Joe Buck is one of the most well-known names in sports broadcasting in the world, and as you'd imagine, one of the most divisive. For a long time, he was seen as a smug and unenthusiastic spectator, unless maybe his beloved Cardinals were playing. But a pro-Buck movement has popped up in recent years, just in time for his new memoir, Lucky Bastard.
In the book, Buck talks about being the son of legendary baseball broadcaster Jack Buck and following his dad into the business, his struggles with hair plugs and his ill-fated HBO show, and yes, why it is people might not like him. Buck will be in conversation with Michael Kay at the 92Y on November 16th (you can buy tickets here). We spoke to him shortly after the Cubs won the World Series.
So, it was a very good World Series. Yeah, it was. Of the 19 [World Series] I've covered, I can’t say that I’ve done one that was more exciting. I mean, take the teams out of it— beyond that, to get seven games, those are rare. And then you get 10 innings in Game 7? Pretty crazy.
Do you think that's the best game you've ever called? Yeah, I think so. Just with what was on the line, I think so, definitely. Game 6 in 2011 was a crazy game, the Cardinals at the Rangers. But that just forced a Game 7 and then Game 7 was okay, not great. I think when you get down to it, baseball's at its best when it's winner take all, and everything is riding on one pitch or one swing, and that’s what it was. You had the Cubs with 100 some years since they’d won, and the Indians having gone 68 years without winning. It had a lot of tension to it.
You talked a little bit in the book about some of the calls that you made at the end of previous World Series in the book. Did you hear anything about the Cubs call? No, I think—I saw a couple of headlines, just articles that were written about it, but I don’t seek it out, I don’t look for it. If someone sends it to me, I’ll maybe read it. But for the most part, I just have to do what I do.
While it’s the part that’s remembered the least of what I do, I’m making decisions and flying by the seat of my pants for four and a half hours, that’s how long that game was. So, it’s one of countless decisions I make during the course of the game and I’m proud of it, I liked it. I liked the call, it rose to the moment and that’s all that I can go on. And the rest of it, I’m not like an opera singer where someone’s saying I’m a little flat on an A minor. It just was what it was, and I think it captured the moment, with the emotion and the noise that was in the stadium.
Sure. And I guess another thing about the World Series, you worked with Tim McCarver a lot and now it’s been John Smoltz in the booth. What’s the difference working with the two of them beyond one guy was a catcher, one was a pitcher? They both played in the World Series, and they’ve both been our there when there’s been a Game 7. And I think that’s a thing that the rest of us can’t relate to. So Tim was the ultimate first guesser, and by that I mean he was so great at looking ahead to what was left in the bullpen and trying to map out the manager’s move before he actually did them.
John is different in that he’ll let the game come to him, but he’s so good on pitch sequences and with his own research as to how he would get a hitter out. He can tell the view as a pitcher’s trying to get a batter in a certain situation, how he would do, and then consequently how that specific pitcher’s trying to do it. He just watched all the video of that pitcher working the entire series, and in some cases different at bats they've had during the course of the year. So he’s really well prepared and can give you the blow-by-blow of what’s going through your mind and heart when they’re out there in a situation like that. So they’re similar but they look at different perspectives.
Is he a little more of an advanced stats guy? He is to a certain degree. He’ll talk about spin rate, which is something that Tim and I never talked about five years ago. Spin rate is how many revolutions the ball is making as it gets to the plate from a pitcher’s hand. So, the higher the spin rate per ball, the more break you get. It’s just a different way to qualify, to put a number on, “Man, that guy looks really good” or, “Boy that curve ball is nasty.” Well now you can define what “nasty” is. And so John will go there a little bit, but we’re not going through the Pythagorean Theorem of what WAR (wins above replacement) is.
Some of that stuff I think is better suited for a calling show than a TV broadcast. It can’t come at that time of year, you can’t talk over people. You have to make it understandable for a larger audience and sometimes you’re going back to the basics with where a player comes from or why is he good? And you just don’t have time for explanations as to what some of these different values are. But I think the advanced stats are cool. They let me see that Kris Bryant topped out at 20 MPH running first to home and you see his path with a lit-up tracker, I think that’s interesting and it brings a little bit of the video game element to it, which I think is a good thing because it kind of spices things up.
Do you think there’s something about national announcers, that maybe people who are bigger sports fans get annoyed with them because of how you have to bring it back to the basics, you have to talk about it to an audience that hasn’t been watching all year? Yeah, I think for the hardcore fan or even the semi-regular fan of a team, it’s a completely different thing. It’s why we get so much, and me specifically as a play-by-play guy, you get so much grief online or whatever because you’re not the hometown announcer. So those fans haven’t been listening to me cheer or be dejected, depending on how the team is doing all season. That’s how I used to do it when I broadcasted for the Cardinals.
