One minute to airtime, and Joe Buck is singing. The Fox Sports NFL production team has been debating how to pronounce the last name of Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, and Buck is snapping his fingers and crooning, "You say She-AN-oh, I say She-ON-oh.... She-AN-Oh, She-ON-Oh.... Let's call the whole thing off!"
Buck does not usually sing George Gershwin songs before he goes on the air. He prefers Johnny Cash: I fell into a burning ring of fire.... Sometimes he turns to his Fox baseball partner, Tim McCarver, flashes a big smile and says, "One last thing: F--- you!" Before NFL preseason games he likes to tell his football color man, three-time Super Bowl--winning quarterback Troy Aikman, "Just remember: You have worked your whole life for this!"
"Thirty seconds!" a stage manager yells.
Twenty million people are about to hear Buck and Aikman call the Buccaneers' game against the Giants. As Fox's lead NFL and major league baseball announcer, Buck has one of the most familiar voices in America—it's the sound track to many of the biggest football games and the World Series. To a generation of sports fans he is the voice of fall. It's odd, then, that so many fans think he doesn't love the games. Truth is, he loves them as much as you do—just not in the same way, because.... Well, we will explain. Now it's go time, the stage manager is yelling, and here is Buck, with his first words of the broadcast, maybe his favorite words of any broadcast:
"We ... are ... live!"
HE GOT his job because of his dad. This is at once the most honest and most ridiculous thing you can say about Joe Buck. It is both a cheap shot and the defining truth of his professional life.
Jack Buck just wanted his son around. That's why he brought Joe to Cardinals' spring training in Florida before the boy turned one. Jack was the Cardinals' radio voice. Joe was the first child of his second marriage. Jack had six kids with his first wife, and he missed too much of their childhoods because he was working. He could not believe what he just didn't see. He told Joe's mom, Carole, that he wouldn't let that happen with Joe.
Almost from the beginning they seemed more like friends than father and son. Jack didn't even call his kid Joe. He called him "Buck." When Jack recorded radio shows in his home office, he told young Joe he could sit in as long as he was quiet. Joe would seat himself in an antique chair and wordlessly study his dad. He revered his father. When Joe greeted Jack at Busch Stadium after games, he offered to hold his coat or his drink so everybody would know he was Jack Buck's boy.
But the real fun came when he joined his dad on the road. He sat in the booth during games. He rode on the team plane, hung out in the clubhouse. He knew that Stan Musial was a Cardinals legend, but he thought of Stan the Man as his father's pal.
Jack liked to stop in Las Vegas on the way home from the West Coast. A child of the Depression, he loved the thrill of Vegas and being able to afford the thrill of Vegas. He and Joe stayed at the Dunes, where everybody knew Jack. The old man loved the tables—blackjack, craps—and sent Joe off to play video games.
"I was nine, 10, 11," Joe says. "I had a [room] key, and I knew when to go back up. I'd go get in bed. He wouldn't sleep. He'd be up all night rolling dice. I'd wait till he came back in the morning. He'd say, 'Well, we worked for free this week, Buck.' Or he'd have a wad of hundreds."
It was in many ways a dream childhood. But it meant Joe was never really a child. When Jack was gone, which was often, Carole expected him to take on some of his father's responsibilities. He even helped watch over his sister Julie, who was only three years younger. To this day she jokingly calls him her "replacement dad."
When Jack delivered his alimony payments to his first wife, Alyce Larson, he brought five-year-old Joe with him. And on road trips, Joe says, "I had to sit there and shut up. I wasn't the kid running around the lobby tripping people."
Jack never pushed Joe to be a broadcaster. It just happened. In high school he started to show an acumen behind the mike. He spoke at a pep rally, and Julie was stunned at how smooth he was. He would do a mock broadcasting voice in all sorts of situations: "Annnnnd ... that person is getting a speeding ticket!"
Jack put Joe on the air for the first time when he was 18, for an inning of a Cardinals-Mets game, just for fun. Joe enrolled at Indiana and during summers in college did play-by-play for the Triple A Louisville Redbirds. He never did earn his degree: He occasionally filled in on Cardinals broadcasts in 1990, and joined Jack in the booth full-time the following year. Bob Costas, a fellow St. Louis resident and by then an established national broadcaster, heard the boy, all of 21, and told friends, "This kid is so good, it's scary."
