Renaissance Jock McCarver Ready for Sundays in Park With George

Tim McCarver, the new Yankee broadcaster and latest saint of the First Amendment, was preparing to order lunch at Oscar’s restaurant in the Waldorf-Astoria. A waitress eyed him, and with a bit of genuine attitude, she announced the results of her observation. “I think I know who you are,” she said. “Am I right?”

“I don’t know,” he replied.

“Tim McCarver,” she said, emphatically.

“Yes. Thank you,” he said, politely signaling an end to the exchange. But the waitress missed the sign-an offense Mr. McCarver would be sure to point out if he were doing the lunch’s play-by-play.

“I wasn’t sure at first, you know,” she continued. “I knew you were somebody, yeah. Then I asked somebody up front. And they said, yeah it’s you. You never know who comes in here. We like it when somebody like you comes in here.”

“Thank you,” he said again.

“Sure. Mike Douglas was here once. Remember him? Mike Douglas! He used to have that TV show on CBS. I couldn’t believe it! I used to watch him 20 years ago.”

Mr. McCarver took the bait. “I’ll tell you a story about Mike Douglas,” Mr. McCarver said. “It was in 1978 after we lost to the Dodgers. There were four couples that went to Chasen’s restaurant in Los Angeles. It’s closed now. Four couples including Steve Carlton and his wife. Jerry Martin, who was an outfielder …” and so on. With a rush of words and images, a Mike Douglas anecdote became an epic of telling details, forgotten heroes and cosmic encounters, which is pretty much the way Mr. McCarver describes a routine steal of second base. (Ah, but only the unobservant would regard a stolen base as routine! Why, if the batter is a left-handed contact hitter and the pitcher’s a righty who throws off-speed and the count is two balls and one strike and the infield has just been raked, who should be covering second base?)

The Mets, New York’s second team even in their best years, helped make Tim McCarver into the superstar he wasn’t when he was a major league catcher. They brought him to New York 16 years ago, allowed him to develop into a genuine journalist (as opposed to just another ex-jock commentator) and seemed to shrug off his often-biting critiques of on-the-field strategy. But on Feb. 3, they blundered into one of those public relations disasters that they seem to specialize in. They fired the best damn baseball analyst in the country.

Not only did the Mets make a martyr of Mr. McCarver, but they tainted the naming of his replacement-Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, who has been assigned the conflicting roles of pitching adviser and broadcaster. Mr. McCarver’s abrupt dismissal was the stuff of back-page tabloid headlines. Suitably outraged columnists charged that Mr. McCarver’s undoing was the work of Met manager Bobby Valentine, who, according to the conspiracy theory, could no longer take the broadcaster’s on-air criticisms.

He Puts On Pinstripes

George Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ principal owner and a man considered by some to be, er, shrewd, seized on the opportunity to further humiliate his crosstown rivals. He signed up Mr. McCarver to work Yankee games on WNYW-TV, Channel 5, and once again the broadcaster found himself on the back pages. In the span of a few days, the 57-year-old Mr. McCarver had achieved more notoriety than he had during his solid, if unspectacular, 20-year career primarily with the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies.

Back at the Waldorf, Mr. McCarver was about to wind up the Mike Douglas story as he finally got around to ordering. He decided on the Cobb salad, a bottle of sparkling water, and a glass of chardonnay-“a very good chardonnay,” he insisted.

The waitress returned a few minutes later with a bottle of Anapamu ’96 and made a big production of it. Lowering his chin a tad, he peered at the label through large, thin-rimmed Guess glasses. “Is it a premium brand, Grace?” he asked, having spied her name tag. “Is it your premium brand?” The wine was poured, Grace left and the connoisseur took a sip. “It’s not a premium brand,” he noted drolly.

Celebrity and Mr. McCarver are well suited. He has an unabashed taste for the good life-cigars, fine restaurants (any one of Danny Meyer’s joints is all right by him) fancy hotels, celebrity golf tournaments. He has 450 bottles of wine stashed away in a climate-controlled cellar in his home in suburban Philadelphia, or he did until Dec. 30, when a malfunctioning cooling system sent cases of 1966 Lynch-Bages and 1970 Lafite-Rothschild, and even a bottle of 1918 Lafite that he had recorked 16 years ago, into deep freeze. “It was horrible, a nightmare. I almost cried,” he recalled without irony.

A month later, it was Mr. McCarver himself who felt a chill. Over a 10-minute span on Feb. 3, Mr. McCarver got three calls from Mets executives. Leading off was the Mets’ senior vice president of marketing and broadcasting, Mark Bingham, who told him that the team was not going to bring him back. (Local announcers are hired by the teams, not by the stations.) “I said thanks for the call,” Mr. McCarver recalled flatly. Next up was the team’s erratic co-owner, Nelson Doubleday, who told Mr. McCarver that he would always be welcome in the owners’ executive suite at Shea Stadium. And finally, cleaning up, was the Mets other co-owner, Fred Wilpon, who placed what Mr. McCarver called a “gentlemanly” call, and offered an invitation to meet later to discuss what had happened.

