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Episode 06: Joe Buck

LIFE ON TOUR  

On the broadcast desk inside the cramped Fox Sports booth, under numerous statistical print outs, producer’s notes, and folders filled with research is a thin, inconspicuous white binder. Its only distinguishing feature is the handwritten phrase in all caps on the cover that simply states, ‘HAVE FUN, ASSHOLE!’

Despite the experience of nineteen World Series and five Super Bowls under his belt, veteran play-by-play announcer Joe Buck still relies on this self-induced reminder. “When I walk into the broadcasting booth, this is a little everyday reminder to ‘Have fun…asshole,’” Buck says with a poker face. “I’m the asshole.” Buck breaks into laughter, and winks as he puts the binder back down on the desk. “I pledge to have fun.”

And fun he has. “I have the greatest job in the world. I actually get paid to watch sports,” he says with passion.

It’s a picturesque day in Arlington, TX, perfect for Opening Day of the 2018 Major League Baseball season. Buck and the rest of the Fox Baseball broadcasting team have set-up shop to call the four-game series between the home team Texas Rangers and the Houston Astros, the defending World Series champions.

Buck, 49, has been Fox Sports’ lead play-by-play voice for baseball since 1996, but he’s just as excited for Opening Day as if it’s his first year on the job. “I really look forward to work,” Buck says with in the booth, overlooking an empty Globe Life Park. It’s several hours before fans will make their way through the gates. The field has yet to be chalked and batting practice hasn’t begun, but Buck and the Fox Baseball team, including former Hall of Fame pitcher-turned-color analyst John Smoltz and contributor Ken Rosenthal, have already met with both teams’ managers to get insight before the telecast.

“I don’t get nervous,” says Buck, who splits his year calling games for the NFL, Major League Baseball and, as of 2015, golf’s U.S. Open. “There was a time in my mid-twenties…nervous is not the right word, it was scared. Now I’ve done it long enough and now Opening Day just feels like part of my year and I can’t wait to get it going.”

Yes, Opening Day is part of Buck’s year but in all honesty, baseball and broadcasting has been a part of his entire life. Joe’s father, the late Jack Buck, was a legendary broadcaster, known mostly as the radio voice for the St. Louis Cardinals, but also called Monday Night Football for over ten years and announced 17 Super Bowls, all on CBS Radio. “I think when you are kid and you’re as close to a parent as I was to my dad,” recalls Buck, “and you see how much they love going to work, I think it’s only natural that you go “I want to do that, that looks like fun” and it is fun.”

Before becoming the voice of Major League Baseball on Fox, Buck followed in his father’s footsteps and at age 22, started broadcasting for the Cardinals on local television and radio. Buck even continued to call games for the Cardinals after being hired by Fox Sports to cover national games. However, the affinity between the St. Louis franchise and the Buck family has helped fan the flames of Buck’s critics.

Check message boards and social media and you’ll succumb to an avalanche of criticism from fans who wholeheartedly believe Joe Buck openly roots against their team. “People think I’m rooting against their team because I get excited for the other side, well, that’s my job,” Buck says with a shrug. “I guess they’ll have to think I root against their team, which I’m not.”

joe-buck This ill-conceived notion that “Joe Buck hates my team” did end up affecting Buck in a major way, during a major moment. “The Cardinals won the World Series in 2006 and I was so worried about the chatter that I was the Cardinals announcer and I shouldn’t be doing it nationally and I’m rooting against the Tigers, which I wasn’t. But when the Cardinals won it, I took it so far to the opposite extreme that the call sucks. I cringe every time I hear it.” Buck makes a sour face thinking back on the moment. “It is so subdued and boring and terrible. I vowed after I heard that I’m never doing that again.”

Like any broadcaster, especially those on the national stage, Buck understands he has critics. “I think criticism comes with living your life these days. You’re one tweet away from being reminded how much you suck.” Buck put his pen down from filling out the game’s lineup card in his scorebook and pulls out his iPhone and waves it in the air. “If you want to get on Twitter, you can find out how much you suck if you put a lot of stock in somebody’s opinion. Not to say that I’m above criticism. I welcome it, as long as it’s legit criticism and not just noise.”

