Friday night brings us the start of the American League Championship Series. This means Friday night also brings us the return of Joe Buck to the airwaves.
Since 1996, Buck has been the voice of MLB’s postseason on Fox. When I think of Buck—and I think of him often—I don’t hear him calling a game-winning home run or series-clinching strikeout. For my money, the most indelible audio memory of Joe Buck is him being forced to read promos for Fox programming. And I do mean forced, because his android-like delivery of said promos suggests there is someone offscreen with a gun pointed at his head.
As baseball’s playoffs coincide with TV’s traditional season premiere season, Fox has always used its coverage of those playoffs as a vehicle to promote its brand new or soon-to-return shows. Each year Joe Buck has led these broadcasts as their lead play-by-play man—which he has since the last time Ross Perot ran for president—he has had to break away from the exciting playoff action to tell us all about these impending debuts. He knows as well as the anxious baseball fan watching at home that the vast majority of these shows will disappear without a trace three weeks after their birth. He also knows that even the “hits” he’s had to flog are either depressing monuments to fabricated culture (American Idol) or testaments of America’s disturbing flirtation with fascism (24). At least I like to believe Buck recognizes this task as the joyless death march it is, since he reads these announcements in tones that make Mike Francesa’s ad recitations sound like Marlon Brando.
In tribute to this autumn tradition, I’ve assembled a supercut containing Joe Buck promos from every postseason he’s been on the air so far, 1996-2016. You will hear and see him flog programs that I guarantee you have no memory of unless you personally apeared in them (and even then, you might struggle to come up with a name). You will also hear him blame Fred Savage for a power outage and linger a little too long on the charms of Zooey Deschanel. It is a testament to Buck’s dedication that, even when mooning over a pretty young actress, he still sounds as if he gobbled a fistful of Xanax.
On Saturday, we visited friends to take in game 2 of the Subway Series, a rare evening Fox broadcast. These friends are Yankee fans, but we agree on this point: Joe Buck is awful. Much of our in-game conversation revolved around his hideousness. (We pretty much left Tim McCarver’s performance alone; at this point, making fun of Tim is like busting on the fat kid in your grade who’s been left behind three times.)
As the game ground to a conclusion, Joe Buck sounded positively crestfallen. And when Frankie Rodriguez finally struck out Francisco Cervelli to end it, Buck was despondent. I thought maybe it was because he expected the Yankees to mount a comeback (an effort the Mets’ bullpen did its best to aid). Especially since the general tenor of the broadcast depicted the Mets as little more than an inconvenient molehill in the mountain that is the Yankees’ season.
But my friend countered with something that really struck a chord. “He’s not sad because he wanted the Yankees to win,” my friend said. “He’s just sad because he realizes he still has to call baseball games.”
This is a theory I’ve had for a while and written about more than once, but I’ve never heard put quite this way before. I’ve said that Buck secretly hates baseball and unfavorably compared him to Chip Caray, another legacy broadcaster who also sucks but who is at least animated. I’ve even thought Buck is trapped in a purgatory of his own design.
It never occurred to me that maybe Buck hopes that each baseball game he calls might be his last. Perhaps a wildcat work stoppage will grind the big leagues to a halt. Perhaps MLB will get fleeced by a Bernie Madoff-esque con artist and lose so much money it’s forced to close its doors. Perhaps some strange psycho-social event will alter the collective American consciousness so much that professional sports will no longer be a viable industry.
Maybe he thinks that if he just does just this one more game, he’ll be released from this Faustian bargain, the one where he asked for fame and fortune in exchange for going into the family business that he hates. Is there any realistic chance it this Last Game will ever come? Of course not. But he has to think there is or go mad.
In a book I read recently (I want to say it’s Paul Auster’s Invisible, but I’m not 100 percent sure about that, so don’t quote me), two characters wonder if the damned would have hope. They come to the conclusion that in order for Hell to have any meaning, the damned have some kind of hope. If they didn’t, they would resign themselves to the horrors of hell, no matter how bad they were, and it wouldn’t truly be hell.
Therefore, Buck must believe that he will be released from his torture, even though only the grave will release him from this obligation. It would be chilling, even sad, if it wasn’t happening to Joe Buck, who is fucking horrible.