Mr. McCarver took the news hard. “You’re with an organization for 16 years,” he said. “I was angry initially because I figured here’s 16 years wrapped up in 10 minutes.”

Other ties did not break so easily. On Feb. 19, Mr. McCarver met his longtime broadcasting partner Ralph Kiner, at the Frank Sinatra Invitational golf tournament in Palm Springs, Calif. Mr. Kiner walked out to the fourth hole and waited for Mr. McCarver’s group to arrive. The two friends rode in a cart together for three holes and discussed the old times. “Ralph never conveyed emotion personally. Never,” Mr. McCarver said. “But he said, ‘Gonna miss you, partner.’ I said the same thing. I don’t want to make it sound like Casablanca , but it was touching. It touched me.” It was a solemn end to a partnership that had delighted Mets fans for 16 years.

Mr. McCarver grew up in Memphis, Tenn., one of five children of a police officer and a stay-at-home mom. “South Memphis was a very rough place to grow up,” he said. “You had to fight your way to survive.” A natural athlete, Mr. McCarver considered playing football at the University of Tennessee and the University of Notre Dame, but opted instead for a $75,000 contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was only 17, and one notch above a hayseed. “I was green and I didn’t know how to dress,” he recalled. Legendary Cardinal pitcher Bob Gibson showed him how to eat and how to drink. “I always felt if you play major league baseball, you had to feed the machine properly and I did,” he said. “I never had a problem with that. Not that I spent more than I made, but I spent the limit on food-good restaurants and stuff like that. We took pride in the restaurants we attended.”

He Shall Return!

As his career wound down in the late 1970’s, Mr. McCarver began to consider life after baseball. “There are times during your career when you know you can play forever,” he said. “You can’t even think about the end of a career. But before long, boom, in the blink of an eye, it’s over. And then, like a lot of things, you’ve got to prepare. It’s much like anticipation in baseball.” If you’re a real McCarver listener, you can feel a casually dropped quotation coming, can’t you? Mr. McCarver dipped into his knowledge of a certain World War II general: “‘Chance favors the prepared man,’ says MacArthur. And you’ve got to be prepared.”

After a three-year stint in the Phillies’ broadcast booth, he signed on with the Mets in 1983, and immediately made a name for himself by dissecting games down to their bare essence, explaining for his audience what options were available for a given situation, and which ones he felt were appropriate. The level of detail was unprecedented among baseball announcers, who, by and large, were former stars who served either as cheering sections or living reminders of days gone by. Mr. McCarver developed into a journalist who specialized in “first-guessing,” in which he evaluated strategy and tactics before, not after, they were put into action.

His forthright style won him plenty of admirers, but Mr. McCarver isn’t one to hold himself above other ex-jocks who get by with stories about the old days and unapologetic cheerleading. Pointing to former Yankee announcer Phil Rizzuto and the late Richie Ashburn, a Phillies legend who became a broadcaster, Mr. McCarver insisted that “the standards were different” when his older predecessors started their second careers. “No one expected you to be journalistic in your approach to the job,” he said. “They weren’t and they were successful.” And, in fact, for all his precision and knowledge, Mr. McCarver is a storyteller in the mold of the old-timers. But his narratives tend to be about the game on the field, not about games in the past. “You not only have the right, you have the responsibility to tell the story of what’s happening during the game because that’s what baseball broadcasting is,” he said. “It’s a series of vignettes during the course of the game.”

He learned how to tell a story by listening to baseball announcer Harry Carey and to Elvis Presley (“singularly the most beautiful man I ever saw”) growing up. He’s a fan of the old composers, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Stephen Sondheim. “I just think Sondheim’s brilliant. The way those guys string lyrics together, it’s brilliant. We’re kindred spirits,” he said. With all due respect to Mr. McCarver’s artistry-kindred spirits with Stephen Sondheim? An “Oh, Tim, what have you gotten yourself into this time?” look flashed across his face. But you don’t get very far in show business by retreating. So he downed another bite of Cobb salad and plowed ahead with the analogy. “Well, you’re starting with a blank easel or the composition paper,” he said. “It’s blank, the paper, and so is the television and you start and create.” He was really working for this one. His right elbow rested on the table and he propped his face against his fist. The diamond-studded World Series ring he got with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1967 shimmered as he fingered the corner of his mouth with his pinky. “Naturally on television the picture’s already there. But it’s still similar because you’re starting from scratch and you’re doing something that’s entertaining. Of course, there’s a lot of help on the television. The picture’s already there. But as an announcer you’re bringing what’s already there more to life. And in an 11-1 game you’re an entertainer-why would the audience continue to watch an 11-1 game? What’s that reason? Entertainment. Anyone who doesn’t believe that is full of themselves.”

How’s that for analysis? He sculpted a workable rant out of a metaphor with as much meat on it as an 11-1 rout.

Get used to it, Yankee fans.