there was the next Chicago Bulls shooting guard after Michael Jordan or the next San Francisco 49ers receiver after Jerry Rice. Davis knows this very well and he hopes his audience does too.
“You really don’t replace him,” Davis said. “As with anybody is any profession who’s been the best to ever do that profession, you just don’t. There’s nobody alive right now or yet to be born that is ever going to do what Vin Scully was able to do in his 67-year career.”
Which means that next season, if everything goes according to the understood plan, Davis will find himself in a position that is both historic and tricky. He’s the guy who gets to follow Vin Scully, but he’s also — gulp! — the guy who has to follow Vin Scully.
“I hope that people, over time, can learn to accept listening to me,” Davis says, fully aware of inescapable judgment that is coming his way.
• • •
When Joe Davis was born in 1987, Scully had already been calling Dodgers games for 37 years. It’s unusual enough that a 28-year-old will be the lead play-by-play announcer for an MLB team. It’s downright incredible that a 28-year-old is the successor to Vin Scully, the only lead play-by-play voice the Dodgers have known since moving to Los Angeles in 1958.
Imagine getting that call. Imagine being four years out of college and being told the Dodgers wanted to know more about YOU as they pondered their post-Vin Scully plans. For Davis, the call came in 2014. There was no timeline for Scully’s departure then, so it was all very hypothetical, with lots of curiosity and plenty of whens and ifs.
“It’s really cool that they know who I am,” Davis thought to himself then. “But there’s no way that I’m going to be the guy they decide to move forward with eventually.”
The process continued. In-person meetings. Auditions. Things like that. And, what do you know, by November 2015, the Dodgers were naming Davis as a part-time addition to their broadcast crew.
The job, on paper, was 50 road games in 2016. But the job, as everyone understood it, was much bigger. He was the Dodgers’ next play-by-play announcer, so long as he didn’t royally screw anything up in 2016.
The night before the Dodgers announced Davis’ job, his phone rang. It was Scully. It was the first time the two of them had talked. Scully welcomed Davis, told him he’d love working for the Dodgers and that he’d be in good hands. He shared memories of being a 20-something and getting hired by the Dodgers.
“It goes without saying,” Davis says. “That was one of the coolest calls I’ve ever gotten.”
They’ve met in person twice since then: Once at a Dodgers preseason event and once on Opening Day, when the Dodgers were playing in San Diego. Their contrasting schedules — Scully only calls home games and Davis only calls road games — has made it so they haven’t seen each other this season.
The big, definitive announcement still hasn’t come from the Dodgers. They haven’t officially named Davis as their guy for 2017, but it’s something of a poorly kept secret that he’ll be their lead play-by-play voice once Scully calls his final out.
Take Scully out of the equation and Davis is still quite impressive: He’s a young, up-and-comer in the broadcast industry, who in four years time jumped from Double-A baseball to Comcast Sports Southeast to ESPN to Fox Sports, where he was hired to do national play-by-play for college football, basketball, MLB and the NFL. He’ll do all that in 2017 — about 65 games — plus his Dodgers schedule, making him one of the busiest broadcasters around.
The 50-game introduction in 2016 has proven to be a smart move for both the Dodgers and Davis. People hate change. Sports fans especially hate change. So if Davis had walked in fresh for 2017, it could have been disastrous. Remember when Conan O’Brien took over for Jay Leno and “Tonight Show” viewers lost their minds?
Davis knows what the alternate scenario would look like: “Vin doing 162 games, retiring and then here’s this random kid doing 162 games and ‘Where in the world is Vin?’ That would be really jarring for people.”
Instead, he’s easing his way into the homes of Dodgers fans and … so far, so good.
“I knew there would be some natural criticism that would come just because I’m not Vin — nobody is Vin — but it’s been 99 percent positive from people.” Davis said. “Positive might not be the right word because that sounds like I’m gloating about something I’ve done in these 50 games, which is such a tiny sample size. Warm might be a better word for it. A lot of good people are making me feel welcome.”
• • •
There were many nights, in Davis’ less glamorous, dues-paying days, when he says Scully’s words accompanied him on late nights of work. Davis, who grew up in Michigan, calls himself a “broadcast nerd,” meaning that when he watched sports in his younger years, he absorbed as much as the people calling the game as the people playing it.
In college — he attended Beloit College, a small liberal arts school in Wisconsin, where he played football — he’d listen to baseball games on his MLB radio app, cycling through the East Coast games then finishing off many nights by listening to Vin and the Dodgers.
When he worked for the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits, Davis’ job included writing game stories and updating the team’s website. He’d do that to the soundtrack of Vin and the Dodgers.
“He’s simply the greatest storyteller to ever live,” Davis says. “Not just baseball announcers, but period. Name a better storyteller than Vin Scully.”
You can’t, which is why Davis’ stint in the Dodgers booth will be noticeably different. First off, it won’t be a one-man booth like Scully has done in recent years. Davis will have color commentators with him. This year, when Davis is on, the Dodgers have used a three-man booth with Orel Hershiser and Nomar Garciaparra.
But the other big difference is that Davis won’t try to be Scully. He can’t.
“The tendency, especially in a situation like this, would be for me to try to be Vin,” Davis says. “Just to try to ease the transition for people. Understanding here’s the most beloved sports announcer that ever lived, why not try and be exactly like him, right? Well, that’s not going to work. I’ve learned a ton from listening to Vin, but there’s a difference in learning a ton from a guy and trying to be a guy.”
And there’s an even bigger difference in trying to be a guy and trying to be Vin-freakin’-Scully. Davis, when asked to discuss his style, brings up a piece of advice that Scully himself got from his mentor Red Barber: “You bring something to the booth nobody else can, and that’s you.”
“The way I look at it,” Davis says,” is trying to do the job the best way that I know how, the way that has allowed me to have some success in my career and not necessarily look at it like I’m following Vin Scully or filling Vin Scully’s shoes, because that puts myself in an impossible spot.”
And, that, is real life.
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