Friday April 30th, 2010

Bob Uecker, the radio voice of the Milwaukee Brewers for 40 of their 41 years of existence, underwent successful heart surgery on Friday to repair his aortic valve and part of his aortic root. For his faithful audience on WTMJ, this will be a strangely empty stretch of baseball: As he recovers, the 75-year-old icon will be taking his longest hiatus ever from the airwaves, likely missing 10-12 weeks of games. I also presume he'll miss his induction into the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame, which had been scheduled for May 13. Uecker is on the verge of an extraordinary trifecta this year. He'll be the first man ever to simultaneously belong to the Baseball Hall of Fame (as an broadcaster), the WWE Hall of Fame (for announcing early Wrestemanias) and his local meat industry's Hall of Fame.

The release announcing the latter induction read, "Although Uecker has never made sausage or worked in a meat plant, he has been a master at promoting meat during his many years of play-by-play coverage of Milwaukee Brewers baseball."

A master at promoting meat. A truer press-release line has never been written. Outside the state, Uecker is famous for his appearances in the Major League movies (as Harry Doyle), Miller Lite commercials, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and Mr. Belvedere (as George Owens). But to Wisconsinites like myself, he is just Ueck, the self-deprecating former Braves catcher and tireless sausage spokesman who's been the new Milwaukee franchise's one constant through five different logos, a league change, a stadium change, and a 26-year playoff drought that ended in 2008. Uecker is the Brewers, and bratwurst consumption is considered vital to the Brewer-fan experience in large part because he's elevated the in-game sausage advertisement to an art form. The sound of summer, to me, is Ueck on the radio, talking brats, talking baseball.

His ads tend to begin with a standard pitch for Usinger's sausage -- "It's just not summer without 'em" -- and then go on extended, inning-long tangents about fantasy brat-preparation methods. I recall a stellar rant from last summer about the procedure for cooking a brat in the tailpipe of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Earlier this season, Uecker revived an old bit about the merits of heating up sausage in an automobile's cigarette lighter. On Wednesday afternoon, in his last broadcast before the surgery, he used the top half of the second inning to discuss the possibility of corn-dogging a brat. The play-by-play patter during an at-bat by Andy LaRoche of the Pirates unfolded like this:

"Get yourself a stick. If you're pruning trees this spring, grab one of those things and bring it in the house, stick a brat on it.

"Here's the pitch ... too high and off the outside corner. It's even now at a ball and a strike.

"Let's see: A little Bisquick, little milk, throw an egg in there too, you might as well do that.

"One ball and one strike.

"And spinach they tell me is outstanding. That part I made up. The other stuff, though ...

"One ball, two strikes ..."

"And if you've got guts, like a lot of us, dip that thing in the batter with your hand and then hold it over the flame.

"The batter is kind of a protective element for your hand. We call 'em hand corndogs.

"One ball, two strikes.

"I'm only kidding now. Don't be calling in to say somebody got burned.

"Swing and a bouncer up along third, foul.

"I know it's going to happen. 'Our son tried ...'" (His partner, Cory Provus: "Ueck said it was OK!")

"We already had the guy mess up his cigarette lighter. Don't do that, either. Leave that to us folks that know how to do it."

Provus, who's in just his second season in the booth, won me over at this same time last April when he set Uecker up for a classic (non-sausage-related) exchange about social media. Uecker was on one of his standard technology-mocking rants, talking about using his famed Pocket Doppler device, Googling, texting and blogging, when Provus inquired about the possibility of Ueck using Twitter. His response:

"I'm not Twittering yet, not yet. My medication takes care of that.

"I'm still OK. Twitter when you drive your car, buddy, you're in trouble.

"Two-two. Inside, three-two now.

"When did that start, Twitter?"

(Provus: "Last week.")

"Only thing close to that that I know of is that canary that used to be in that cat cartoon, Tweety.

"Three balls, two strikes. Thawt I thaw a puddy cat.

"Three-two, Duffy fouls again.

"Old Tweety.

(Provus, egging him on: "Because when I came in the booth this morning, I thought I saw you Twittering.")

"No, well, that was -- I get the shakes in the morning, until I have my first hit, and first Miller Lite, then I'm all right."

Such is the experience of listening to Uecker. The game gets woven into the stories. For some, there's not enough actual play-by-play, and perhaps too many misjudged fly balls -- eliciting premature starts of his famed "Get up, Get up and get out of here ..." home run call -- but I wouldn't want anyone else in the booth. Uecker still rises to the occasion in big baseball moments better than anyone. His call of Ryan Braun's go-ahead homer -- "Swing a driiiive to left-center and deep" -- on the day the Brewers clinched the wild card in 2008 is still goosebump-worthy, as is his narration of CC Sabathia's final inning in that game. I was covering it, listening to Ueck on headphones in the press box at Miller Park, and can remember him saying of CC, on the verge of a complete game:

"Tired? There is no word 'tired,' not today. You'd need a crane to get him out of there. A truck. He's not coming out of this one."

I still have a cassette tape of Uecker's call of the 1992 game when Brewers legend Robin Yount got his 3,000th hit. All Ueck said, really, was, "He's done it! Three-thousand for Robin!" -- but the weight with which he delivered those six words made it probably the most-replayed Uecker call of all-time. It pops up in promos in nearly every Brewers broadcast. My hope is that someday MLB.com's audio archives will be expanded all the way back to the '80s and '90s, because there's a different broadcast from that '92 season that I want to find -- a Sunday-afternoon game in which Ueck compliments a youngster on a fine stab of a three-hopper over the railing down the third-base line.

That kid was me. I've never heard the call; I'm only only aware of it because a fan sitting nearby took off his headphones and said I'd just been mentioned by Bob Uecker on the radio. It was quite the honor for an 11-year-old, and my dad ordered me to wave up towards the booth to say thanks. I stood up and waved to no one; by that time Ueck had already turned his attention back to the field.

The Brewers flew to San Diego on Wednesday night, taking their first road trip without Uecker in 19 years. "We're actually both heading West," he said in his last pre-surgery broadcast. "I'm getting off at Froedtert." He was referring to Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, the hospital about 3.5 miles west of Miller Park where, on Friday, he went under the knife for what he called "home improvement." Provus made a point to ask Uecker if he'd send Tweets from the hospital.

The Brewers are off to a 9-13 start, mostly because their pitching staff has been abysmal, with a 5.23 ERA that ranks fourth-to-last in the National League. The only redeeming quality of all the long innings was that they were prime Uecker time -- wide-open stretches for tangential storytelling. I suspect that's when I'll miss him the most in the next three months, when the games get away from Brewers, and he's not there to fill the space. So get well, Ueck, get out of the hospital, and get back in the booth. When you're next on WTMJ, I hope to be regaled with tales from Froedtert. The place is full of expensive medical equipment -- some of which could, probably, be incorporated into an absurd story about cooking a bratwurst.

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