Braves broadcast family salutes Caray
Simpson, Van Wieren find it hard to believe partner is gone
SAN FRANCISCO -- Although the sad news had been delivered the night before, the sting didn't arrive for many until the morning. Gone was that friend who had provided the Braves so much more than simply his voice over the past four decades.
"It's been a horrible day," Braves broadcaster Joe Simpson said. "It's been one of the worst days of my life. I'm still a little numb."
Simpson was on the team's charter flight Sunday night when the Braves learned that Skip Caray had suddenly passed away at the age of 68. Approximately 10 hours earlier, he'd called his legendary broadcast partner to see how he was feeling.
It was a call that ended with Caray saying "Thank you for checking on me" and one that Simpson will forever be thankful that he made. Sometime within the next six hours, his friend would be gone, leaving only the countless memories that will forever be savored by both his immediate family and the baseball family that he'd entertained with his knowledge and sarcastic wit.
Originally it was reported that Caray had died while sleeping. But his family has since revealed that the man with a tremendous heart actually passed away while apparently feeding birds in the backyard of his suburban Atlanta home.
"We are overwhelmed by the number of friends, colleagues, co-workers, MLB players and people in the baseball community who have reached out to us and so grateful and touched by their support and prayers," the Caray family said in a release. "We are also deeply appreciative by the outpouring of support from the fans who grew up watching him and shared the ride."
Having joined the Braves broadcast team with Caray in 1976, Pete Van Wieren enjoyed the opportunity to be around for the entirety of the ride. When he learned of his friend's passing Sunday night, he found himself in a state of shock and said he remained there until Monday morning, when he retrieved his USA Today outside of his hotel room and faced the fact that yesterday's sad news was today's reality.
"Last night, it all just seemed so surreal," Van Wieren said. "We had so many great times together. There were just so many that I wouldn't even know where to begin."
As he prepared to do the radio broadcast for Monday night's series opener against the Giants at AT&T Park, Van Wieren was confident that things would seem normal once the game began. But he knew the emotions would swirl during the pregame show, which included many of Caray's classic lines and tributes provided by the likes of Chip Caray, John Schuerholz, Marty Brennaman, Don Sutton and Simpson.
Skip Caray: 1939-2008
The pregame show opened with a song composed by Clear Channel's Creative Services Group. The opening words to this song were "Another microphone is silent and our game has lost a friend."
"There was no copy of him because he was so original," Van Wieren said. "He was the most original broadcaster I've ever been around because he'd always come up with things that didn't have to do with baseball."
The pregame show SportsSouth produced before Monday's television broadcast also included numerous tributes to Caray. Simpson delivered a tribute and planned to spend part of the game talking about some of his friend's great lines, including those that might not have made it on the air.
The one that immediately came to Simpson's mind was delivered the night that Caray mispronounced then-Rockies coach Frank Funk's name and thought he might have said something that would draw punishment.
When Simpson joined the Braves broadcast team in 1992, he was somewhat apprehensive. He had heard Caray could be harsh with some of his broadcast partners. During the course of the next 17 seasons, he found this to be completely false.
"Everybody knew he was a great broadcaster," Simpson said. "But I will say that he was the best partner in the history of sports broadcasting. He was just awesome. There might have been some that were just as good. But nobody was better."
Van Wieren can't remember any time during their 33 years together when he and Caray didn't get along. Because he was always willing to answer Caray's jabs with some of his own, Simpson can remember at least one disagreement that still makes him laugh.
During one broadcast, Caray objected to the idea of "taste-testing" Vanilla Coke. Thus when it came time to do so, he took a sip and set the bottle down. Taking advantage of an opportunity to get under his partner's skin, Simpson chugged most of his bottle and then said, "Wow, that was awesome. How did you like it?" Obviously disgusted at Simpson's actions, Caray responded with "I didn't, 2-1 the count." Reminiscing about this moment provided Simpson with the opportunity to humorously remember a man that enriched his life from both a professional and personal standpoint.
"He was a mentor," Simpson said. "He was like a big brother. He was a bigger-than-life Hollywood-type character."
While Caray will forever be remembered as a Braves announcer, his versatile broadcast talent also allowed him to call NFL, NHL, and NBA contests. He helped build Ted Turner's media empire and Turner Sports will recognize him during its PGA Championship coverage Thursday, during TBS' Major League Baseball package Sunday and again during the Aug. 12 Peachtree Television broadcast of the Braves-Cubs game.
"We are deeply saddened by the loss of Skip Caray, whose Hall of Fame-worthy career behind the microphone was instrumental in the growth of Turner Sports from regional telecaster to national sports broadcaster," the Turner Sports family said in a release. "While Skip's work on our NBA and NFL coverage was significant, his legendary calls and trademark wit on TBS baseball are what resonated most with fans nationally and will not soon be forgotten. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Caray family."
Van Wieren and Simpson's thoughts remain with the Caray family that lost a loving husband, father and grandfather. But at the same time, they've constantly thought about their lost friend, and that's why they chose to return to one of his favorite San Francisco bars late Sunday night.
Upon entering Lefty O'Doul's, they were greeted by Braves left-handed reliever Will Ohman, who promptly asked, "What was Skip's favorite drink?" Van Wieren responded with "a double of Dewar's."
But before Ohman could order doubles, Van Wieren said that they'd honor Caray with just a single shot of Dewar's.
"Skip wouldn't have been happy," Van Wieren said. "He would have said we were soft."
And you can bet the message would have been delivered in a sarcastic manner.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.