You’re only as good as the team is playing when you’re in that situation. And people are used to hearing that, because they then know that the announcer has the same rooting interest that they have. Well, then the national announcer shows up and you’re cutting it down the middle and you’re talking about the other team as much as you’re talking about their team and people are like, “What the hell is this, why is this guy talking about the other side so much?” And that’s just the way it is. And yeah, I think whether it’s being more general for a national audience as opposed to just one side, I’m sure those fans are going, “Yeah we know Kyle Schwarber went to Indiana, we’ve heard that 50 times and this idiot’s saying it again!” Not everybody knows Kyle Schwarber was a first round pick from Indiana, you have to bring it back for a national audience and that’s my job to make it as appealing to the biggest audience possible, that’s kind of a give and take with doing a national broadcast.
Along those lines, in the book you talk about reasons people might not like you. That whole “Rhymes with Suck” chapter. And the part that caught my eye was when you were talking about things being too politically correct and broadcasters having an internal filter. I just thought it was kind of weird the examples that you used. I think a lot of people talk about how baseball’s trying to reach more women, sports are trying to get a broader audience and you used an example of your dad telling a joke about a woman’s tits in the audience and then said it’s kind of the same thing as Harry Caray getting confused between coke and novocaine. Do you understand why people would not want to hear a play-by-play guy objectify a woman in the audience during a national broadcast? Well yeah, that’s the whole point. It’s how times have changed. If I said any of that, I’d be gone. Do I understand that? Absolutely. But there was a time when, whether you want to accept it or not, broadcasters, people on TV were a little bit more able to say things off the cuff. And when I do a broadcast, forget the obvious [question of] whether it’s objectifying women or cocaine vs. novocaine, whatever it may be. If I made that mistake specifically, that would live on on social media or YouTube forever. That’s the world we live in. Is that good or bad? That’s a different conversation.
But I think being a little bit more off the cuff without objectifying women, however you want to put it, can be a good thing too. It can allow a person on the air to be more themselves. When I’m doing a game, whether it’s “Man you sound like you’re more excited for the Cubs than you are the Indians” or vice versa, these are all parts of the multiple filters that I have in my head when I’m doing a national broadcast. So the examples are used to show how far that, how much that’s changed, whether it’s who’s your perceived rooting interest or something as crass as what my dad said back in the late 70s. There’s a wide spectrum there, all of which has been pretty much taken away. I’m not saying by any stretch that what my dad said should have been laughed at or allowed. I’m just saying that’s how far it’s come. To read that example, you can’t tell me that if you read that example, you think “My God, somebody said that on a baseball broadcast?” As we sit here in 2016, I feel the same way. But it did happen and he did continue to work for 30 years after that, 25 years after that. And then my point is that if I said anything along those lines now, I wouldn’t make it to the end of the inning.
Right, but I’m a Mets fan and Keith Hernandez had a moment kind of like that ten years ago because the Padres had a woman in the dugout, a trainer. And it was an off the cuff remark and he caught a lot of hell for it, but he apologized, and that booth still has a lot of personality. Do you really think it's the same thing as your burn on Johnny Manziel living on the internet?. Is that something that people in the both are really that afraid of? That someone’s going to look you up burning Johnny Manziel? Clearly I’m not afraid of it or I wouldn’t say it. I’m just saying my point is that we’ve become a society where everything really has to be measured when you say it on the air. You can like it, not like it, you can certainly agree with it or say these are better times because of that. I’m saying when you’re sitting in the chair and you’ve got a microphone in front of your face as opposed to a laptop with a delete button, it’s a different world.
It’s become more and more difficult, as someone who’s done it now since the mid 90s at a network level, to avoid AwfulAnnouncing or Deadspin. It’s a completely different atmosphere and environment broadcasting live sports than it ever was. What used to be considering cute or “Ah, that Harry Caray, he just called cocaine novocaine.” Or how can the guy from the Dominican lose a flyball in the sun? Things like that, it’s not laughed off anymore. There’s a separate debate, is it good or bad, and we can have that all day.
But I’m just saying that as you sit there and you operate in the live broadcast world, you just better be careful. And what you say can be taken a thousand different ways. And if a joke, quote unquote is taken the wrong way or a way that it’s not intended, you could find yourself out of work.
Gotcha. A thing that people are talking about, also when the book came out, was your Curt Schilling story from the 2001 World Series. Did you see Schilling’s reaction to it? Yeah. Uh huh.
We’re you expecting that? Are you following him on social media? I’ll stand all day by what I wrote. Whether he wants to go there and do a Twitter war, I’d just rather not give him I think what he’s looking for which is the attention of it. But yeah, I’ll stand by everything in that book, including that.