Ueck gets crash course for remote calls

Radio icon to call '20 games exclusively from Miller Park

July 23rd, 2020

MILWAUKEE -- Bob Uecker reported to Miller Park on Wednesday to tune up for his 50th season at the mic for his hometown team. Only this time, the ballgame was happening 100 miles away.

Broadcasting baseball in 2020 sure is different.

Or is it?

“I can’t go in the clubhouse,” Uecker deadpanned. “It brings back such great memories of teams that I was playing on.”

He’ll be here all summer, folks.

Uecker plans to call all the Brewers’ home games in 2020 plus a handful of road games from Miller Park, beginning with Wednesday’s exhibition against the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field. It was a critical crash course in broadcasting from home, even when the team is on the road, for Uecker and radio partners Jeff Levering and Lane Grindle, as well as Brian Anderson, Bill Schroeder and Sophia Minnaert for television on FOX Sports Wisconsin.

They were treated to a good ballgame. It was a 5-3 Brewers win that featured a Jedd Gyorko defensive gem at third base and four Milwaukee home runs, including a Ben Gamel drive that became a homer when Chicago center fielder Luis Robert’s entire glove, ball and all, fell off his hand and over the wall, and a much-needed opposite-field shot for Christian Yelich that showed his quiet Summer Camp probably doesn’t mean much at all.

In the radio booth, Uecker and Levering had five camera angles to view, plus a game feed projected on the stadium scoreboard. In the television booth, Anderson and Schroeder had additional monitors but were similarly adjusting to a new way of calling games, one in which they will rely not on their own eyes, but on unknown camera operators and the miles of fiber carrying images back to Miller Park.

“I have a little anxiety about it, to be honest with you,” Anderson said.

He has experience calling live basketball and golf remotely, including the Match II golf event in May. For all of the other Brewers broadcasters, including Uecker, this was a first.

"The way I equate this on the radio side is going back to ticker-tape days, when they didn't have broadcasters traveling with the team," Levering said. "They'd have to read off what was happening on the ticker tape. If it happened that the ticker tape went down, you just had to make stuff up.

"We're at the mercy of fibers and technology and things of that nature to be our eyes, and that's going to be a big challenge. If something happens to our feed or our monitors go out ... we have to be honest with our listening audience, too. They know we're not there. We're going to provide entertainment and provide as bare-bones play-by-play as we can."

Thus, the radio broadcasts will sound a bit different, and the television broadcast will look a bit different. It will work like some Spring Training broadcasts, in which a slimmed-down crew on site will send out what is referred to in European football as a “world” feed -- a down-the-middle presentation that looks exactly the same to, say, Brewers fans and White Sox fans, but has different commentary.

Baseball, Anderson said, is one of the most difficult sports to call remotely because of the way the ball leaves the bat. Play-by-play announcers will have to learn to hold their reaction for an extra beat because they won’t be able to immediately look at the outfielders for feedback.

But no one was complaining -- especially not Uecker.

“I couldn’t wait to get back to work,” he said.

It wouldn’t be summer in Wisconsin without him.

“My childhood memories of Bob Uecker are of throwing the ball up on the roof of my house and trying to catch it and listening to him on the radio while the game is going on,” said Brewers manager Craig Counsell, who grew up in Whitefish Bay, Wis., and whose father worked in the Brewers’ front office during the late 1970s and early '80s. “That's my distinct memory of Brewers baseball in the summer: outside, radio on, throwing the baseball on the roof. If I got real brave, I'd throw it on the other side of the roof and try to run around the house to catch it, so I'd lose Ueck for a couple of minutes. But I remember his voice, for sure.

“For me, to have a chance to work with him now -- I'm going to miss our time together this year. We're going to have time when we do the interviews, but it's not going to be the same not being able to sit across from him making me laugh, and hopefully make him laugh once in a while, which makes you feel like you've done something really good, to make a guy like that laugh. I'm going to miss him this year.

“Fifty years is a long time. It's an incredible accomplishment. He's meant so much to the Brewers. There's a new picture in the clubhouse of the celebration in Cincinnati [when the Brewers clinched a 2019 postseason berth] and he's right in the middle of it. That, for me, is the best way to honor him. He's right in the middle of everything we do. That's what you've earned for 50 years of being a great Brewer."

Uecker will miss the personal interaction with folks at the ballpark, too. On Wednesday, he and Counsell were planning to do their daily pregame show via Zoom.

“Zoom. I didn’t know what that was,” Uecker said. “When I played, that was some guy who ran fast.”

Uecker, 86, consulted extensively with his doctors and Brewers officials, including principal owner Mark Attanasio, before setting plans to work at the stadium this season. He is tested regularly for COVID-19 and realizes there is some risk, but he says he never really doubted the decision.

"Ueck has always been, 'If there are games played at Miller Park, I'm going to be there, I want to be a part of it,'" Levering said. "There's no single person in this franchise's history that has been as iconic and as important than Bob Uecker. So, to feel what a season would have been like without it was really difficult to fathom. I don't think he wanted it to be that way."

Uecker said he would strive to find the right balance between having fun while recognizing that the coronavirus pandemic has been disastrous for so many.

And while he knows there are bound to be stumbles along the way, he will try to put on the best broadcast possible.

“To be a part of Wisconsin like I am, because I was born and raised here, it means a lot that people listen to you, wait for you, are concerned about you, health-wise,” Uecker said. “Fifty years is a long time, and overall it’s 65 years in baseball now, playing and doing the broadcast.

“That means a lot. I mean, I appreciate people. Who are we without people, anyway?”