“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

Braves clinch NL East title

Ender Inciarte
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So much for a last-minute, nail-biting finish to this division race. The Braves cemented their division title with a dominant 5-3 finish over the Phillies on Saturday, laying claim to the NL East title for the first time since 2013.

The Braves asserted themselves right off the bat after amassing a four-run lead from Johan Camargo and Freddie Freeman, both of whom cleared the bases with two-run singles in the first two innings. Ronald Acuna Jr., meanwhile, found another way to make his presence known after swiping his 15th stolen base of the year and joining Alex Rodriguez, Orlando Cepeda, and Mike Trout as one of the youngest players to collect at least 25 home runs and 15 stolen bags in major league history.

Not to be outdone, Atlanta right-hander Mike Foltynewicz delivered one of the strongest starts of his season to date. The righty set down six innings of no-hit ball against the Phillies, and, with just 62 pitches under his belt, looked ready to go the distance before he lost his bid on Odubel Herrera‘s leadoff single in the seventh.

Unfortunately for the Braves, the Phillies not only upended Foltynewicz’s no-hit attempt, but the shutout as well. In the eighth inning, Cesar Hernandez and Rhys Hoskins wrestled two RBI singles from Atlanta’s bullpen and brought Philadelphia within one run of tying the game. Hoskins was the last Phillies batter to reach base, however, as Jonny Venters and Arodys Vizcaino tossed a combined 1 2/3 scoreless innings (backed by a final RBI hit from Kurt Suzuki in the bottom of the eighth) to cap the Braves’ win — and the NL East title.

With the loss, the Phillies sit seven games back of a wild card spot in the National League. They’ll need to outpace the Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Cardinals in order to make 2018 their first postseason-qualifying year since 2011.