WTBS Early Baseball Returns Encouraging
A year ago I wrote about baseball’s new 2007-13 network television contract: Fox, finally airing a true Saturday "Game of the Week"; WTBS, adding a Sunday series in 2008. "Ability is fine," Napoleon said, "but give me commanders who have luck." The new format could make baseball lucky. Will fortune hold?
Early returns, as they say, are encouraging. Last month a TBS special announced each league’s All-Star Game starting lineup. Bad news: ESPN broke the embargo. Good: Host Ernie Johnson and analysts Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn looked ready for prime time, and had better be. "It’s like Fox," said a TBSer. "Our network likes big players’ names."
In October, it will do the entire Division Series and, replacing Fox, one League Championship Game. Cal and Tony will analyze. Cable’s first SuperStation seems primed by necessity to promote. Fox can be seen in almost all 110 million U.S. homes. Reaching 92 million, TBS’ baseball’s new prosopopeia, like Avis, will have to try harder. Skip Caray knows the way.
"Having a father in the business was a help and curse," Skip said of his Falstaffian dad. "Some people didn’t like him. Others opened doors." At first it bothered him — coasting on "Holy Cow!" "Chances are I wouldn’t have gotten a job if I weren’t Harry’s son. I also knew, because of that, I’d have to be even better."
It is a trade ‘TBS is counting on to make the early going that is good even better.
All In The Family
"I didn’t want to call sports," Skip said, growing up in and around St. Louis. "I wanted to play ‘em," and did, as an all-city high school linebacker. Caray than hurt his knee. Suddenly, the booth beguiled. The "soprano, back then" began a radio show. At the University of Missouri, he worked each summer as a KMOX writer, director, and producer.
In 1963, Skip joined Texas League Tulsa, then Triple-A’s Atlanta Crackers. In May 1965, Braves’ announcer Mel Allen’s mother died. "Given my Georgia experience," Caray said, WSB Atlanta asked him to sub. A cup of coffee denotes a brief bigs stay. Sipping, Skip then cracked the NBA St. Louis Hawks.
In 1968, both moved to Atlanta: "Best thing that ever happened. I got my own identity. Finally I stopped being Harry’s kid." Soon Skip occupied a world of hoops, hockey, and football, chucking raw kid for stardom. The star he wished upon was baseball. Irony reached it.
In 1954, Jack Buck had joined the Cards. Boss Harry sent Milo Hamilton packing. Under threads connecting, from 1966-75 the Braves’ Voice was too busy to settle scores. Milo was then axed again, Skip replacing him. "It was interesting how fans reacted," said partner Ernie Johnson. "People expected Skip to be Harry." They were soon disabused.
Harry roared. Skip intoned. Dad rose and fell like a ferris wheel. Son kept an even keel. They were alike toward the men in blue. "The worst call by a major league umpire in fifty years!" Skip raged. "[Ed] Vargo should be fired because he made all umpires look bad." You could see pop beaming.
"I didn’t set out to be different," said Caray fils, more reflexively than defensively. "My dad was an orphan, a self-mae man, more elemental as a broadcaster. We’re just not the same human being." A larger concern was that his Braves and aptitude seemed strangers in the night.
I Love To Laugh
In 1977, Caray added WSB Radio to WTCG TV. Celebrating, Atlanta lost 16 straight games. Once San Diego’s Gene Richards broke for second base. The catcher’s throw hit Buzz Capra in the head, bounced high, and knocked the pitcher to the ground. "Capra was a friend and I was afraid he might be dead," said Skip, "but it was so typical of our team that I started laughing."
Laughter got them through a lot. Phil Niekro won 318 games. Said brother Joe: "That knuckler got anybody out" — except Dave Parker. At dinner, Phil asked, "How do I get Parker out? My knuckler’s not working."
"Forget the knuckler," Skip said. "Throw your blooper and see what happens."
Twice Niekro knuckled: Parker lined out and singled. Next up Phil threw a blooper after waving to the booth. Dave hit it 400 feet. His final at-bat went 390. "Phil takes my advice, Parker bombs two balls 800 feet, and both are caught!" said Caray. "I can still say, ‘I told you so.’" For too long Georgia said that about its team.
