ATLANTA --- Back before there was any reason to love the Braves, I loved them.
It didn't have so much to do with heroes from Hank Aaron to Dale Murphy. It didn't even have so much to do with the fact that I grew up watching half of the perennial losers who made it to Atlanta come through the minor league ranks at Parker Field in Richmond, Va.
I loved the Braves because I loved Skip Caray. Absolutely loved him.
As a kid, I never even heard of Harry Caray before Skip Caray started visiting our living room 162 nights a year on Ted Turner's revolutionary Superstation. Holy cow, Harry Caray Jr. was a legend in my house long before I knew there even was a Sr. who belted out "a-one-and-a-two-and-a-three" in the middle of the seventh inning at Wrigley Field.
Which is apparently exactly what Skip Caray wanted. He came to Atlanta to escape the vocal shadow his legendary father cast across the Midwest, and as much as Cubs fans might disagree with me, Skip was way better than the caricature his pop became.
Skip Caray was the Atlanta Braves. He was the funniest and most distinctive voice in sports broadcasting. He was a shared joy for my father and me during those otherwise moribund days and nights of the last-place Braves of the '70s and '80s.
He gave us permission to laugh at our favorite team's woes, and on more than one occasion, he gave us permission to turn off the television, as long as we patronized their sponsors. We drank Coca-Cola, but we kept the Superstation on anyway.
Caray was exactly the right kind of objective homer. He called our Braves "we," and he never hesitated to point out all of "our" flaws. And there were a lot of them to point out before Sid Bream came sliding safely across home plate against the Pirates and seared the nasally "Braves win! Braves win! Braves win!" on the collective eardrum of the followers of America's Team.
Caray could make the worst rain delay enjoyable. It took me years to realize he didn't really know the names and hometowns of every one of the fans who caught souvenir foul balls in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
And with the professor, Pete Van Wieren, or Ernie Johnson giving us the essentials alongside him, Caray was free to serve his caustic smart-aleck comments at will. Hardly a game seemed to go by when his sidekick didn't issue a warning that Skip was on thin ice.
My favorite Caray moment was one that certainly straddled the line of appropriate taste. I can't remember whom the Braves were playing or even which right fielder it was who attempted to make a charging, sliding catch of a line drive. But I can still vividly see the slow-motion instant replay that framed the ball as it bounced off the outfielder's lap and rolled a few feet away. The fielder didn't move, forcing the second baseman to run out and retrieve the ball.
It was either Pete or Ernie who wondered out loud how the official scorer would rule. Without hesitating, Caray chimed in.
"I don't know how he'll score it, but in my book, that's a base on balls," he said.
The longest pause of dead air ensued before Pete or Ernie responded like a mocking school kid:
"Awwwwwww, Skip's gonna get in trouble."
Late last season, I went to Turner Field to a meaningless game against the Milwaukee Brewers. In the media dining area, I was sitting with former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Jack Wilkinson, eating hot dogs, when Skip Caray shuffled in with his tray and sat at the table next to me.
I had met him a few times before, but this was the first truly casual encounter. And it was every bit the joy you could imagine. He seemed old and frail, but the wit and voice were as sharp as always. Out of nowhere, Caray and Wilkinson started talking about favorite play calls through the years. It was mesmerizing.
I mentioned the "base on balls" call, and Caray let out a nasal chuckle at the remembrance of it. Then, John Schuerholz walked up to the table, exchanged pleasantries and reminded Caray that he needed to be in the broadcast booth for the first pitch in 15 minutes.
Once Schuerholz was out of listening range, Caray went into game mode with a mock broadcast introduction.
With the Braves out of the pennant race for only the second time in 17 years, it was like listening to the glorious bad old days all over again.
"Welcome to Turner Field and another night of this ..." Caray said, only he finished the sentence with a George Carlin dirty word not suitable for broadcast or publication in a family newspaper.
We all laughed, and Caray chortled at the self-deprecating synopsis of more than 30 years in the Braves broadcast booth. He finished his dinner and shuffled off to work.
Just a few days ago, my father was still listening in Richmond to Caray critique the Braves over the Internet. The Superstation is a memory. The farm team is weeks away from moving out of Richmond to Gwinnett County. But the obituary for the Braves of my childhood was written Sunday, when Skip Caray died.
There's a lot less to love about the Braves today. They will never be the same without him.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A CALL TO REMEMBER
Skip Caray arguably made his greatest call when the Atlanta Braves rallied to defeat the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series. Pinch hitter
Francisco Cabrera hit a two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the ninth, scoring David Justice and Sid Bream for a 3-2 win. Caray's call:
"A double, an error and a walk, and the bases are full of Braves. Bream carries the winning run. ... Two balls, one strike. What tension. The runners lead. A lot of room in right-center. If he hits one there, we can dance in the streets. The 2-1. Swung. Line drive, left field! One run is in! Here comes Bream! Here's the throw to the plate! He is ... safe! Braves win! Braves win! Braves win! Braves win! Braves win! ... They may have to hospitalize Sid Bream. He's down at the bottom of a huge pile at the plate. They help him to his feet. Frank Cabrera got the game-winner. The Atlanta Braves are National League champions again! This crowd has gone berserk!"