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Role reversal: McCarver turns the tables on Carlton

PHILADELPHIA -- For one night of fun, frolic and Phillies, Kirk had the elf ears and Spock had emotions, the nail smashed the hammer, Rice threw down-and-outs to Montana and Red Barber screamed as Russ Hodges dispassionately reported that the Giants had won the pennant. On this sweaty baseball evening, the Phillies provided role reversal to the nth degree by parties forever linked. And it was delightful. Fun for all ages, but mostly for two men of a certain age and some of their gathered contemporaries.

It was Tim McCarver, the catcher's catcher, throwing out the first ball here Saturday. And it was Steve Carlton figuratively wearing the tools and serving as McCarver's receiver. 60 feet, six inches -- or thereabouts -- separated them, but in reverse. McCarver stood on the bump -- albeit 10 feet from the rubber. Lefty stood behind the plate. And a manufactured moment that splendidly stood on ceremony occurred. Nostaglia with a twist.

What did it matter that the first ceremonial first pitch of McCarver's life was high and wide as if it were an alley oop intended for Shawn Bradley? Carlton, wisely outfitted with a fielder's glove and not a catcher's mitt, handled it cleanly and smiled. And the umpire called it a strike, expanding the strike zone by roughly 143 percent.

McCarver had warmed up for his ceremonial assignment during an afternoon catch with his grandson, Beau. He felt reassured when, for the first time, his throw had some air under it. The one he threw to Lefty had much more loft. Larry Bowa advised McCarver, "You've got to get a cutoff man." More laughter.

McCarver had hoped his throw wouldn't give away his age, almost 70; not that his age embarrasses him; but he didn't want his arm to. "I wanted to throw a slider in the dirt," he said, "like the ones Lefty threw that I had to block with my shoulder and my neck."

One of those blocked sliders caused a blood clot in McCarver's larynx and rendered him speechless for two weeks.

"Johnny Bench was the first player to visit me in the hospital," McCarver said Saturday night. "I heard every line you could imagine. ... If the same thing happened to me now, I'd have fans visiting."

Carlton adopted silence again after the ceremonial moment. McCarver didn't speak for him -- he rarely did when they played. Instead, he characterized him. "I've never seen Lefty happier," he said. "I was happy for him."

Few pitcher-catcher tandems have performed so prominently as an entry. Newcombe had Campy and Whitey had Yogi, but Campy and Yogi caught everybody else. Greg Maddux had Eddie Perez or anyone who wasn't Javy Lopez. But Perez caught nobody else and never reached the level McCarver has reached in the game.

So when the Phillies decided to salute McCarver for his recent receipt of the Ford C. Frick Award, only Carlton would do as a partner. And on this Night at the Ballpark, he once again would serve as Harpo to McCarver's Groucho.

They received high marks for their first work together in decades. "A great night," Bobby Wine said. "Great idea."

Larry Shenk, the Phillies' always-thinking PR man emeritus, thought up the pairing. When McCarver received his award for his expert work in the booth, in Cooperstown three weeks ago, Shenk already had been plotting. The stars began to align properly. The FOX network, McCarver's employer, had planned to suspend its Saturday baseball telecasts during the Olympics, so the one-time Phillies announcer would be free on Aug. 11. Better yet, the Cardinals would be in Philly. McCarver and Carlton began their careers in St. Louis and moved on to Philadelphia, though not simultaneously.

And then Shenk's piece de résistance: he invited the umpire who worked the plate in McCarver's first game as a Minor League catcher in 1959. Invitation accepted, Brent Musburger -- yes, that Brent Musburger -- showed. Someone had to afford McCarver's throw the benefit of the doubt.

"How 'bout that?" McCarver said. "I'm very touched. Brent came up from Florida just for the fun of it."

The two dined together Friday night, at one point addressing what might have been. Musburger and McCarver were to be the first team for CBS's weekly baseball telecasts in 1990. But a contract disagreement between the network and Musburger ended his time with CBS just before the season began. "We were booked," McCarver said. "And we've never worked together ... ever."

Even with Musburger's presence at that of other Phillies, the pregame belonged to McCarver and Carlton. They had spent the parts of 11 seasons together as teammates, battery mates, friends and partners. Carlton pitched, McCarver caught. Carlton cut 'em down with his treacherous slider; McCarver's savvy was a weapon of comparable impact. Carlton gagged himself in public, McCarver was his spokesperson, often expressing his postgame thoughts in second person singular -- he, his, him. Carlton was a silent movie. McCarver provided the subtitles.

They were the opposites that attracted. Carlton is mostly mute in public. Now McCarver often is criticized for talking too much in the booth. McCarver was homespun Memphis and retains a bit of twang. Carlton, by all accounts, is from Neptune or thereabouts. No twang or anything else is audible.

Together on the field, they were eloquent. As a starting battery for the Cardinals and Phillies, they were involved in 144 victories and 84 losses. Carlton's career record with McCarver as his catcher was 120-67, his ERA, 2.82. His career numbers include 329 victories and 244 losses. His career ERA gained weight after his Phillies days were complete in 1986. It reached 3.22.

The two were good for each other. McCarver, a .271 career hitter, batted .303 in games when he was the catcher and Carlton was the starter. McCarver, aware of his limitations, urged Carlton to improve his move to first and to make it a "balk move". Not only did Carlton pick off 145 runners in his career, he also led the league in balks in 1979.

They were back together again Saturday, enjoying each other's company and that of Bowa, Wino, Sarge, Bull, Schmidt, Christianson, Taylor, Boone, Unser, Maddox, Daulton and the others who played at the Vet. They all deferred to this battery on this night. "A lot of us here won together," McCarver said. "We're close." None closer than he and his pitcher. It was McCarver who long ago suggested the two would be buried 60 feet, six inches apart.

After his first ball Saturday night, they may end up a few feet closer.

Marty Noble is a columnist for

Philadelphia Phillies