For 42 years, he has been trying to have us all forget his less than stellar major league performance as a player. When examining his career on the field, he is on the same level as Tom Nieto, Bob Davis, Ron Tingley, Bill Plummer and Walt Tragesser, surely names that ring in the lexicon of baseball everywhere. Imagine, for those who struggle with the thought of never making it to The Show, here is a guy who was 27 before he came into the light of a major league park. During his six-year playing career, he hit .200 with 14 home runs and 146 hits in a career 843 plate appearances. He said, “It is dangerous for an athlete to believe his own publicity, good or bad.”
Number 8, 9 or 12 on his uniform, but number one in your hearts, Robert George Uecker, the legendary voice of the Milwaukee Brewers, signed with his hometown team the Milwaukee Braves before the 1956 season as an amateur free agent. His life would never be the same after he was traded by his hometown nine on April 9, 1964 to the St. Louis Cardinals for Jimmie Coker and Gary Kolb.
For most people from Wisconsin, this time of the year is not really spring until his voice comes over the radio, from that far away place called Arizona, where it is sunny and warm. The crack of the bat, the murmur of the crowd, the polite applause for the home team players coming to the plate after he is announced, all are signs that summer is coming and the land of beer and cheese will be in full bloom shortly. (Yes. Beer and cheese are flowers in the Badger State.) But it is Uecker’s voice that assures us that all is well and the routine of our lives is back in rhythm. We can now move forward assured of normalcy…of a certain confidence that all is well…and will be.
On a lazy Sunday afternoon, he is the pope…he is the vicar…he is the voice of assurance. Good or bad, his voice is familiar and comforting, win or lose. Sure it is his usual calls of ball and strikes and even mildly criticizing the umpires call against the home team (“Although it seemed a bit outside to most in the stands, many of us understand that Tom could have eaten just one too many ‘wurst’ last night after that extra innings game.”). But the real winds of the spring come when one of his friends from the past stops by to share a few moments with him and with us.
My favorite time is when Bob Costas stops by and starts by sitting in for a half inning which always last for many, many innings that include stories that rekindle the life and times of one Mr. Uecker. A typical banter usually begins with an inquisitive question from Costas such as “How does a catcher handle a knuckler like Dickey?”, to which Ueck snaps back with “The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling, Bob, and then pick it up.” and we are off to the races. “How did you know when your playing career was over, Bob?”. “Well in my case, there were a couple of things I noticed. When I came up to bat with three men on and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, I looked in the other team’s dugout and they were already in street clothes. Then when I turned to look at the third base coach for a sign, he turned his back on me. Those were signs.”
“But the real sign was when I led the league….number one….numero uno in the National League in….errors (1967 led the league with 11 errors) and our general manager, Paul Richards told me the Braves wanted to make me a coach for the following season. And that I would be coaching second base.”
These are the real signs of hope to come. It is spring. Mr. Baseball is here for his 43rd season. Let us all enjoy and understand that all hope begins with renewal and renewal begins in the spring.