Harry Caray, the venerable Chicago Cubs broadcaster who suffered a stroke last February, is expected to return to the air in late May. Health permitting, he might want to come back sooner. At the invitation of WGN-TV and Radio, a motley collection of pundits, comedians and know-it-alls have commandeered the booth in Caray's absence, upstaging not only Harry but the Cubbies as well. The likes of columnist-curmudgeon Mike Royko, political commentator George Will and Cheers regular George Wendt have already served as color men for a game each, and comedian Bill Murray is scheduled to appear in the booth this week.
The "talent," as it's called in the TV biz, has run the gamut from the lumpish to the lucid. In the former category was Royko, the Windy City institution who writes for the Chicago Tribune. Even Slats Grobnik, Royko's ethnic everyman, would have panned him. Perhaps because play-by-play man Steve Stone had no clue as to how to tap the columnist's acerbic humor, Royko seemed to freeze on cue. Not once did he dump on Stone for sounding so annoyingly cheerful, and he had few insights other than a prediction that Ryne Sandberg, with Andre Dawson now batting behind him, will win the batting title. Was Royko scared of the mike? Afraid of sounding like a greenhorn? "I just kept my mouth shut, and everything worked out good," Royko explained later. Wrong, Mike. Mrs. O'Leary's cow had a better day.
Wendt, who plays the oafish Norm on Cheers, came across like a college kid, with little purpose or polish. His two shining moments occurred when he did a passable impression of Caray and when he glowingly described the legendary sausages of Chicago. It might have been a capital idea to have him in the booth if more of Norm had come through, but most of Wendt's jokes went thud, and his clichès ("A little bingle right here would break it wide open") went on forever.
The rookie phenom so far is Will, who proved that broadcasting baseball is a snap if you have an IQ of 750. A member of both the Cubs-crazy Emil Verban Society and the board of the Baltimore Orioles (conflicts of interest have never bothered George, who coached Ronald Reagan for a 1980 presidential debate and then appeared on television to praise the candidate's performance), Will was brilliant.
Disappointing those who had hoped to see his trademark bow tie in a sports TV booth, Will, who expounds his conservative views for ABC, Newsweek and The Washington Post, wowed 'em in a preppy yellow sweater and matching socks. He also prepared for his baseball debut like an eager lad studying for comprehensives, devouring the last three years of the Elias Baseball Analyst. And it's positively unfair how prescient Will can be. Asked by Stone to predict the size of the crowd, he guessed 43,218. Final count: 43,212.
Being careful not to upstage the game, Will steered clear of arms talks and the Reagans, except when Stone asked if the President followed the Cubs. (Will fixed him with a half-quizzical, half-forbidding stare and said, "I doubt it. He has too many people picking on him to worry about baseball.") What emerged instead was Will's personal warehouse of baseball facts, including such gems as Shawon Dunston walking once every 29 plate appearances last year, the lowest ratio in the National League.
As for commentary, Will took aim at the Phillie Phanatic, branding him and kindred mascots as needless distractions from the business at hand. And, in quintessential Will style, he made a powerful pitch for a return engagement. "You're 1-0 with me in the booth," he said, tight-lipped, to Stone during the wrap-up. "You draw your own conclusions whether you should have me back."
Caray, whose speech has returned to full speed, was in midseason form at his home in Palm Springs, Calif., last week. Told that his voice sounds like it always did, he shot back: "Yeah, terrible!" C'mon back to baseball, Harry. We miss you. Besides, there's a certain bow-tied tyro who might be looking for your job.