“In the frozen grip of winter…”

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I had the great pleasure of meeting Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck in 2001 when I was 14 years old.  I was an eighth grader, going into freshman year of high school.  My friend’s dad was his personal accountant and Buck had told my friend to “come say hello” whenever he made it to games that summer.  We only used that invitation once — didn’t want to be gnats — but that one visit is still fresh in my mind.

Buck and Mike Shannon would split innings sometimes; often it was a one-man booth.  Just two St. Louis landmarks, doing whatever they please and doing it remarkably well.

Buck was just wrapping up the bottom of the fourth inning.  The Cards were playing the Pirates for the 80th-or-so time that season.  He came up a couple of smalls steps toward where we were standing, in a tight lobby behind the old Busch Stadium announcer’s booth, and got a few notes from his son Joe as he strolled closer.  I don’t remember him being in bad health.  He seemed to be walking fine.

Buck shook my friend’s hand as I stood there deciding whether to be starstruck or embarrassed.  We looked a little out of place in the professional setting.  He said, “you boys hungry?” as he shook my hand, asked my name, and took us over to the press box grill.

Buck gave a quick nod to the man with the metal spatula and looked at us.  “Let me show you how to make a burger,” he said in that classic voice of his, a voice that made everything sound important, and good and worthy.  The man behind the grill tossed three patties onto the sizzling stovetop, then carefully made small cuts into the center of the meat.  “If you try to flatten it, you lose that juice,” Buck told us.  The man behind the grill agreed.  Grease is your friend at the ballpark.

Buck also grabbed a pack of Nutter Butters and poured them into a bowl.  Dessert.

We sat down at a table and I did my best to act confident, not shy.  “Pujols is awesome,” I efforted.

It was Albert’s rookie year.  And he was awesome.  “I can tell you, that guy has worked his tail off since spring training,” Buck replied.  Pujols would go on to hit 37 home runs that season with 130 RBI, winning National League Rookie of the Year honors by the ninth unanimous vote in baseball history.

Buck put mustard, ketchup and relish on each of our burgers at the table.  I was as picky as most teenagers and probably would have preferred a simple dollop of ketchup, but I wasn’t going to say anything. I was still fighting a feeling that we might be annoying a man at work.  No, a legend at work.

Buck asked my friend about his summer plans, he answered a few more Chris Farley Show-like questions from me and then he had to head back to the booth to call the bottom of the fifth.  Before he did, we snapped a picture and I asked him to sign my ticket stub.  I won’t ever lose those.

This portion of the baseball calendar always reminds me of Jack Buck, as strange as that might sound.  Beyond being a great broadcaster both on the radio and on television, he was a skilled writer of poetry.  Here’s a fitting excerpt for the January baseball fan from his poem “365.”

In the frozen grip of winter
I’m sure you’ll agree with me
Not a day goes by without someone
Talking baseball to some degree.

The calendar flips on New Year’s Day
The Super Bowl comes and it goes
Get the other sports out of the way
The green grass and the fever grows.

It’s time to pack a bag and take a trip
To Arizona or the Sunshine State
Perhaps you can’t go, but there’s the radio
So you listen-you root-you wait.

They start the campaign, pomp and pageantry reign
You claim the pennant on Opening Day

Umpire admits he blew the call that got Joe Maddon ejected last night

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Last night in the top of the eighth inning of the Dodgers-Cubs game, Curtis Granderson struck out. Or, at the very least, he should’ve. After the game, the umpire who said he didn’t admitted he screwed up.

While trying to squelch a Dodgers comeback, Wade Davis got Granderson into a 2-2 count. Davis threw his pitch, Granderson whiffed on it, it hit the dirt, and Willson Contreras applied the tag for the out. End of the inning, right? Wrong: Granderson argued to home plate umpire Jim Wolf that he made slight contact with the ball, Wolf, after conferring with the other umps agreed, and Granderson lived to see another pitch.

Before he’d see that pitch, Joe Maddon came out to argue the call and got so agitated about it all he was ejected for the second time in this series. He was right to argue:

It all ended up not mattering, of course, because Granderson struck out eventually anyway.

Normally such things end there, but after the game a reporter got to Wolf and Wolf did something umpires don’t often do: he admitted he blew the call:

It’s good that the bad call ended up not affecting anything. But the part of me who likes to stir up crap and watch chaos rule in baseball really kinda wishes that Granderson had hit a series-clinching homer right after that. At least as long as it didn’t result in Cubs fans burning Chicago to the ground.