We’re into the waning seconds of regulation in the NFC championship game, all tied at 28, the Vikings have the ball, and they are on the precipice of field goal range. Now…wait a second, Minnesota just received a penalty for 12 men in the huddle. That will cost them five yards of precious field position. Joe, that’s because Brett Favre is so focused on the game. A lesser quarterback might have noticed there were too many players on the field, but Brett has a one track mind, which is what you really need in a winning quarterback. I agree, Troy. Now the Vikings will try to get back into field range. Favre drops back, he’s got some room to scramble, but he decides to throw for some reason, and the pass is picked off by Tracy Porter. Do you think that was a good decision, Troy? Absolutely, Joe. What you saw there was Brett Favre trying to make the big play. He thought he could bounce a pass right off of Porter’s helmet and into Bernard Berrian’s arms. That kind of circus catch would have taken the wind right out of the Saints’ sails. It didn’t work out, but you can not blame Brett for trying. You simply CAN NOT. Indeed, Troy. Brett Favre is not to blame here. Not for anything, ever. But that pick means we go into overtime. New Orleans wins the coin toss, so they will receive and try to drive down the field for the winning score. Watch Brett Favre watching the game on the sideline. That is the way a true champion sits and watches. Head up, looking at the action. Not to the side, or above or below, but at the action. You wanna talk about a champion watcher, Brett Favre is every bit of that. Oh, and Garrett Hartley nails a 40-yard field goal to win the game for the Saints. Now, Brett Favre will rise from the bench and head down the tunnel into the locker room. This is a player who KNOWS how to walk into a locker room. One foot in front of the other. We are watching a professional. It is just a joy to watch him walk. He walks like a little kid out there! And now he’s in the locker room, and he’s taking his socks off. And he’s placed one of his socks on his right hand, and he’s talking to it. And now the sock is “talking” back to him, like a puppet. Again, this shows leadership. I don’t know any other QB in the NFL who can talk to his socks like that. He is truly greater than Jesus. Now he’s popped the top off of a AA battery with his brute strength, and he’s pouring the battery acid down his throat. Do you think that was a good decision, Troy? I do, Joe. Most coaches in this league will tell you they don’t want their QBs ingesting caustic chemicals, as would most doctors and rational human beings. But Brett Favre didn’t get this far by listening to the so-called experts. We’ll take a break. When we come back, live coverage of Brett Favre lying on the floor, convulsing and foaming at the mouth. And if we have time, a few shots of the team that is technicallygoing to the Super Bowl.
If nothing else good comes out of these MLB playoffs (and nothing probably will, as a Phillies-Yankees World Series leaves me rooting for the meteor), they may force the league to correct two glaring deficiencies. The first is, obviously, the umpiring. I am 100 percent convinced one huge game this year will be definitively and adversely affected by a terrible call. There will be no room for debate as to whether this call cost a team the game, as there was with Phil Cuzzi’s brainlock in the ALDS. No, I’m talking about a blatant blown call at a critical moment in a deciding game of a series that shifts victory from one side to the other. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.
Then, hopefully, Bud Selig will be forced to reverse his idiotic anti-replay-expansion stance. We have the technology to make replay review work efficiently, it wouldn’t appreciably lengthen games (if anything, it’d shorten them, since it would prevent managers stomping out onto the field to scream about blown calls), and we could even use umpires to man the review booth/room/quonset hut. Selig is like an astronomer who refuses to use a telescope. “No way! Looking at the spheres too closely ruins their mystique! I’ll just keep using my magnifying glass to view Jupiter, thank you very much!”
The second one is less essential, but just as important to fans, in my mind. Hopefully, this postseason will force MLB to get new announcers for the biggest games of the year. Because right now, the play-by-play guys they’ve chosen are across the board terrible.
Just like bad umpiring, fans’ toleration of announcers’ hideousness is at an all-time low. Read any sports-related site and you will see nothing but contempt for the men who are supposed to be the Voices of Baseball. Spend an evening on Twitter during a game, and it’s hard to miss the embarrassment and anger inspired by bad play-by-play. That contempt is finally starting to find its way into the mainstream media, which gives me hope that some changes will be afoot by this time next year.
Chip Caray’s gotten the worst reviews, even though this is his second year doing the playoffs. The difference this year is that he’s calling Yankee games, thus exposing a large, vocal, passionate fanbase to his hideousness. Although it is somewhat curious that Yankee fans would object to Chip when they’re usually treated to Michael Kay. But when picking the announcer for the tentpole games of the postseason, shouldn’t you have higher criteria than “not much worse than Michael Kay”?
Joe Buck, on the other hand, receives few complaints. I think most fans feel that he’s been around for so long, there’s no point in slagging him. We’ll never be rid of him, we realize now. He’s like some small town mayor voted into office for 17 consecutive terms. No one bothers running against him anymore.
Buck and Caray are Legacy Broadcasters. They’re both the sons of beloved baseball voices. Between them, Skip Caray and Jack Buck had about 700 years of play-by-play experience. Add in Chip’s uncle Harry, and that’s quite a bloodline. One with an unhealthy amount of Budweiser and pork. (“If the moon was made of ribs, would you eat it?”)
