By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, April 2, 2008 11:42 AM
Chip Caray can still remember the moment he knew he wanted to be a baseball play-by-play man, just like his grandfather, Hall of Famer Harry Caray, and his own father, Skip Caray, the voice of the Atlanta Braves for the last 32 years.
He was driving home from a game in Atlanta with his dad late one night when one of his father's home run calls was being replayed on the radio. He was a junior in high school at the time, but 25 years later, he still remembers the night his life would change forever.
"We were in the car, a four-door, light blue Volvo," Caray recalled the other day. "It was one of those thunderbolt moments when I said to myself 'this is what I want to do.' My dad was my hero, and when I told him what I was thinking, he said to me 'we'll start working on it tomorrow.'"
Chip's education began almost immediately with a production internship at Atlanta cable superstation TBS that summer, and a young man who grew up in St. Louis when his parents divorced continued to learn the broadcasting business with more internships through college at the University of Georgia. After graduating, he worked as a weekend anchor on stations in Fla. and N.C. and over the years he's also done Orlando Magic games as well as University of Florida and Florida State football and basketball for the Sunshine Network.
By 1991, after a year of calling minor league baseball for the Orlando-based Double-A club of the Minnesota Twins, he broke into the bigs doing play-by-play on Braves games for two years, and then spent another three years broadcasting Seattle Mariners games. In 1998, Caray became the voice of the Chicago Cubs on WGN, a gig that lasted for seven years.
That was followed by stints with Fox and TBS and last fall, he found himself calling baseball for a huge national audience because TBS owns the rights to televise all four Major League Baseball division series in the playoffs and one of the League Championship Series over the seven-year length of the contract.
The deal began with the 2007 playoffs, and after a season spent focusing primarily on the Braves for WTBS, Caray was thrust into the national spotlight only days after the regular season had ended. He was working with a broadcast crew that essentially had been put together right before the playoffs and never really had much time to develop chemistry.
Still, in the view of some critics, particularly the man from the N.Y. Times, Caray was not yet ready for baseball's prime time.
Richard Sandomir, the long-time sports media specialist for The Times, was particuarly scornful of Caray's work during Game 3 of the division series between the N.Y. Yankees and Cleveland Indians, and devoted more than 800 words in a scathing review of Caray's work to explain why.
"His play-by-play ¿was packed with errors and silly strategy, enough to give me agita," Sandomir wrote the next day, and then proceeded to offer a long and particularly specific laundry list of Caray mistakes "and an annoying air of certitude" to back up his complaints.
He concluded by asking "Why isn't he better prepared? If his producer, Jeff Gowen, is listening to what he is saying, why isn't Caray improving? And why should I have to keep rushing to MLB.com to fact-check his facts?"
Caray read those words the following day, and obviously was not pleased. Six months later, the memory of that column still stings, but to his credit, Caray said in a telephone interview that unlike many of his thin-skinned broadcasting colleagues who usually blame the messenger rather than the message, he actually paid attention. He said he viewed the criticism as an opportunity for some serious self-evaluation as well as something of a mandate to make certain it wouldn't happen again.
"From one side of it, you could say he was hair-splitting and we could agree to disagree," Caray said, adding that he had no intention of making any excuses for his work last fall. "But my overwhelming goal this year is to be more precise with my language. Look, my grandfather never had a perfect broadcast, my father never had a perfect broadcast and I certainly never have. But that doesn't mean we don't try.
"It was a great introduction of what's expected of me. What I learned from it was that this was a much bigger stage than just doing the Braves, and the biggest thing is the precision of the language ... Perception is reality, and I get that ... I just want to get it right and do it good and do our fans justice. The bulk of my work I'm very proud of. I want to earn people's respect and trust."
Caray will be back on that big national stage starting Sunday night. As part of the same deal, the network will carry 26 games-of-the-week this regular season, starting with Boston against Toronto this Sunday. He will also be the lead play-by-play man for all of them, working with analysts Buck Martinez and Ron Darling.
Clearly, WTBS executives still believe they've got the right man for the job, despite all the critical carping last fall.
Executive producer Jeff Behnke said in an interview that while he would not comment specifically about Sandomir's column, "if you look at (Caray's) body of work, we were very pleased. Yeah there were factual things that he presented that he regrets, as well, but it doesn't change our belief that he is a first-rate broadcaster. We have every confidence in the way he prepares and the way he presents the game."
Viewers will be able to judge for themselves starting this weekend and Caray is confident that they'll like what they see and hear.
"You learn from the past," he said. "What is that old expression -- if you don't acknowledge history, you're condemned to repeat it?"
Opening the Vault
Whenever I hear the name of former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler, no matter what the context, my mind always wanders back to the words "Wickedly Wonderful Wanda." That was the devilish description of Stabler's then 23-year-old girlfriend in an obviously memorable Sports Illustrated profile written by Robert F. Jones in 1977.
The other day, with a few clicks on the laptop to call up a new service -- The Vault --rolled out on the Sports Illustrated web site, SI.com -- I was able to quickly retrieve the story by simply typing in the words "Ken Stabler Wanda." I'm sure some fellow travelers sitting near me in the Atlanta Airport on Tuesday morning had to be wondering what was so funny as I giggled my way through the piece while waiting for a connecting flight.
Thirty years later, the read was still pure pleasure, and for me, there will be more of the same far more frequently courtesy of this totally no-cost service available to anyone with a mouse and a keyboard.
SI has unlocked a vault that contained every word and most of the photographs that ever appeared in the since the company then known as Time Inc. launched the groundbreaking and eventually the country's pre-eminent weekly sports magazine in 1954. It's truly a treasure trove of brilliant sportswriting -- Dan Jenkins on pro football, Curry Kirkpatrick on college hoops, Frank Deford on anything and everything.
"In the focus groups, to see people's eyes light up when they saw the mock-ups was really something," said Paul Fichtenbaum, managing editor of SI.com, the portal that will take readers straight to the vault. "Typically they would say 'I could really lose myself in this all day here.' I heard that and said 'Wow!"
There are 150,000 stories, 2,800 magazine covers -- yes boys and girls, including all the Swimsuit issues--and 500,000 photographs from the magazine archived on the site. Editors also plan to make the site topical on a daily basis.
On April 1, for example, readers were guided on the home page to the late George Plimpton's classic tale of a N.Y. Mets phenom pitcher named Sidd Finch, a budding star only in the mind's eye of the author for a piece of fabulous fiction intended as a massive April Fool's joke on the magazine's readers.
Back then, a good number of people were totally fooled, and many years later, perhaps a new generation again was snookered if they clicked on to the story earlier this week and had no idea that Sidd Finch ever, or never existed.
The SI.com site already draws more than six million unique views a month, and there is company-wide hope that another five million views will be added to the total because of the now wide open vault. Those numbers should also attract additional advertising that Fichtenbaum said would make the new feature a "profit center" for the company and allows SI to give away the service free of charge.
But enough techie-talk of page views and cash cows. After all, Wickedly Wonderful Wanda and so much more now is only a few simple key strokes away.
E-Mail of The Week
You could not be more spot-on in your March 25, 2008 entry, March Madness Musings and More on washingtonpost.com, where you talk about "That endless stream of commercials just keeps coming.
I, too, believe that with every substitution and out of bounds ball, there were five commercials. In one game, after returning from five commercials, an inbounds pass was deflected and went out of bounds. One game second, repeat, one game second, had gone off the clock. Another five commercials! It is very, very hard to watch. Your other observation that they do not switch to games like they used to (How True!), CBS has made March Madness into March Boring for me and I find myself switching channels MUCH more then I used to.
Shapiro can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.