Thursday, January 27, 2011
An interview with Joe Buck: it’s good to have a familyPosted by Anna McDonald
In the heartland of Cardinal country, his ballcap is the color of Cubbie blue. He stands in line waiting for his coffee surrounded by men and women in business suits. The very recognizable face of Joe Buck, Fox Sports' lead play-by-play broadcaster and son of Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck, blends into the crowd.
What kind of stories—about his dad, about the life of a broadcaster, about baseball—stand out to the man who is blending into everything around him?
Jack Buck came from a family with seven kids who were all on their own, just trying to scrape together anything they could to help their mom and keep the family fed. As a kid he played in the street, baseball sometimes, but life was about work.
"He didn't talk a lot about it because I don't think he ever wanted to pump his chest out and say, 'Look what I've become,'" says Buck. "Having started with almost literally nothing, he worked from the day he could to the day he couldn't."
For Joe Buck, his dad's story is humbling. He knows his own career in broadcasting started at the age of 19 in Triple-A baseball because of his dad. As he thinks about it some more he discloses with a smile, "Nepotism is not something I really run from."
"He loved baseball," Buck remembers about his dad. "My dad's dad went blind with cataracts. So every day my dad would read him the sports page out loud, and that's when he became familiar with enunciating and telling stories about baseball—reading about the game."
When Jack Buck was a young boy, he ended up on an ore boat in the Great Lakes. He then went to World War II, got shot in Germany and was able to go to college on the GI Bill. Says Buck, "He literally fought for everything he got."
As a young broadcaster, Buck's father was just thankful for work. He would take whatever assignment he received from KMOX in St. Louis.
As time moved on, there had to be something more, something beyond just work. Joe Buck doesn't have just a few memories of baseball from when he was a kid: baseball was his childhood, it was his life. "If the Cardinals lost, it was the last thing I thought of when I went to sleep, and it was the first thing I thought of when I woke up. And my dad would say the same thing," he said.
"Going to the ballpark all summer and even throughout the school year," was the childhood Buck remembers. He was with his dad non-stop. Even as a seven-year-old, he would get in the car and they would go to Busch Stadium together. They would just spend time together while his dad worked.
"I'd go on the road with him," he recalls. "And that's where he made me laugh, and I could make him laugh. I was a good traveler, where I never really got in his way. I knew how to behave, and so he was never worried about taking me with him with the Cardinals on their charter."
There are stories, though. Several come to mind when he thinks about his own memories as a kid. He remembers many times when he'd shag balls in the outfield during batting practice at Busch Stadium.
"I became friends with a pitcher named Dave LaPoint, who was kind of a chunky guy and I was kind of a chunky kid. He and I would play catch a lot. He used to always rough me up—I was a little fat kid—and I think he looked after me, being a fat pitcher as he was. I was kind of like his little buddy."
One day LaPoint started boxing Buck around a bit, just playing and rough housing. "He hit me on the arm and caught the wrong spot on me," said Buck. "And I mean, it hurt. It took everything I had in me not to cry. I was maybe ten and as I sat there, tears started welling up in my eyes, and he knew he had hit me too hard. It was awful, he felt terrible."
LaPoint even went to his dad and apologized. But Jack Buck didn't get mad, he didn't worry about it. He loved it. It meant that his son was one of the guys—one of the baseball family.
"That was a great way to learn about the game," Buck said.
Another time in San Francisco, after his outfield routine of shagging balls for batting practice was over, he went back to the dugout. There he saw some dipping tobacco sitting by the guys. He was always very curious about it, and ballplayers in the dugout, at times, need to be entertained.
"They gave me some," he recalls. "It was real harsh stuff like Copenhagen. And I put it in my lip as a 13-year-old bat boy thinking I was going to be cool. About twenty-five seconds after it was in my mouth I was so dizzy, and I had to run out there and get the bat. I couldn't run in a straight line. I mean, I was zig-zagging my way out there and turning green." He remembers the players on the bench just howling, rolling on the ground laughing at him. "I came back and spit it out and threw up in the dugout."
He believes his all-time worst—and greatest—story ever was when he was about nine years old. He had wandered away from his dad in the LA airport. Jack Buck trusted his son and really didn't watch him much. As Jack Buck was trusting and Joe Buck was wandering, the team plane started pulling away from the gate.
"They had to pull the team plane back, open the door, and I had to get on the plane," Buck said. "It wasn't like it was Keith Hernandez. The announcer's kid was the reason why they are not on the runway taking off. It was awful. But in a good way, I was less than ten."