So Chip and Joe were just sort of admitted to broadcasting, the way people are admitted to Harvard or Yale because everyone in their families went to Harvard or Yale. Merit had nothing to do with it. And just like the inbred blue-blood alumni of Harvard and Yale tend to grow up to do terrible things to our country, so too have Chip and Joe done terrible things to the game of baseball.
Here’s the thing, though: If you put a gun to my head, I’d take Chip Caray over Buck. Yes, Chip Caray gets things wrong and his knowledge of players is extremely limited and his impoverished vocabulary means he uses certain words constantly (like “fisted” regardless of whether the ball was actually fisted or not and without any seeming awareness of the double meaning). Worst of all, he used to be a Braves broadcaster. But even allowing all of that, I’ll take Chip over Joe, if I have to take either.
Because if Chip Caray has nothing else going for him (and he might not), when he does play-by-play, he sounds as if he likes baseball. He seems to understand that there are exciting moments in a game that should be reacted to with a certain level of enthusiasm. He can at least do this simple, obvious task.
Joe Buck can not. Because Joe Buck fucking hates baseball.
There’s an old saying: The worst day at the ballpark is better than the best day at the office. Joe Buck does not understand this saying. Because every moment spent in the vicinity of the game is a torturous hell to him. He is trapped in a purgatory of his own making, and he does not rage against its walls. He resigns himself to apathy, because caring would be pointless.
When Joe Buck calls a game, he simply tells you what happened. After each pitch, he says “ball one” or “strike two”. Each time the ball is put into play, he says “grounder to short” or “single to left. No embellishment whatsoever. Every second he spends in a broadcast booth is destroying him, and he transmits that horror in every breath of his chilling, soulless play-by-play work.
It’s as if the playoffs are being called by a vampire. And not a sexy Twilight/True Blood vampire, either. A classic vampire, devoid of life, envious of the dead, wanting to take everyone else with him into his cold nether-region of the damned.
But I will thank Joe Buck for one thing. His complete apathy in the face of the year’s most exciting games provided the best moment of the playoffs so far. It came in game 2 of the ALCS on Saturday. You’ll be forgiven for missing it, because it came at a moment that you (unlike Buck) were wrapped up in because you found it exciting.
Top of the ninth, two outs, game tied at 2, Mariano Rivera on the mound in his second inning of relief. Torii Hunter at the plate. Future Hall of Famer versus dangerous hitter. Rivera falls behind 2-0, then gets two swinging strikes. The crowd is on its feet, cheering between the raindrops. Finally, Rivera throws his signature cutter, right on the inside black, and freezes Hunter. Called strike three, inning over. Mariano walks back to the dugout in his typically subdued way, a totally contrast to the fans, who are going ballistic.
This is the kind of moment a broadcaster lives for. Athletic theatre of the highest order. It is a sliver of time screaming out for either profundity or silence. What did Joe Buck say?
“What. A. … Game.”
I absolutely lost it. I laughed harder than I’ve laughed since I heard Tom Scharpling and Paul F. Tompkins discuss the Gathering of the Juggalos. It was so awkward and unsure of itself and tragically incompetent, I almost applauded.
It was delivered in the same tone as Comic Book Guy sneering “Worst. Episode. Ever.” Joe Buck actually paused between “a” and “game”, as if he forgot what he was going to say next, or someone clogged up his robot RAM with too much information and he was slow to process it. FATAL ERROR. SOME DATA MAY BE LOST.
Faced with an epic moment in a thrilling playoff game, this was the best Joe Buck could do. Ladies and gentlemen, the prosecution rests.
I considered tweeting all about tonight’s exciting (yawn) All Star Game. Then I remembered that it will involve Joe Buck and Tim McCarver. And that, because the game is taking place in St. Louis, Mr. Buck will be at the height of his most cloyingly nostalgic and self righteous. (See how many times the phrase “greatest fans in baseball is used”, but please don’t turn it into a drinking game or you’ll go blind.) It was then I knew I couldn’t restrain my hatred to 140 characters at a time.
So this evening, I will live blog all the drama and stupidity that surely awaits us. Your comments are, as always, welcomed.
Do you enjoy the sound of my voice as much as I do? Then check out today’s edition of Behind the Bricks, a podcast hosted by Brian Mollica, a good friend and a very funny guy. On this show, I am interviewed on the subject of Artie Lange, Joe Buck, unfortunate Father’s Day experiences, and how I collected old baseball games on DVD without MLB’s express written consent (or even implied oral consent!).
I heartily recommend you check out the whole site, or subscribe to it via iTunes. But impatient folks can download the episode here. Personally, I think it’s the greatest thing in the history of time, but I don’t want to oversell it or anything.