Joe was ready for every part of the job except this: "Why is a kid, still in college, showing up on what many broadcast people consider the premier local team network in baseball?" Dan Caesar wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in June 1990. "The reason is simple. And it's spelled B-U-C-K."
Joe read the column and cried.
What's so funny up there?" asked Joe Girardi.
The Yankees manager was wearing a headset in the dugout between innings of a September game against the Rays. Fox was in a commercial break. Buck and McCarver were supposed to ask Girardi a few questions for an in-game interview that would air in the next half-inning. But the broadcasters were too busy laughing.
McCarver goes way back with the Buck family. As a Cardinals catcher, he first met Jack in 1961, and in '90 and '91 he was Jack's partner on CBS's national telecasts. He was in the booth with Jack at the end of Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, when the Twins' Kirby Puckett hit an 11th-inning home run to force Game 7, and Jack famously crescendoed:
"... And we'll see you tomorrow night!"
It was a classic call in a career full of them. It was also the culmination of the two most miserable years of Jack Buck's career. He was used to the pace and hierarchy of radio, where the play-by-play man is king. McCarver was a TV guy and the best-known commentator in the game. Jack never figured out what the network wanted from him, and his trademark humor rarely surfaced. His family thought he did not sound like himself. Critics were harsh.
"It almost killed him," Joe says. "I mean that seriously. He had an ulcer. The stress of being criticized the way he was, it was ripping him up inside."
The teaming of McCarver and Joe, which began in 1996, has been much smoother. McCarver marvels at his partner's ability to manage a game, to describe the action as it happens and to be witty without acting as if the game is just a backdrop for his comedy act. "The greatest multitasker that I've ever met," McCarver says. "Fifteen things going on at once is right up his alley. He loves that. Those are his moments of relaxation."
What's so funny up there? What isn't? Buck does not watch as many games as diehard fans, preferring reality shows in the company of his teenage daughters, but he enjoys broadcasting them as much as anybody alive. Joe Buck, you see, did not really grow up on sports. He grew up on sportscasting.
Julie, his sister, babysat the Cardinals' kids and got to know their wives. She saw the team as family, and she became a passionate fan. Joe knew the players as professionals. He saw that the best jobs in the world are still jobs. Even as a kid he never had Cardinals pennants in his room. Actor Paul Rudd, a longtime friend and a Royals fan, says he has had many conversations with Mad Men star Jon Hamm—who is also a friend of Buck's—about Don Denkinger, the umpire who famously blew a call in the 1985 St. Louis--Kansas City World Series. "But I've never really had one with Joe."
"If Bruce Sutter's not devastated after giving up a home run to [Ryne] Sandberg, why am I going to sit next to my dad and cry about it?" Joe says.
Joe did his first NFL game for Fox at age 25 and his first World Series at 27. He married his high school sweetheart, Ann, in 1993, at 24. "He had a career while the rest of us were still figuring out what the hell we were doing," says Hamm, who met Buck when they attended rival high schools in St. Louis. "He had kids and a wife while I was living on somebody's couch, waiting tables and bartending."
Long before he turned 30, Buck was at the top of his profession, with the power to shape his career as he wished. He chose to keep doing Cardinals games, even with a full national TV schedule. But in 2008, Joe stopped broadcasting Cardinals games altogether. He wanted more time with his daughters Natalie, who is now 16, and Trudy, now 13.
Buck tried to mesh family and work, but happiness rarely lasts until ever after. His marriage fell apart. The stress of his 2010 divorce and his worries about his daughters sent him into a deep funk. It hit him in the one place he could least afford it: his throat.
Jon Hamm found out that his friend's vocal cords were paralyzed at Hamm's 40th-birthday party in New York. He remembered Buck supporting him when he couldn't find acting work, and when he learned Buck couldn't talk, "it was like, All hands on deck. He was really worried about it. It is such a touchy thing that you wonder, Oh, my God, is this it?"
The paralysis of the nerves in his vocal cords was caused by a virus, but Buck is sure it was also stress-related. He says it was "scary enough to fire me into a pretty serious mode of depression and probably made me more antisocial than I've ever been in my life." But he kept working, and at the end of a year in which he could barely speak, he won an Emmy, his seventh.
