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The End of a Beautiful Relationship
By Richard C. Crepeau

I doubt that many people were watching that late fall afternoon in 2007 as the Atlanta Braves ended their disappointing season notching one final loss. I doubt if many, other than longtime Braves followers, knew the significance of the moment. It was, in fact, the end of an era.

The Braves 3–0 loss to Houston marked the conclusion of a thirty-year run that did much to change the nature of baseball on television as well as the relationship between baseball and cable. Ironically, it was the very success of baseball on cable that ended the Braves reign at TBS, a reign that created Braves fans all across the United States as well as north and south of the border. The revolution succeeded but the revolutionaries were devoured by their own offspring.

For those of us who have been witness to the entire thirty-year epoch, it was a bittersweet moment.

When I moved to Florida in the early seventies, there was very little baseball on television. There was The Game of the Week and, for a time, Monday Night Baseball, but that was it. The World Series was televised each October but most other baseball came only by radio. The massive Braves radio network blanketed the southeastern United States in the manner of King Cotton. Indeed, the promise of a vast radio and television network had been one of the great inducements for the Braves ownership to leave Milwaukee and move baseball south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Little did I know that renewing my interest in the Braves, something I could only do after Ted Turner replaced the previous ownership that sucker-punched Milwaukee, would correspond with a burgeoning cornucopia of Braves baseball. Over the years the small, faithful, ragtag band of loyal Atlanta rooters became a massive army of Braves fans spread across the country, maybe even the globe—or at least wherever the superstation WTBS could be found on cable or satellite.

The man other baseball owners called "Terrible Ted" may have been terrible to them, but to baseball fans in the vast wasteland without Major League Baseball, Ted Turner was the Santa Claus of the diamond. The fact that most seasons the Braves were a losing team didn't matter one bit. It was baseball, our baseball, and with the genius of Turner's cable network, a game that we eventually got to view nearly every day (or night) of the week.

In many ways the thirty years has been a blur: So many games, so many days and nights, so many losses, and then, in recent years, so many wins. And there were many interesting and talented players. Among them was Ralph Garr, the fireplug leadoff man and one of my favorites, but by the time Turner came on the scene, Garr had been traded to the White Sox. Dale Murphy arrived as a promising catcher only to suffer from the inability to throw the ball to second base and sometimes even the pitcher. We shared his agony and then rejoiced when he went to the outfield to become a bona fide All-Star. Phil Niekro seemed as if he would pitch forever. He could dazzle hitters with his dancing knuckleball. He could also produce a train wreck when the knuckleball couldn't find the strike zone and he had to bring his 75 mph fastball down the middle and turn the game into batting practice. There were great names like Biff Pocoroba, Rick Camp, Rowland Office, Brett Butler, and Bruce Benedict. There were shooting stars with great potential like Brad Komminsk, big boomers like Bob Horner, and who could forget Andy Messersmith wearing "Channel 17" on the back of his jersey?

Of course, there were all those games played in near-empty stadiums season after season, a seemingly endless period of futility. But it was still baseball, Braves baseball, be it on a Wednesday afternoon or a Saturday night, whether in Montreal or Atlanta. They played and we watched, and that is all that really mattered.

Carrying us through all these years were the stalwarts of the TBS broadcast team. Pete Van Wieren, the professor, who for many years doubled as the team's traveling secretary, was steady and full of information, some of which even seemed meaningful. Ernie Johnson Sr. was the baseball man. A former relief pitcher for the Milwaukee Braves, Ernie knew the game and the players and could tell those stories that were needed to fill lopsided games and rain delays. He had a wry sense of humor, often overlooked, and was a perfect setup man for the comic-cynic Skip Caray. Skip had moved to Atlanta from St. Louis with the Hawks, and had learned his baseball from his father, the legendary Harry Caray. Skip served as a sharp-tongued critic and seemed cynical about nearly everything and everybody, and he knew the game. He was the perfect voice for the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era. The chemistry among these three was nearly perfect and would never quite be duplicated, although Skip and Joe Simpson had more than their share of great ex-changes in recent years.

Many unforgettable Skip Caray moments have stayed with me over the years. He complained tirelessly about the disclaimer notifying viewers that the announcers were approved by the team. While reading a promo for halter-top night he came to the last line, "one size fits all," and with only the slightest pause added wryly, "I doubt that." One night in San Diego Skip had the opportunity to interview the San Diego Chicken. His first question: "Why did you cross the road?" Another night, he described relief pitcher Al Hrabosky, the "Mad Hungarian," as "having a meeting with himself" behind the mound.

One year the Braves added a Princess to accompany Chief Knock-A-Homa. Skip, seeing an opportunity for fan involvement, announced that there would be a contest to name the Princess. A few weeks later he called it off, telling the fans they had filthy minds, as most of the thousands of entries could not be read on the air. He mocked the ridiculous-looking mascot, "Homer the Brave," who was known at our house as "Lacquer Head."

Those long blowout games and late-season contests of little consequence required the announcers to entertain the listeners with long discussions about various semi-related topics. These conversations produced numerous allusions to Skip's ex-wives and his nightlife, frequent exchanges about the architectural disaster that was Olympic Stadium in Montreal, and even one night's endless banter about a place called Kill Devils, North Carolina. But these digressions never got in the way of the game itself; the TBS crew always understood the primacy of the action on the field.

The first great change of fortune for the Braves came in 1982 when, under Joe Torre, the team opened the season with thirteen straight wins, drew hordes of fans to cable, and truly became "America's Team." Soon they began attracting crowds at National League ballparks across the country. With the arrival of the great pitching staffs of the '90s anchored by Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, and subsequently Greg Maddux, plus the addition of the Jones boys, Chipper and Andruw, and David Justice for offense, the Braves became consistent winners. By then the TBS team was changing as well. The only fixture was Skip Caray, the unreconstructed voice of the past, whose continued cynicism and sharp wit never flagged, even after Ted Turner's departure and the arrival of the corporate suits from Time Warner spelled a dwindling number of games offered on TBS.

For those of us who survived the thirty-year run along with Skip, there are great memories. His one-liners and sharp commentary will no doubt return to us, triggered by some future incident in some game yet to be played. The Braves will still be on television in various cable incarnations and on computer screens and videophones, but not on the Superstation.

The baseball culture was enriched by TBS for those thirty years and brought the game to the nooks and crannies of America where baseball had previously been heard only on radio or read about in the newspapers. Its legacy can also be found in the range of cable options that have driven TBS to the margins, and at MLB.com, which brings nearly every game of the regular season to your laptop and desktop, wireless or otherwise.

TBS will no longer be the Braves flagship but will do a "Game of the Week" on Sundays as well as the first two rounds of the playoffs. Skip Caray has been passed over for the new TBS broadcast team in another tribute to corporate executive stupidity. Chip Caray, living proof that Darwin was wrong, heads the new TBS broadcast team rather than his father. The bland and the vacuous has displaced the wit and cynicism of an earlier time.

As Skip would have told us, that's progress.


RICHARD C. CREPEAU is author of Baseball: America's Diamond Mind (Bison Books). He has been a professor of history at the University of Central Florida for more than three decades, and occasionally teaches a course entitled "The History and Literature of Baseball."

© 2008 Richard C. Crepeau


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