- The Washington Times - Friday, August 26, 2005

Joe Buck blew it — and he knew it. During last month’s All-Star Game in Detroit, a banner with the letters HHRYA was unfurled in right field. Buck, calling the game on Fox with partner Tim McCarver, wondered on-air what it meant.

It turned out the sign was nothing more than a sneaky advertising ruse, a Chevrolet Web site promoting a new vehicle. It also turned out Buck not only was aware of the ploy, he was a willing partner in subterfuge for commercial purposes.

Sorry about that, folks. Bad move. The Buck stops here.

“We crossed a line,” he said this week from St. Louis, where he grew up and lives with his family. “It was wrong. It’s a lesson everyone learned from. I should have said, ‘Let’s re-word this and say it for what it is.’ You have to be respectful and draw the line between baseball stuff and selling something. … It was a mistake.”

It also was uncharacteristic of Buck who, as lead play-by-play voice for Fox’s major league baseball and NFL games, is among the most visible and respected members of his profession. Like the first-place Cardinals, whose games he calls, Buck is riding high. Author Curt Smith, who has spent a good part of his life writing about baseball broadcasters, devised a system of ranking the men behind the mike and wrote a book called “Voices of Summer.” He had Buck at No.39 all-time.

At 36, Buck has been immersed in the business for about that long, too. He is the son of Jack Buck, the Hall of Fame voice of the Cardinals and network football and baseball broadcasts who died in 2002 (and ranks No.4 in Smith’s book). Joe figures he was 2 when he first accompanied his dad to work, and he pretty much never left.

“I grew up in a baseball booth,” he said.

Tonight, however, is about football. Buck is in town with his NFL partner, Troy Aikman, to call the Washington Redskins’ preseason game with the Pittsburgh Steelers at FedEx Field. Continuing Fox’s blitz of the nation’s capital, the network will carry the St. Louis Cardinals-Washington Nationals game tomorrow at RFK Stadium.

Missing from the Fox football lineup, however, is Cris Collinsworth, who teamed with Buck and Aikman in 2002 to replace Pat Summerall and John Madden as the network’s so-called “A-Team.” Collinsworth departed after signing with NBC, which acquired Sunday Night Football starting next year. His often acerbic observations added bite and spice to the broadcast, but reducing a three-man booth seems fine with everyone.

“Anybody who does this for a living, no matter the personalities, would prefer a two-man booth,” Buck said. “And for the most part, the listeners prefer a two-man booth.”

This time of year poses a conflict of sorts for Buck, who first broadcast Cardinals games at 22 and still calls some of their games. As much as he appreciates his NFL gig, he is a baseball man first. But the NFL is Fox’s show horse, which is why he will be at FedEx and not RFK — and off baseball on Fox until postseason play starts in October.

“I can tell you the wild-card race quicker than I can tell you the Bills’ secondary,” he said.

In both sports, Buck has reached the top relatively quickly. He first did a World Series for Fox in 1996, when he was 27. He is smooth and glib, at once completely natural and totally in command.

“You can talk about his pedigree, but he’s so accomplished for such a young guy,” Aikman said. “He’s just really talented. And the other thing is, he’s as prepared as you can imagine.”

Said Smith: “He’s smart, he does his homework, he tells you what’s current in a very concise and accurate style. In that sense, he’s certainly inherited his dad’s DNA.”

Jack Buck had a sense of fun (he once got in trouble for an intended humorous remark about Polish people), and so does his son. Joe did those kooky Budweiser commercials, first with Leon the prima donna. Later, he uttered the ridiculous catch phrase, “Slam-a-lama, ding-dong.”

Buck eschews the word irreverent, but he wields a dry, sly sense of humor. Like during the All-Star telecast, after such fluff as the “Taco Bell Pitching Challenge,” when Buck said leading into a commercial, “When we come back, we will actually talk baseball. …” And he never hides his good-natured, low-key contempt for “Scooter,” the goofy, animated, talking baseball Fox believes attracts young viewers.

Baseball’s tradition and history lends itself to that sort of thing more than football, Buck said. It’s all about pace, the long season, the time to fill. But he doesn’t view the NFL, forever dubbed the “No Fun League” by former coach Jerry Glanville, as sacred ground either.

“I struggle with that every week,” he said. “[In baseball,] people want a touch of fun and entertainment, especially because it’s 162 games. The NFL is different. The regular-season games mean more. But you have to keep it light at times and have fun. You have to pick your spots.”

Smith said he first heard Buck, then 24, on the radio in 1993, turned to his wife and said, “This guy is good.” Smith said he enjoys Buck’s even, Midwestern tone, which lends him “an approachability, a friendliness that’s easy to hear.” But Smith does have one criticism: He believes Buck comes across as “too edgy” in a “stunningly unedgy sport.”

“There are times when he embodies a cultural disconnect,” Smith said. “He’s not doing hip-hop. He’s not doing the NBA.”

Buck’s response? “I plead totally guilty,” he said. “I just have a different opinion on that because I think baseball has to stay relevant.”

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