The 1987-90 Braves dredged last. "Loosen up," he told partner Billly Sample. "We might be the only team in history not to win a game all season." Caray recalled Atlanta’s 1982 West Division title. Where had the dream gone wrong?
"That year I got cheered in a restaurant or grocery store. Now if I put on shades, I can slink into Kroger’s unnoticed." The Sporting News, among others, noticed. "Skip is perhaps America’s most prominent baseball announcer," then available in 63 million homes 130 times a year. "The Braves [even losing] have developed a loyalty among many fans regions distant from a major-league team."
They heard: "Guys ask how to crash broadcasting. ‘Hit .350 or win the Heisman’"; in "attendance, Sam Scoresby and Linda Yavnov," the branch of scotch and vodka, respectively, in the Braves Lounge bar; about a standing O for Skip at a college basketball game. In 1991, son Chip joined Atlanta — the first bigs Voice’s radio or TV grandson. "How protective is telling your kid to be quiet?" said pop.
More history: Three generations of Carays calling a game at Wrigley Field. Making history, Harry kicked himself. "If I’d had sense enough before i was born to nickname myself Flip, we’d ‘a had Flip, Chip, and Skip" — the Singing Carays, for your watching and listening pleasure.
Baseball found pleasure in that fall’s first-to-worst World Series. In Game Seven, Lonnie Smith’s single began Atlanat’s eighth inning. On a double to the alley, two Twins infielders, deking Smith, made him slow, stop at third, and die: Minnesota, 1-0, in 10. Even the "Tomahawk Chop" chant seemed weary. Sadly, it revived.
Yin: K-ing batter 1,000, Charlie Leibrandt forgot to call time, rolled the ball to the dugout, and let a runner take second. Yang: 1992 L.C.S. Game Seven’s ninth inning, three on, two out, 2-1, Pittsburgh. "My biggest thrills have been my kids’ successes in Little League or school events," said Skip. "Professionally, it’s easy. Frank Cabrera," singling to plate David Justice and Sid Bream: Braves, 3-2,
As Bream slid, people in the booth began pounding Caray on the back. He never knew it. "I didn’t feel it, my concentration calling the play was total. All I knew was Frank’s hit meant the pennant." Stick a fork in Skip. He’s numb.
From There To Here
The Braves lost the 1992 Classic, 4 games to 2. The final again drained. "Eleventh inning, we’re behind [4-3, Toronto]," Caray cried. "Otis Nixon makes out buning — the tying run’s on third!" Atlanta dropped the 1993 L.C.S. In 1995, it finally took a Series. "Fly ball, deep left-center!" Skip roared on radio. "Grissom on the run! Yes! Yes! Yes! The Atlanta Braves have given you a championship!"
TV as connecting tissue: the Chip off Skip’s block — "He got the looks in the family" — left Seattle for Fox’s "Game of the Week." Turner Field replaced Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The ’90s Yanks took three Series to the Braves’ one. Harry died in February 1998. That May Skip visited Wrigley. "I think about dad all the time. Within five minutes of waking up each day and before I close my eyes at night."
Skip did an NBC Division Series, had an angioplasty, and got a pacemaker that triggers airports’ metal detecting device." In 2003, WTBS busted him to radio and Turner South regional TV: "He’s identified with the Braves. We want a national feel." Skip shrugged. "I said, ‘Run that by me again.’" Ratings dropped. Having missed the light, TBS felt the heat. "It’s nice to be back," Skip soon smiled, reinstated. "The fans made it happen." Perry Como sang, "Oh, My Papa." In 2005, Chip joined his in Atlanta.
‘Seventies WTBS (nee WTCG) became baseball’s first SuperStation. This fall pop will accelerate its shift from Braves local-team to national. Next year it will air the bigs first Sunday afternoon network TV series since mid-’60s Dizzy Dean razed language, sang "The Wabash Cannonball," and tied Ma Kettle, Andy Devine, and Tennesee Ernie Ford. In network baseball, luck is no longer a four-letter word.