Buck embraced this noise in a viral Funny Or Die video titled “Joe Buck’s Failed Super Bowl Promo,” in which New Yorkers displayed their hatred for Buck leading up to the 2014 Super Bowl. The video, currently at over 650,000 views, shows Buck’s sense of humor and humility. “I realize everyone wants a clean, perfect product and that’s just an unrealistic standard. You learn for the criticism. I don’t dismiss it…I think a lot of it has some merit.”

It’s been a few months since Opening Day and Buck’s added a new line to his bio: father of twins. I’m actually not calling the US Open this week,” Buck notifies us. “I’m here in the Hamptons just so I can get some sleep!”

For the fourth straight year, Fox Sports is broadcasting the United States Golf Association’s biggest events, including the U.S. Open, one of golf’s four Majors. Buck and the rest of the crew will call Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, one of the country’s finest and oldest golf courses, home for the next week. Located on Long Island, about a three-hour drive from New York City, Buck will be front and center as the entire golfing world will be tuning in.

“Golf has been a real learning curve and it’s been steep,” Buck says as he makes his way from the Fox Sports broadcasting compound outside of Shinnecock Hills towards the club. “In this day and age, you can’t start slow and build. People expect you to jump right onto the freeway and be at 80 MPH.”

It’s Wednesday, the eve before the first round of the US Open, and Buck has been working at a feverish pace to prepare for the six-day broadcast schedule. Buck and the rest of the crew, featuring former Major winners Paul Azinger and Curtis Strange, as well as the likes of Holly Sonders and Shane Bacon, participate in two live preview shows on Tuesday and Wednesday, then the telecast officially kicks off on Thursday morning.

Buck, a self-proclaimed avid golfer who plays to a 1-handicap, says he spends more time at golf – outside of being a father and husband – than anything else during his time outside of the broadcasting booth. “I’m here to tell you it’s hard to do golf. When you see me do baseball and football, there’s one ball. When the US Open starts tomorrow, there is going to be 156 balls out there. That makes my job fast and furious but fun and challenging.”

‘Challenging’ might be an understatement, as Fox’s foray into golf broadcasting has been tumultuous in the first three years of a 12-year contract. The telecast of the 2015 U.S. Open was universally panned by fans and the media: missing important shots or showing them late on a delay, cameramen struggling to track the ball in the air or landing, audio and on-screen graphics issues. The broadcasting team were not without criticism, either. “We were learning as we go,” admits Buck. “We’ve all kind of settled down and it feels a lot more natural. We’ve all learned to simplify things.”

Buck seemed to find his groove during the 2016 and most of the 2017 broadcast, then one tiny slip-up caused a social media storm. After Brooks Koepka seemingly won the 2017 U.S. Open in runaway fashion, cameras caught Koepka making the walk from the 18th green to the scorer’s tent to sign off on his scorecard to make the victory official. Koepka’s girlfriend ran on-screen to hug and congratulate him for the win and that’s when Buck announced her by the wrong name, referring to her with Koepka’s previous girlfriend’s name, before analyst Brad Faxon jumped in with the correction.

“Getting Koepka’s girlfriend’s name wrong from a card that was handed to me…that didn’t set well with me. I hated it.” Buck, typically upbeat, starts to cringe in retelling what happened. “I thought we had done a great job for four days doing live TV and my mistake was the last taste in people’s mouth. I remember riding to the airport after that with my family. I know my wife and daughter were legitimately concerned I was having a mental breakdown in the car and I was close. I’m a perfectionist and that was embarrassing. I don’t enjoy being embarrassed.”

Over the last year, Buck and Koepka have become friends and they joke about from time to time and that moment has no effect on Buck heading into this year’s tournament. “You can let your mind go to what’s the worst thing that can happen. Everything I do is live and when it’s live, you must trust your gut and sometimes I’m wrong. It’s just part of the gig. I love live and I’d rather it be live.”

Buck’s humility and professionalism separates him from many others in the cut-throat world of sports broadcasting. He’s without a shtick or a catch phrase and he’s okay with that. He shrugs off accusations of nepotism. “I’ve worked hard to get to where I am today and I’m thankful for having this be my profession. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

The producer shouts that they are twenty seconds from coming back from commercial break. As the make-up artist is fixing Buck’s tie, he looks up and smiles. “I know if I get hit by a bus going into the stadium, they are still going to play, and people will still watch whether I’m there or not. Nobody is there to listen to me and that’s how I try to broadcast. I try to broadcast the way I would want to listen to it if I were on the couch, which is “Hey announcer, shut up, let me enjoy it.”

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