After walking on that plane and holding his head up, while taking all their grief and letting it subside, Buck knows after that he could "pretty much deal with anything." It's the mark of a family: teach the younger siblings that sometimes life doesn't work the way you'd like, but you move on.
Later, when he was doing the Cardinals broadcasts, one day he thought he'd get some exercise and shag balls in the outfield during batting practice, just like when he was a kid. Buck was running towards a fly ball and he collided with the Cardinal's outfielder, Ray Lankford.
"He was rolling around on the ground grabbing his knee and I was like, 'Oh, my god, I'm going to be responsible for ending Ray Lankford's career.' Thank God he popped up and was okay."
After all the time he has spent around Hall of Fame ballplayers and legends of the game, after spending his childhood living at the ballpark, after sitting next to his dad when Jack Buck gave us words behind baseball history, after twenty years of broadcasting and calling some of the greatest moments in baseball, the first memories that come to mind for Joe Buck are of Dave LaPoint, Ray Lankford, tobacco and missing the team plane. It's almost unbelievable.
Think of all the great baseball players he's interacted with and didn't mention. Most of the time, we can tell what someone values by the things they don't say: the things they could mention but don't because they are not as important to them as they are to everyone else.
Joe Buck will be calling his third Super Bowl this year. When he was 21, he was broadcasting Major League Baseball. When he was thirteen, he called games into a tape recorder while he sat next to his dad.
Whether it's his voice calling the game of the week, or times when he was just enjoying being with his dad, he's been a part of some of the greatest moments in baseball his entire life. But when you are part of a family—even a baseball family—the things you remember are the interactions that make you a part of it.
For Joe Buck, all the experiences he's had make him who he is today. He understands for baseball players, "It's not so easy doing what we all assume is routine."
He learned as a kid, "Once you're in the inside of that game a little bit and you kind of feel like you are part of the group, you really learn what the game is all about." Buck understands what life is like on the road for ballplayers, and he knows, "It's fun, but it's a grind."
He remembers one of the things that Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa says all the time, "These are men, not machines."
"They have families, they have stuff going on in their lives," says Buck. "They are tired. We look at them as fans and think, 'Just go do your thing. Go hit your home run, we are all waiting.' It's not that easy."
Buck's daughter sits next to him on her day off from school as he talks about how he understands now why his dad wanted him with him all the time. He has the same feelings now. He wants to be with his kids.
If he lived in New York, he'd get on a plane 60 percent less than he did now, but his family is in the Midwest, so he travels often. He always travels light. He leaves with only a carry-on bag, but returns home with a suitcase full of memories. Memories stored away for another day, because family is more important to him than anything. It's why he keeps coming home to St. Louis.
His daughters have been to a few World Series, they've been to Super Bowls, and they think it's great. "It's fun to see the people he works with," his daughter said.
"The people that I work with have watched them grow up," Buck said of his daughters. "Now she's 28 feet tall, and the first time they all met her she was a little girl in a car seat. And like I got with my dad, I would hope some day they get—no matter what they do—I never worried about anyone who had worked with my dad."
"I worked with a lot of the same people that worked in the booth with my dad and they'd start a sentence with, 'Hey, I worked with your dad for ten years...' and I never had to worry about what the next part of the sentence was, it was always complimentary. He always treated everyone like gold. That's the most important thing I've learned from my dad. That's how I've tried to live my life and act in my career."
One day his daughters will have families of their own. One day they will have careers, and somebody's daughter will cross their paths—because that's how this crazy world works—and she'll say, "Hey, a long time ago my mom asked your dad a whole bunch of questions about baseball..."
And she won't have to worry about what the next part of the sentence will be like.
Joe Buck is not just following in his dad's footsteps, he's being followed.
As he tells his last story about the time when he was twelve and lost the fifty dollars his dad gave him to buy his sister and himself some dinner at the McDonald's in Times Square, his daughter laughs and watches him. She remembers the story; he's told it before.
But it's a good story—a story about how his dad told the entire baseball team that his 12-year-old son lost fifty dollars to the shell guy on the streets of New York—because that's what families do, they tell each other stories about the people they love.
Special thanks to Joe Buck for taking the time during the height of the NFL playoffs to talk with me. If you're wondering why I didn't ask him about his broadcasting style, wonder no more. His comments about that are here. If you're wondering why I didn't ask him any questions about sabermetrics, keep wondering for a bit. Those comments will come in a later article.
Anna just opened a Twitter account. You can follow her @Anna__McDonald. She also writes for ESPN.com.