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Verner column: A death in the (baseball) family

“The boys of summer come and go. The voices of summer stay with you a lifetime.”
ó Baseball writer Jayson Stark
If you’re feeling a little blue today, like you’ve just said goodbye to one of your best buddies, you’re probably an Atlanta Braves fan.
It’s not because of the horrible run of injuries that has depleted the pitching ranks and thwarted the Braves’ playoff hopes again this year. It’s not because Chipper Jones is hobbling around the bases like an old man, and John Smoltz may have hurled his last fastball in a brilliant career spent entirely in a Braves uniform. It’s not because skipper Bobby Cox may soon retire, signalling the end of a remarkable era that brought the team 14 straight division titles and a World Championship.
Players come and go. Team fortunes rise and fall according to the whimsy of the baseball gods ó and the riches of team owners. Baseball fans expect these things, just as farmers expect years of plenty and years of drought. But even though he had been in failing health, we didn’t expect Skip Caray to die, not this soon, not this suddenly.
“Fly ball, deep center field, Grissom’s on the run … Yes! Yes! Yes! The Atlanta Braves have given you a championship. Listen to this crowd. A mob scene is on the field. Wohlers gets them, 1-2-3.”
ó Skip Caray, calling the final out of the 1995 World Series
For some of us, Skip Caray’s voice ó usually partnered with Pete Van Wieren ó has long been one of the defining sounds of summer, like the drone of lawnmowers or cicadas chirring in the trees. Wars might rage and economies totter; hurricanes might drown one region while drought parched another; the world might seem utterly insane. But turn on the radio or television for a Braves broadcast, and there was Skip’s sardonic voice telling us that “a fan from Unadilla” had just caught a foul ball or that a pitcher was taking so much time on the mound he was “a human rain delay” or that, in a lopsided Braves loss, “the bases are loaded, and I wish I was, too.”
In baseball broadcasting parlance, we commonly speak of the “play-by-play man,” who provides the running narrative of the game, and the “color man,” who offers analysis and seasoned observation. Whatever role he had behind the microphone, Caray always provided the color with a Gillette-worthy wit, droll observations of humanity and a raucous irreverence whose targets ranged from team owners and television potentates (“the suits,” as he called them) to the horrors of Atlanta’s traffic (and the ineptitude of the DOT). While other announcers build their reputations on being students of the game, Caray was a student of life, and he reveled in its wonders and absurdities.
When his voice fell silent a week ago, at age 68, Caray was deep into his 33rd season with the Braves. To put that in perspective, his tenure in Atlanta almost doubled his famous father’s time with the Chicago Cubs; Harry Caray called the Cubbies’ games 17 years before retiring in 1997 (having previously spent 24 years with the Cardinals). Skip also outlasted Johnny Carson. Carson had been host of “The Tonight Show” for 30 years when he took his last pretend golf swing in 1992 and faded from America’s living rooms. And although some of us think of Walter Cronkite as having invented the “CBS Evening News,” in reality he anchored it for 19 years ó a good long time, certainly, but far short of Skip’s extra-innings relationship with the Braves nation.
“And like lambs to the slaughter, the Braves take the field.”
ó Skip Caray, in the bad old days of the 1980sWhat did Skip Caray mean to generations of baseball fans? That’s like asking what butter means to a hot ear of corn or salt to a fresh tomato. He was the seasoning that could make a bad game seem good ó and a good game a moveable feast of sporting entertainment. You can’t measure such things in numbers, but since baseball is a game of statistics, here’s one indication: At the Web site www.legacy.com, readers can view obituaries of noted figures and leave comments. The obituary for Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who also died last Sunday, had 26 comments as of Friday morning. Skip Caray’s obituary had more than 2,400 signees. That’s not to slight the Russian literary giant, by any means, but it does hint at what Caray represented in the increasingly fragmented gulag of sports broadcasting. Here’s a typical tribute from one fan, Brent Keller of Carrollton, Ga.:
“…When I moved away from home to go to college I became homesick, as many do. I remember watching my first game away from home and instantly feeling that I was in a place that I knew like the back of my hand. Your voice made me feel at home no matter where I was. You were like a part of the family.”
Exactly.
For many of us, Skip was and will always be a part of the family ó the curmudgeonly uncle who drinks too much and laughs too loud and with one outrageous comment can mortify prim old Aunt Ethel while sending the rest of us rolling on the floor in hilarity. Whether the Braves were worst or first, his gruff musings were a source of comfort, continuity and occasional joy amid the missed calls and errant knuckleballs of this crazy world.
That voice will stay with us a lifetime, but summer just won’t be the same.
“So long, everybody.”
ó Skip Caray, ending a Braves broadcast with his trademark signoff.
– – –
Chris Verner is opinion page editor of the Salisbury Post.

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