I was always struck by the quickness of Joe Buck’s mind. There’s never a hesitation, a pause to collect his thoughts or a loss for the right word. From day one, Joe’s call has been perspicuously clear, concise and energetic.
Baseball, known for its simplicity, produces rarities. A bang-bang play, no matter how bizarre, he’s right on it. When two runners touched the same bag at the same time and the fielder swiped both of them in a fluid motion, Joe didn’t need an analyst or a rules expert.
In football, he is fluid and unconstrained. Buck deciphers the complex, economically and lucidly. Football is filled with hits, tackles, milling, weaving and an active sideline. Yet Buck gets to the heart of the matter efficiently, presenting each play with lightning speed and a natural sense of urgency. Nothing fancy. It’s 2020 and he lets the screen and analyst do the rest.
When he first hit the network airwaves in the mid 90s, Buck was different from what we heard. On baseball in particular, we grew up with storytellers, Gowdy, Miller, Garagiola, Costas, dad Jack Buck and of course Scully.
You might say that Joe is a mix of Ray Scott, Pat Summerall and Red Barber. He’s terse like Scott, commanding like Summerall and emotionally divorced like Barber. Buck is the minimalist of today’s three over-the-air play-by-play voices that include Al Michaels and Jim Nantz.
In his New York Times best seller Lucky Bastard, Joe pays Pat the ultimate compliment, “Summerall was the best ever at saying the most with the fewest words. Just his presence and voice were enough.” Joe adds an edge though that Summerall didn’t have. Pat presented bare bone, hard facts. Joe will sprinkle in an opinion when warranted. Understand too that Pat didn’t do games in the age of social media. Joe does.
We had a chance to catch up with Buck as he awaits the return of the games that we all miss. Part one addresses his style and how the game is presented on television.
Tomorrow, we’ll focus on television in the 2000s versus the previous four decades when society was more forgiving, when each spoken word wasn’t weighed as it is today like precious metal.
Your ability to set up Troy Aikman is exceptional. You call the play as it progresses using an economy of words, then in a blink of an eye, reset the next down. Listening, I’m often reminded of Ray Scott and Pat Summerall. While you do so with a greater vocal sense of energy than they did, is the approach by design? Not a word more than needed?
This, like all answers is just how I look at my job, and what I attempt to do when the game starts…
That’s my job. Why would I ever use more words than are necessary to tell the viewer what the situation is? I am not there to hear myself talk. I don’t make more or earn more awards because my sentences are longer. I believe the job of being a successful television play by play guy is (beyond having a famous broadcasting father) about what you don’t say as much as it is about what you do say. Stating the obvious is simple and the easy way out. Conserving your words and “picking your spots” make the times you do talk strategy or history or whatever, that much more impactful. Natural sound from a ballpark or stadium is powerful to the person sitting at home on the couch. It tells its own story most of the time, and I don’t need to trample all over it for the sake of just talking. It takes restraint and confidence to not talk. Just my opinion.
How would you differentiate your style from Al Michaels and Jim Nantz?
I have no idea how we are different…I am over 20 years younger than Al, and 10 years younger than Jim. So just by that I think my sensibilities are different. I am not sure either can name all the characters from What’s Happenin’ or The Love Boat like I can. Street value? Zero dollars.
But they’ve been at the top of the network play by play ladder longer than I have and maybe longer than I ever will be. Al is the best I have ever heard, especially calling football. And Jim has an amazing memory and sense of history, and is clearly the best to ever call golf on television. Oh, and he’s great calling everything else he calls. I could not respect either man more for what they’ve done and what they continue to do. It is for other people, especially my bosses at FOX to determine how we are different when I enter the equation.
On the eve of his 92nd birthday last November, I asked Vin Scully for his opinion of baseball on TV . He said, “Today they get into areas where I am totally lost. They spend an awful lot of time on how to throw a certain pitch. I’m basically simple minded. If I’m watching a game, I don’t need to know how to throw a certain pitch.” Is TV getting too complicated?
I don’t think network broadcasts are getting too complicated. I think we have tried to add certain stats and launch angles and the sort because there is some appetite for that. It isn’t overloaded with it however. When we come along in October that stuff is rare on the telecast. We have the biggest audience then and keeping the information the most basic and general is the objective. Hit the main storylines and the human interest or history pieces and watch the action unfold.
MLB said, “Play Ball!’ If you had one suggestion on how to cut down the duration of lengthy games, what would it be?
That isn’t the issue to me. The average game length is about 3 hours…football games last that long or longer and nobody talks about it. The overall time of a game isn’t the issue. It is the amount of action that happens in a half inning once it starts. I am the last guy to do the “get off my lawn” act, but MLB is trying to work on this. Whether it is a pitch clock, or banning the shift…putting more emphasis on getting the ball into play, these are the things that need to be examined. Less of the three “true outcomes,” and more running and hitting behind runners, and just more strategic, nuanced elements of this great game, that’s the focus I believe. They know that. So whatever they have to do to get there, I’m in.
In Lucky Bastard, Buck has exalting praise for:
Bob Costas: “And if I needed somebody to give my eulogy on national TV, I would call Bob Costas. Admittedly, this would be hard, because I’d be dead, and my cell phone coverage plan does not include calls from the great beyond. He’s the kind of guy that we all hold up in the sports broadcasting world as if to say: ‘See, We’re not just idiots talking about sports. Some of us can be smart too.'”
Al Michaels: “He is the best, maybe ever, because he’s been able to do it at a really high level for a really long time. He’s done it with different partners, on different networks, in different eras, with different audience expectations.”
Mike Tirico: “Mike is as good as it gets in this business. Every time I watch him do a football game, I am inspired to work harder, just to keep up. And it’s not just football. He is beyond great at everything he does, I marvel at his ability to do golf, an NBA game, tennis, football whatever is on the table.”