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••• INNING 1 •••
Understand this about the Bob Uecker Experience: Even if you're observing him in his natural habitat, matching his radio voice with his vantage point, you're not sharing the same view. Here he is in the bottom of the first inning of the 53rd game of his 43rd season calling the Brewers on WTMJ, sitting in the visitors' booth at Citizens Bank Park, peering out into a hot haze at dusk. "Looking out at downtown Philadelphia here in the background," Uecker says to listeners on 36 stations in Wisconsin and one on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, as well as on MLB.com and Sirius XM. "Looking alllll the way up the shoreline. Atlantic City, people in the water up there. Boy, what a sight." Uecker's pitch recognition skills were such that he batted .200 in six seasons as a major league catcher, but at 78 he apparently is telescopic, able to spot details more than 60 miles away—or decades back in time. "500 Club in the background," Uecker says, name-checking the classic A.C. nightspot that burned down in 1973. "Boats. Sailfish.... Octopus."
Gonna have to take your word for it, Uke. "The pitch, swing and a bouncer hit to first. There's Betancourt. Yuni B. takes care of Ben Revere." I can confirm, from over Uecker's shoulder, that Milwaukee's Yuniesky Betancourt, undistracted by mollusks, logs the out 3-unassisted.
"Amazing," Uecker says, "what you can see when you want to."
Sometimes Uke makes you see things you'd prefer not to, such as on April 2, shortly after Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba required a repair tool for his busted mitt: "I think it's called an awl. It's a pointed tool with a hole at the top. And you can stick the leather thong in there. I wear a thong once in a while. Leather kinda gets—swing and a fly ball, foul—little testy sometimes." Uke can also pretend not to see what displeases him. On April 19, when shortstop Jean Segura committed one of the greater baserunning gaffes of all time—he went backward to first base in a rundown after thinking he had been picked off second, then was thrown out trying to steal the base he had just been occupying—Uecker, who does not as a rule make jokes at the expense of his employer's ballplayers, sighed and said, "And this one will be talked about for a long time. Not by me."
It's a shame that you can't see him talk, can't watch the ripple effect words have on his face, the creases and folds and that bulbous schnozz, the whole cartoony lot of it framed by a swept-back, polar-white mane. In the Philly booth Uecker is a festival of facial animation, while the rest of him is placid. His head stays level. His back and disproportionately broad shoulders stay tilted toward his tabletop microphone. He taps his black loafers slowly, soundlessly, as he speaks. Uecker wears an earpiece in his right ear, attached to a clear cord that curlicues behind his neck. He sits on the right side of the booth, with highlighted game notes and a scorebook. His 36-year-old broadcast partner, Joe Block, is on the left, a modern straight man juxtaposed with an irreverent treasure.
Block wears headphones with a wraparound mike, and the screen on his laptop rotates between Microsoft OneNote, a Twitter interface and browser windows with MLB GameCast, FanGraphs and Baseball Reference. Fact-checking is an occasional requirement of his job. Uecker has remarkable recall, particularly about the peculiarities of great ballparks, but will concoct alternate histories if he desires. On April 30, 2012, in Block's first regular-season month on the job, Brewers slugger Ryan Braun hit three home runs at the Padres' Petco Park, the second one reaching the upper balcony of the Western Metal Supply Co. warehouse beyond the leftfield wall. Uecker served listeners this backstory:
"They used to furnish rifles to the Union Army back in the 1800s. And automobile rims to the Henry Ford company for the first automobiles that were ever made. Western Metal Supply. None of that is true."
As odd as his on-air material can be, Uecker's off-air material is a source of greater intrigue, in part due to a story comedian Artie Lange spilled in 2009 on Letterman about a visit he and Norm Macdonald made to the Brewers' booth during spring training. With deep reverence, Lange described Uecker as a "jazz musician" alternating between game commentary and, with his cough button (a muting device for his mike) depressed, fantastically dirty subcommentary. Uecker, a staunch believer in the separation of public fun and private filth, was not pleased that it leaked. Block says that at least 10 broadcasters have prodded him for cough-button stories, assuming that a Dirtier Harry Doyle—the loutish Indians announcer Uecker played in the Major League movies—lurks beneath the surface.
"There's a lot of Uke in Harry Doyle, but that's clearly a character," Block says. "If Uke is being playful about something, Harry Doyle is bombastic about it. If Uke enjoys one Miller Lite, say six times a year before a game, Harry Doyle is drinking an entire bottle of Jack Daniels. Is Uke an everyman? Absolutely, but is he this crass drunk like Harry Doyle? Not from what I've seen."