Cumberland Times-News

August 6, 2008

The right guy for the right team and the right time

Mike Burke

It was a sad day for baseball fans all over the country on Sunday when we learned of the death of Skip Caray, the longtime broadcaster for the Atlanta Braves.

Caray, of course, came into the households of a nation of fans in 1976 when Ted Turner's cable Superstation WTBS broadcast all of the games played by Ted Turner's baseball team, the Braves. What was cool about that was TBS would rebroadcast the games then at 1:35 a.m. so the working man getting off the late shift could watch them, and it ended up being a stroke of genius as you'll never convince me that didn't help build the Braves' national following to the point that they became known as "America's Team."

The beauty of it was you could watch your favorite team live and then stay up until the wee hours of the morning to catch another baseball game when the Braves' broadcasts re-aired. That was a novelty in those days, and in those days, you saw a bad Braves team build itself into a winning team as they were introducing the world to the likes of young, upcoming players such as Dale Murphy, Bob Horner, Bruce Benedict and Glenn Hubbard. And, of course, every fourth game or so, you were treated to seeing the future Hall of Famer Phil Neikro pitch.

The real treat of it all, though, particularly before the Braves were very good, was listening to Caray, who, just as Jon Miller and Joe Angel were during the Orioles' horrid 1988 season, seemed to be more entertaining during a bad ballgame than he was during a good one. And in those days, there were plenty of bad ones.

Many of us were drawn to Caray's sarcasm and the way he could make fun of the game, some of the rules of the game (he hated the infield-fly rule, for instance) and of himself, including his love of drink.

"Bases are loaded," he said one night during a particularly bad game, "and I wish I was, too."

During the days when old movies and the Braves carried the programming on TBS, you could always count on hearing movie promos between pitches. When a graphic appeared on the screen concerning the war movie, "To Hell and Back," Caray said, " 'To Hell and Back' ... The story of our night out in St. Louis."

One night when perhaps 5,000 fans were in the stands at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, Caray said as the camera scanned the sparse crowd, "It's a partial sellout." And then, of course, one night when the camera showed a particularly healthy woman walking through the stands, having no problems putting her good health on display with the help of a particularly skimpy halter top, Caray quipped, "Two out in the fourth."

Westernport's Leo Mazzone, of course, knew Caray well from his 16 years as the Braves pitching coach. Mazzone, who keeps busy with the Leo Mazzone Radio Show in Atlanta, a weekly television gig on Comcast Sports South and an ever-increasing broadcasting load for the Fox network's Saturday Game of the Week, said Tuesday afternoon from his Georgia home, "It was a privilege and an honor to know Skip Caray, and I said that this morning on the radio.

"I said, 'Skip, I'm going to toast you with a Bloody Mary.' And all the guys on the set were saying, 'Pass the Bloodys. To Skip!' "

In Mazzone's view, because of the medium and because of Caray's style, he was able to achieve at a national level what most great broadcasters initially were able to achieve at a local or regional level.

"When you grow up, there are certain voices you immediately identify as the voices of baseball: Mel Allen, Vin Scully, Chuck Thompson, Bob Prince," Mazzone said. "TBS went everywhere in the country. I'll be 60 in October but when I went to spring training and saw Skip Caray setting up to do the first spring training game of the year, when I heard his voice it gave me goose bumps because it meant baseball season was officially starting."

And Leo said the dry Caray wit that came across on television was exactly as it was when he was off the air.

"For 16 years I was lucky enough to know Skip," he said. "Every day he would come into the clubhouse and say, 'Leo, what's the joke of the day?' And either he would have one or I would have one and, let me tell you, they were some of the grossest jokes you've ever heard in your life."

If it appeared Caray had more fun in the early days of his Braves career, Mazzone said that was true to a degree. "He told me one time, 'Leo, it's getting harder and harder to do the games now because we've gotten to be so good. I had a lot more fun in the booth when we were bad.'

"But we had a lot of fun. We had fun at the park, on the planes, going out to eat. There was just a lot of joking. Skip loved every single minute of his life."

Caray, however, was no hack comedian sent into the booth just to liven up the broadcast. Mazzone said he talked baseball quite a bit with Caray and that Caray, the son of Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Caray and the father of current Braves broadcaster Chip Caray, knew the game inside and out.

"His baseball knowledge was outstanding and it was great when he worked with Pete Van Wieren," said Mazzone. "Pete was more the baseball encyclopedia type, and Skip had the perfect timing. He could say the right thing at the right time, and he knew when to say nothing and let the crowd take care of the rest."

Maybe it's a little ironic that Leo lives in the South, where Margaret Mitchell penned such melancholy words as, "Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind." For between laughs with a friend from back home on Tuesday afternoon, Leo Mazzone thought of another friend, Skip Caray, and what he had meant to his career and to the national emergence of the South's first big-league baseball team.

"It was a great time," Mazzone said. "It's the end of an era. Skip's gone and the Braves are no longer on TBS. We were seen all over the country with Skip leading the way. We were America's Team, just like the Dallas Cowboys.

"The Braves have lost some of that identity ... And it's a shame."

Contact Mike Burke at mburke@times-news.com.