One of the last threads in the blanket of my childhood memories just got tugged out. It's Sunday afternoon as I write, and broadcaster Skip Caray has bid farewell after calling his final game on a TV network that has carried the Atlanta Braves for 30 years.
Sitting here with a tear in my eye for a man I've never met might seem a little odd. But kids grow up watching their sports stars on TV and listening to the broadcasters who describe their exploits. The stars tend to fade from the sky quickly but the play-by-play guys live on.
I was eight when Skip first starting calling games for the Ted Turner-owned network that ultimately became TBS. The Braves were awful then, yet going to games year after year was a right of passage for the die-hard Atlanta sports fan. The miserable on-field performance usually meant you could buy the cheapest seats and move on down to nicer ones. Ushers didn't seem to mind -- it made the stadium seem less empty. Many people in the stands often had radios because Skip and his colleagues switched back and forth from the TV booth to the radio side. It wasn't enough to see a play with my own eyes; I had to hear Skip describe it.
As a kid, I lived close to the stadium the Braves played in. Sometimes, my dad and I would walk to a game. We'd pass the guy in a wheelchair selling pencils, me never quite knowing how I should react when he weakly lifted the box for passersby to inspect. We'd get a mound of roasted peanuts and a Coke and head on in to see if the Braves could pull off a win. In the days before political correctness overtook the country, Chief Noc-a-Homa would dance on the pitcher's mound and run all the way to the outfield fence. He was faster than any human being I ever saw, and he ignited the crowd every night -- no matter how weakly his team would inevitably play. (The Braves had a different mascot then, too, and it also disappeared in to the night.)
My dad and I were also in the stands for one of the most historic nights in the history of baseball -- the fateful day when then-beloved Charlie Hustle (Pete Rose, for you non-sports types) brought a 44-consecutive game hit streak to Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. The place was packed on August 1, 1978, and many if not most Braves fans were pulling for him to continue his march toward breaking the record of 56 set by Joe DiMaggio.
Rose hit one foul ball that was headed straight to my hands. My heart pounded as I watched the ball zero in on me like destiny, only to hit an electrical wire 10 feet over my head and leave me crestfallen. I felt the same when Atlanta reliever Gene Garber struck Rose out in the ninth inning. I was 9 at the time; I still have the ticket stub from that game. The same is true for the gift tickets I had as an adult for a game that got canceled. It was September 11, 2001.
I don't remember being able to hear a radio as Rose stormed off, mad at the world for Garber throwing him a tough pitch instead of a meaty fastball, but I would listen to Skip for many more years. He even had for a while the double misfortune of calling the yet more abysmal Atlanta Hawks basketball team. I couldn't help but feel sympathy for a man sentenced to such a fate.
Skip fought through the misery with an exceptionally dry humor that made games bearable even when hopes of victory were rare. "We head into the bottom of another fifth," said Skip, a man who didn't mind a good drink.
I got older, and the Braves got better. I hung on every one of Skip's words as the Braves went from worst to first one season, making it to some alien-sounding concept called "the playoffs". The "Tomahawk Chop" became all the rage, fans thrusting their arms forward and signaling to other teams they were doomed. Skip was just thrilled something other than the long-cliche "wave" had captured fans' attention. Skip still hates the wave.
No matter what was going on in my life, Skip was there. Jobs would come and go, girls would break my heart, friends died ... and Skip was there. I finished college and Skip was still doing games. I moved to Alaska and cranked up the TV volume while I stood outside barbecuing moose with a sauce my stepmom taught me how to make from scratch.
I moved to Spain and lamented I could not hear Skip describe one of the greatest-ever Braves moments; I had to read about slow-footed Sid Bream sliding home to beat the Pirates in the International Herald Tribune. The play in the seventh game of the National League Championship Series sent the Braves to the World Series in 1992.
Baseball players went on strike in 1994 and I was done with baseball. I haven't bought a ticket since. Millionaires who get paid to play a sport for a living going on strike, thinking they deserve as much financial reward as the entrepreneur who takes the risk to build the business ... well, that just doesn't sit well with me. I never forgave baseball players for that, and the refrain of a great song from either that or a previous strike year still play in my mind -- "Winfield, Garvey, Rose -- stick it up your nose."
The Braves demolishing a stadium I grew up in only further irritated me. My disdain for the players aside, I would still sometimes tune in just to hear Skip. Whether life was good or bad, Skip was there. I needed him most when I was down on my luck ... when the gentle, soothing tone of his voice would make me feel normal again. Like things would get better.
I read in a newspaper that today would be TBS's last national Braves telecast, and that Skip would be in the booth one last time. He is still going to do a few local games but I live in D.C. now, so I decided I'd sit through an entire game just to spend the day him.
I sat there watching a Braves team working its way back toward sour apple days, but it didn't matter. Skip was doing the game with his son, a fine broadcaster in his own right who will continue on with the network. Skip reminisced about old times, a great many of them we had been through together. He got choked up, as did I, when he thanked all the fans for the support they've showed him when his spirits were down.
An Atlanta batter struck out to complete a loss in the ninth, just like the Braves of old. Skip pronounced the end of an era and the turning of a page.
I turned off the TV, letting the sounds of my childhood caress my ears one last time.