He also discovered to his relief that the end of his marriage did not mean the end of fatherhood. He sees his daughters more than a lot of married, working parents. "I could do the Cardinals right now, but being with my daughters, I realized, you don't get that time back," he says. "This is a one-shot deal. I'm going to have a life with them.... I get more time with my kids than anybody I know. I would rather be with them than anyone my own age. And the best thing is, they know it."
Jack Buck had a ritual: Whenever a game became a blowout, he would pull out a $100 bill and put it under his microphone. It reinforced that he was being paid to do a job, and he had to do it the best he could.
His son does not need the $100 reminder. Just doing a live sportscast is enough. When a game gets out of hand, Joe becomes a 10-year-old boy left alone in Vegas again, entertaining himself until the end of the night. Aikman remembers worrying about how they'd fill time during a half-hour weather delay in a preseason game in Tampa Bay a few years ago. They pulled it off by turning the broadcast into an impromptu sports talk show. Buck loved it.
When McCarver missed two games of last year's American League Championship Series for some medical tests, Buck persuaded former Red Sox manager Terry Francona to join him in the booth despite Francona's lack of broadcasting experience. "He promised me: 'Not only will it be good for you, but you'll have fun,'" says Francona, who days before had resigned as Boston manager after a historic September collapse.
Buck wanted something fresh. He prepares like an A student. He reads every story he can find on the teams in question, and quizzes managers and coaches about their plans. When the lights go on, though, he is not a prisoner of his research. As he says, "I need to do this game with my head up."
His high school friend Preston Clarke says, "He just seems born to do this." Was he? Or was he trained? Who knows? The voice, the discipline, the disposition, the passion, the ability to react—they are all so tightly interwoven that Joe will never really know which of his gifts are genetic and which are environmental.
Jack has been gone for a decade. People don't tease Joe about him much anymore. But last October the comparisons started again—and for good reason.
The words came to Joe as Cardinals third baseman David Freese stood in the on-deck circle in the bottom of the 11th inning of a tied World Series Game 6 against the Rangers. A home run would win the game for the Cardinals. And when Freese hit the ball over the centerfield fence, Joe was ready....
"We will see you tomorrow night!"
With one call he captured the drama and meaning of the moment and proved, with stunning authority, that he will never run from his father's shadow. He wowed Costas ("I found that not only skillful, but touching") and McCarver ("I thought it was dear. I thought it was so appropriate").
And he got a lot of reactions like the one in a TV trailer in Southern California, where Hamm watched with one of his Mad Men co-stars, Jay Ferguson. Hamm reacted just as Joe would have wanted. He recognized Joe's salute to Jack, but he wasn't thinking about the announcer. He was just elated that his Cardinals won.
Barely a minute left in the fourth quarter, and Joe Buck is leaning forward. He is in the MetLife Stadium booth, three hours after he sang "You say She-AN-oh, I say She-ON-oh," hunched over his notes, announcing the Giants' comeback from a 27--13 third-quarter deficit. The crowd is roaring. Buck is rolling.
And one guy in the stands is looking back at him and yelling, "Joe Buck sucks! Joe Buck sucks!"
The chant drips with foolishness. This guy apparently bought an expensive ticket for a good seat to see his favorite team, one on the verge of a thrilling victory. Why is he worried about the man doing play-by-play he can't even hear?
Sometimes Joe hears guys like that. Right now he does not. Anyway, he isn't worried about hecklers. He is just happy to call this Giants-Bucs game to the finish. He feels lucky to have his voice, his job, his friends and his family. Especially his girls. He will see them tomorrow night.
Buck prefers calling games to watching them: He grew up on sportscasting, not sports.
Photograph by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY
SMOOTH OPERATOR To some, Buck's wit and nonchalance in the booth smack of glibness, but his lighthearted style belies his deep preparation and lifelong immersion in his craft.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
THE FAMILY BUSINESS Jack Buck (above left, with Joe in 1992) forged a strong bond with his son by making young Joe a fixture in his professional orbit; Joe has done the same with his own daughters—Natalie (far left) and Trudy (left)—by scaling back on his own workload.
Photograph by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY
[See caption above]
Photograph by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY
HE ... IS ... LIVE Buck (with Aikman, far right) amazes his boothmates with his ability to multitask and to be funny without sounding forced.