Monday, August 4, 2008

The Voice of Baseball to Me

SAN FRANCISCO -- Suddenly there was no longer reason to use the word devastating when talking about the fact that Tim Hudson won't pitch for another year. The greatest loss during a season hindered by injuries wasn't truly realized until Sunday, when the Braves lost a legend, and more importantly, a dear friend.

It may take days or weeks for the magnitude of the loss to be realized. But the Braves family is certainly already mourning the loss of Skip Caray, who passed away while sleeping in his suburban Atlanta home on Sunday at the age of 68.

"This has been a really horrible year with all of the injuries and stuff," John Smoltz said. "This puts it all in perspective. We have lost one of the greatest figures in the city of Atlanta's history."
Caray began broadcasting Braves games in 1976 and continued to do so until Thursday, when he and Pete Van Wieren called their final game together. A working relationship that spanned 33 seasons and created the opportunity to form a brotherly bond came to a close without any visible reason for them to issue each other a lasting goodbye.

As Caray battled multiple ailments that affected his heart, liver and kidneys over the last year, Van Wieren had made multiple trips to the hospital and seen his buddy in much worse shape than he had been earlier this week.

Even when Caray was unable to broadcast this past weekend's series against the Brewers, there didn't seem to be reason to worry. Numerous times over the past year, he had always battled back and regained the ability to enjoy his love for baseball and the Braves.

"I'm absolutely shocked," Van Wieren said. "I thought he was doing a lot better. I thought he had more energy this week and seemed more like his old self. It's like losing a family member."
After the Braves claimed their 5-0 win over the Brewers at Turner Field on Sunday afternoon, Van Wieren boarded the team's charter flight bound for San Francisco and had every reason to believe he'd see Caray when the team returned home next week to begin its next homestand.
But 40,000 feet above some of the same homes within which he and Caray had served as national voices for the Braves on TBS, Van Wieren learned of his friend's sudden passing.
After an e-mail message alerted the Braves, manager Bobby Cox woke a sleeping Van Wieren and provided him this shocking news that brought mourning to the entire Braves family.
"I know my jaw just dropped," Van Wieren said. "I lost a good friend and broadcast partner and that is tough for me personally. But anybody affiliated with the Braves who listened to him or knew him over the last 33 years lost something, too. He was as important to the Braves as any player, manager, coach or executive. There's no way to replace him."

When the Braves begin a three-game series in San Francisco on Monday, Van Wieren plans to call the game with a heavy heart. It won't matter that Caray's health had restricted him to only doing home games this year.

Although he wasn't scheduled to make this trip, Caray's absence will be realized.

"Tomorrow, a baseball game will be played by a lot of young men with heavy hearts," Smoltz said.

For the first time since they were joined on a broadcast team that included their mentor Ernie Johnson Sr., Van Wieren will deliver a broadcast knowing that he'll never have the opportunity to work alongside Caray again.

Those days of sharing dinner and drinks after games had been replaced with the exchange of tales about their grandchildren. Through it all, they developed an incredible sense of respect and admiration for each other.

"We had a lot of fun," Van Wieren said. "It was never like going to work."

"This has been a really horrible year with all of the injuries and stuff. This puts it all in perspective. We have lost one of the greatest figures in the city of Atlanta's history."
-- John Smoltz

Whenever Caray came to work, he carried his dry wit and ability to mix humor with sarcasm. During those days following a bad loss, he often preceded Cox's pregame radio segment with a sarcastic comment that regularly caused the veteran skipper to smile.

"This was completely unexpected and is a complete loss," Cox said. "I had just spoken with Skip this week when we did the radio show and I didn't know he wasn't feeling well. He seemed in his normal good spirits.

"We've all lost a very good friend. For me, he was a good buddy -- at the park and away from the park. We always had a lot of great laughs. He will be very sorely missed."

When Smoltz was first introduced to Caray in 1988, the Braves were the laughing stock of the National League. Over the next 20 years, the laughs these two shared together instead often had to do with Smoltz's hitting abilities, or just one of the jokes they had reserved for each other.

"Back in our lean years, when we weren't very good, he was able to entertain with sarcasm," Smoltz said. "Then, when we turned things around and starting winning every year, he made the transition and had the opportunity to make the greatest call in Atlanta Braves history."

Caray was behind the microphone the night that Sid Bream slid home with the winning run in the 1992 National League Championship Series, and the night that Andruw Jones drew a walk that sent the Braves to the 1999 World Series.

But the one Smoltz was referencing was the one that preceded the eruption the city of Atlanta realized when the Braves won the 1995 World Series.

"It was just fitting that he got to do that because he meant so much to this organization," Smoltz said.

Caray's call that night was:
"Fly ball, deep center field, Grissom's on the run ... Yes! Yes! Yes! The Atlanta Braves have given you a championship. Listen to this crowd. A mob scene is on the field. Wohlers gets them, 1-2-3."

Mark Wohlers' perfect ninth inning that night preserved the one-hit gem that Tom Glavine produced in eight innings against the Indians. Whenever Glavine listens to that call, the 300-game winner will draw memories of a grand night and hear the unmistakable voice of a true friend.

While he was with the Mets the past five years, Glavine regularly received e-mails from Caray, and he continued to get more when he rejoined the Braves this year. The words always included a sense of sincerity.

"I knew he cared about what I was doing and what was going on," Glavine said. "He was always good to me. It's a shame. We all lost a friend today."

Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur grew up in suburban Atlanta and has known Caray's voice for a good portion of his 24 years on this Earth. Since coming to the Majors in 2005, he came to realize this familiar voice was produced by a man with a big heart.

Last week, Caray approached Francoeur and told him that he was happy to see that he was smiling and laughing again amid the struggles of an offensively frustrating season. The conversation then turned to Caray's health, and never once was there an indication that the end was near.

"He told me, 'I'm hanging in there,'" Francoeur said. "He loved the Braves and he loved his job. He wasn't ever going to let anybody or anything tell him he couldn't do his job anymore."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

I can hear his voice, the sheer joy as he called the play at the plate in '92, Sid Bream running like he had a piano on his back and sliding into home: 'Braves win, Braves win, Braves win!'


poopie said...

A very well written tribute.

Phyllis S said...

There were so many around on the web, but this one seemed to touch on all the things that made Skip so special.

Joe Simpson reminisced about him throughout the game last night. You could tell he was on the verge of tears at the start of the game, but as it went on, he just laughed and laughed at the memories. There's the real tribute to Skip, and a testament to who he was.