Wednesday, June 19, 2002
Losing an old friend I never met
By Jim Caple Page 2 columnist
Jack Buck died Tuesday at age 77. It's odd how sad you can feel at the passing of someone you never met.
After starting out as Harry Caray's sidekick, Jack Buck certainly caught on with Cardinals fans.
Which is not to say we didn't know Buck. Or at least feel like we knew him. With a half-century in the business, Buck's gravelly voice was one of the most distinctive in sports. He called games in all sports (he did "Monday Night Football" on CBS radio for many years), but he was always best known and loved for baseball. He was behind the microphone for the Cardinals for five decades and for national broadcasts for many postseasons.
I can still hear him saying, "We'll see you tomorrow night!" after Kirby Puckett hit his home run to win Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. Which is amazing, because I was in the Metrodome press box at the time and didn't hear him say that until seeing the highlight tape sometime later.
That line, and his other most famous ones, including "I don't believe what I just saw!" after Kirk Gibson's 1988 home run, and "Pardon me for a moment while I stand and applaud" after Mark McGwire's record-tying 61st home run, hardly compare to even the least of Winston Churchill's many utterances. But damn if hearing them didn't send such chills through our bodies that the goosebumps made us look like we were the ones on andro.
That's the thing about the great broadcasters, though. It isn't so much what they say, it's how they make us feel when they say it. The best of them tease, reassure, worry and excite us so skillfully, that we can't imagine the game being played without their voice.
It's a universal thing. People in St. Louis felt the same way about Buck as people in Chicago felt about Harry Caray, as people in Los Angeles feel about Vin Scully and Chick Hearn, as people in Detroit feel about Ernie Harwell, as people in Seattle feel about Dave Niehaus, as people in Cincinnati feel about Marty Brenneman and as people everywhere feel about their favorite broadcasters.
Small wonder. Add up all the hours of all the games over all the years, and we probably hear their voices more than anyone outside our immediate family. In a time when we barely know our next-door neighbors, we invite these guys into our homes and our cars night after night, year after year. We might not listen to our parents, we might not know what to say to our siblings, but we pay such strict attention to these guys it's as if they were reading off the winning numbers on our Powerball tickets.
From Stan Musial to Mark McGwire to Albert Pujols, right, Buck has been a constant voice in St. Louis.
I grew up in southwest Washington state, back before there were the Mariners and when the nearest team was the San Francisco Giants. I listened to Lon Simmons and Al Michaels broadcast their games on station KFBK Sacramento, but only after the sun set and atmospheric conditions allowed the radio signals to reach the 700-some miles to our living room and into my dad's radio. Even then, it was a frustrating hit-and-miss thing, and I would have to work the dial as if I were a ham radio operator trying to pull in a transmission from behind enemy lines. "Sutton winds and throws.... Swung on and hit deep to left-center! Davis goes back" -- [STATIC] -- "the crowd is going wild" -- [MORE STATIC FOLLOWED BY SNIPPET FROM CREDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL'S "DOWN ON THE CORNER'' FOLLOWED BY MORE STATIC FOLLOWED BY COMMERCIAL FOR AUTO DEALER FOLLOWED BY STILL MORE STATIC] -- "and no men left on base.... "
Now, of course, we have Internet broadcasts and games almost every night on ESPN or Fox, plus hundreds more available through cable packages. I won't pretend for a minute that the old way was better. Given the choice between watching the game on TV or listening on the radio, I will always choose TV.
But there still is little that is as comforting as listening to a great broadcaster describe the game. They might be broadcasting to millions, but the best make each of us feel as if we're sitting in the booth with them. In time, they build such familiarity that we wind up feeling like we're a couple old friends enjoying the game together.
Which is why we felt like we lost a friend with Buck's passing yesterday. And you'll have to pardon me for a moment while I applaud him.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.