MISSING JACK I miss Jack Buck. There’s been a void to this 2003 baseball season that I’ve finally managed to identify. You can listen to a St. Louis Cardinals game on the radio without Buck’s voice telling you the tale . . . but without that voice, well, it’s going to take some getting used to. The Hall of Fame play-by-play man died last June 18th after a long illness. He hadn’t been in the broadcast booth with partner Mike Shannon since the end of the 2001 season, so his passing wasn’t as dramatic for radio listeners as it might have been had he taken ill during the baseball season. Even with the outpouring of emotion throughout Cardinal Nation -- more than 10,000 of Buck’s friends attended a memorial service at Busch Stadium -- the heartache of Buck’s passing was swallowed by the tragic death of Cardinal pitcher Darryl Kile only four days later. (As the fates would have it, Kile pitched the Cardinals into first place merely hours before Buck’s last breath . . . in a game against the Angels.) While Kile’s passing at the vibrant age of 33 would impact the team and its fans throughout the rest of the 2002 season, Buck’s spirit remained aloft, his memory often bringing a smile through a season dampened by tears. But with the dawn of he 2003 season, his absence has grown profound, even more so than Kile’s vacated spot in the Cards’ rotation. Measured strictly in baseball terms, this shouldn’t be a surprise. The cold, hard truth is that starting pitchers come and go like the wind. In eight years under Tony LaRussa, the Cardinals have had only three pitchers last as long as three years in the starting rotation (Donovan Osborne, Andy Benes, and Matt Morris). Cardinal Nation will grimace for years at the mention of Kile’s death, but with a new season, his loss is somehow mixed in with the annual roster transition of a big league baseball team. Not so with the loss of Jack Buck. If pitchers are like the wind, Buck was like those two redbirds perched on the bat across every Cardinal uniform since the days of Rogers Hornsby. A regular narrator of Cardinal baseball since 1954, Buck managed to become an integral, undendiable part of this storied franchise’s history. Alongside fellow Hall of Famer Harry Caray, Buck saw Stan Musial pick up his 3,000th hit. He described St. Louis’ miraculous run to the pennant in 1964, capped by the Cards’ first world championship in 18 years. His voice was behind Bob Gibson’s 17 strikeouts in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series; Lou Brock’s 105th stolen base in ‘74; Ozzie’s homer (“Go crazy folks!”) in the ‘85 playoffs; and Mark McGwire’s 70 home runs in 1998. If Jack Buck himself wasn’t Cardinal history, the fact is that Cardinal history occurred through Jack Buck . . . and from his voice into our hearts. Old standby Mike Shannon remains in the booth, now carrying the torch left behind by his partner of 30 years. Wayne Hagin, for 10 years the voice of the Colorado Rockies, has succeeded Buck at Shannon’s side. Hagin calls a decent game, and he’s clearly a knowledgeable broadcaster. (Though his asides on a decade of Colorado baseball history during the Cards’ series in Denver earlier this month were disconcerting at best.) But just as your favorite restaurant will never match your mom’s beef stew, Hagin’s voice cannot bring with it the memories, the tangible connection to Cardinal baseball we lost when Jack Buck died. My paternal grandfather patterned his summer days around Cardinal broadcasts. When television came along, he still preferred his favorite baseball team described over the radio, his own mind drawing a picture of Musial’s swing, Schoendienst’s pivot. Having lost my grandfather before I was old enough to listen with him, I always felt Jack Buck’s voice somehow connected us. That perhaps Willie McGee dancing around the bases might sound familiar to my grandfather’s recollections of Enos Slaughter doing the same . . . as long as McGee were described by Jack Buck. Cardinal baseball plays on, just as Buck would have it. And I’m still listening. Who knows? Perhaps the Voice of the Cardinals is still broadcasting, just from a different venue, a little higher up. And perhaps my grandfather is in fact listening in. In which case I know exactly how he’d describe Mr. Albert Pujols, St. Louis’ current legend-in-the-making. Three words: “That’s a winner!”

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