To put it politely, Mark McGwire's record-setting home run Tuesday night threw Joe Buck a nasty curve.
Buck, the lead play-by-play announcer on Fox's baseball coverage, had been asked for a couple of months what he would say if he were behind the microphone when McGwire slammed his 62nd homer, and he had worked out the rough outline of a call that would capture the drama of the moment.
"I had come up with, 'There it goes. Here it is. A new single-season home run champion with 62. Mark McGwire as he floats around the bases and into the history books.' I even had it written on my score sheet to make sure I wouldn't mess it up," said Buck after Tuesday night's game.
However, fate stepped in and delivered a couple of occurrences that Buck couldn't have expected.
First, McGwire's record-breaker was not one of the majestic variety that fans had come to expect. It barely cleared the left-field wall at St. Louis' Busch Stadium, and there was doubt about whether it would stay fair. Second, McGwire, in reaching out to hug first base coach Dave McKay, missed first base and had to go back to touch it.
To his credit, Buck, 29, in the biggest moment of his relatively young professional career, adjusted and belted out the perfectly sufficient, "Down the left-field line, is it enough? Gone! There it is, 62. Touch first, Mark, you are the new single-season home run king."
"That home run shot was the old script-buster. Any long, drawn-out call that you had drummed up someday away from the ballpark, you could forget it," said Buck. "That's one of those you watch. You keep your head up, and you hope you got it right."
Joe Buck -- the son of Jack Buck, who in more than 40 years in St. Louis has earned a place in the broadcast wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame -- has emerged as one of the rising young stars in sportscasting in his own right, with nearly three seasons as the lead voice of over-the-air national baseball.
Buck said he didn't talk to his father, who was not on the air in the Cardinals' radio booth when McGwire launched his fourth-inning shot, about what he would say, for fear that some of Jack Buck's call would seep into his own.
The younger Buck, who embraced McGwire on camera after the game, said he didn't even try to separate the announcer he has become from the Cardinals fan he has always been.
"I don't know that you can. I don't know that you have to," said Buck. "Everybody that packed into that ballpark was a fan of the game of baseball. I think I broadcast the game like a fan. I raise issues like a fan. I'm not so sure that on a night like this that it's wrong to act like a fan. [Tuesday] is a night I'll never forget, and I'm not going to forget it because I was the broadcaster."
Buck's booth partner, analyst Tim McCarver, saw McGwire's home run through the prism of the man he surpassed in the record books, Roger Maris.
McCarver and Maris were teammates in St. Louis at the opposite ends of their respective careers in 1967 and 1968, when Maris was finishing up while McCarver was at the early stages of his run as a catcher.
McCarver recalled that he and another teammate overheard Maris engaged in a heated conversation with then-owner August Busch and Busch's son after the team clinched the 1967 National League pennant in Philadelphia.
The two men were arguing over whether the club would re-sign Maris for the 1968 season, with one of the sticking points being whether Busch, whose family still owns the Anheuser-Busch brewery, would give Maris a Budweiser distributorship in Gainesville, Fla. Maris did get his wish, and his family still runs that distributorship today.
"Roger Maris and those great teams that we had in 1967 and 1968 were very much on my mind [Tuesday]," said McCarver.
Just a thought
How petty do ESPN and "SportsCenter" producers look for not running Buck's call, principally because Fox is a baseball-telecast competitor? Pretty petty, indeed.
It's one thing not to show Fox's hockey coverage because of the glowing puck, but to skip a particular piece of history because of some stupid piece of corporate pride is not only short-sighted, but also hurts the viewer, who ought to be the principal concern.
Fox's coverage of Tuesday's game garnered an impressive 14.5 national Nielsen overnight rating and a 23 share of the audience in 38 markets, a figure made all the more significant by the fact that the telecast was blacked out in Chicago, the nation's third-largest television market.
Meanwhile, ESPN reports that its coverage of Monday's game, during which McGwire smacked his 61st homer, drew a 9.5 rating and was seen nationally in 7.1 million homes, the largest rating and viewership in its nine-year baseball history, eclipsing the 7.5 rating for the Sept. 6, 1995, telecast when Cal Ripken made baseball history of his own.
Monday's telecast also was the most-watched afternoon program in the channel's 19-year history and was the highest-rated show of the year on ESPN.
Locally, it should be noted that Sunday's Ravens rating was a tenth of a point below last year's season opener and 6 percent off the Ravens-Steelers home game rating of a year ago.
Finally, a sign of the times: For the first time in the four years we've been keeping track here at "Media Watch," an Orioles telecast, namely Friday's game at Seattle, failed to crack the 10 most-watched local sports shows.
Just thought you'd want to know.
The ratings for the top 10 most-watched sporting events on broadcast television in Baltimore through Tuesday (R-Rating; S-Share):
Event, Day, Ch., R/S
Ravens-Pitt., Sun., 13, 13.7/32
Cards-Cubs, Tue., 45, 9.6/15
Broncos-Pats, Mon., 2, 9.5/15
MNF pre-game, Mon., 2, 8.0/13
Rav. post-game, Sun., 13, 5.6/15
Orioles-Mariners, Sat., 45, 5.6/14
U.S. Open tennis, Mon., 13, 4.3/9
N. Dame-Mich., Sat., 11, 4.2/11
Cards-Cowboys, Sun., 45, 4.0/10
Towson-Morgan, Thu., 2, 3.9/6
Pub Date: 9/10/98