When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
- Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu
I grew up with the Atlanta Braves. My parents have pictures of me attending games in the early 1990s, when I was but four or five. I was only six when Atlanta won the World Series in 1995, so my recollections of it are almost non-existent. But Atlanta Braves baseball continued to be a large part of my life growing up. My grandparents and my father were all huge fans, so it was rare that a summer night wasn't spent in the company of Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren, watching the team I had grown to love.
Sure, I loved summer off from school as much as any kid, but my quintessential childhood summer memories had nothing to do with vacations. I remember sitting on the rug in my family room, propped up with a few throw pillows my mother begrudgingly let me take off her wing chairs, watching the Braves take on some nameless team. Dad sat in the adjacent room, one eye on the television and one eye on the week's work he wanted get a head start on. Mom made dinner in the kitchen while my younger siblings ran to and fro. The sun slowly made its way toward the now-orange horizon as thunder rumbled off in the distance. But all of that was background noise: the Braves were on.
For as long as I can remember, Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren were the voice of Atlanta Braves baseball. They were as much my summer companions as my primary school friends. For me, summer was three things: sleeping in, playing with friends and watching the Braves. Winning or losing didn't mean as much to me back then, watching baseball was just something I enjoyed. It was entertaining and fun, and that was thanks in large part to the duo of Skip and Pete.
Skip and Pete were truly the perfect pair. They played off each other beautifully and complemented the other's strengths. Skip's nasally, jovial style, rife with his trademark dry wit was the perfect backdrop to a summer's night. His storytelling ability rivaled that of long-time Dodgers' broadcaster Vin Scully; you could be sure that whenever you were watching a Braves game, you would never be bored. The day after Skip passed away, Pete said it best: "Even if it was 9-1 visitors in the bottom of the 4th, he'd keep you glued to your set, because you never knew what was coming out of his mouth next."
Skip's élan for the game meshed perfectly with Pete's straight-laced, matter-of-fact style. If Skip was the heart and soul of Atlanta's broadcasts, then Pete was the brains of the operation. You could be sure that no matter what the situation, Pete always had an interesting tidbit researched. I can safely say that most of what I learned about the game and history of baseball during my childhood years is a direct result of listening to Pete every evening. What made Pete so special though, was what lay behind his knowledge. Anyone can research baseball and be ready to rattle off facts and anecdotes. But with Pete, you always got the sense that his research came not out of obligation but as a labor of love. He didn't wear his love for the game on his sleeve quite like his partner did, but listen to him, and it isn't hard to hear his love for the game and for the Atlanta Braves permeate every meticulously researched fact that he discussed on air.
Together, they covered the Braves for over thirty years. Over their storied careers, they saw the lowest lows and highest highs. They covered the Atlanta team that hit rock bottom and lost 106 games in 1988 and they covered the team that finally captured the World Series on a chilly October night in 1995. Together, Skip and Pete gave voice to the best and worst of Atlanta Braves baseball. And in an era when radio was still so popular, the picture they painted of the game was unparalleled. It's no coincidence that the Braves' two biggest moments in postseason history are remembered as much for Skip's call in the booth as they are for what happened on the field.
I wasn't old enough to remember it at the time, but I still can hear every word of Skip's call of Sid Bream's slide. It's arguably his greatest call, and in close games, I still find myself saying in my head: "if he hits one there, we can dance in the streets!" I'm not sure it's possible to listen to that call and not get chill bumps. If the call of Sid's slide was his most iconic, then his call of Atlanta's World Series win was certainly his most emotional. Listen to that ninth inning, and you can just hear his voice strain with hopeful anticipation as the first and second outs are made. When Marquis Grissom glided to his right to secure the final out of the 1995 season, Skip's words finally failed him; all he and Pete can muster is simply "Yes! Yes! Yes!" Nothing encompassed Skip's effervescent joie de vivre quite like those three simple words.
The most profoundly amazing thing about Skip and Pete is how every person who listened to them had a connection. What do you think of when you hear Skip Caray's voice? For me, just hearing one of Skip's calls pulls me back to my childhood summers, watching the Braves on the rug in our family room. For a split-second, I'm five, six, seven, eight years old again, without a care in the world. Just me, a lazy summer evening, the orange-pink sunset dancing through the window blinds, the smell of my mother's chicken parmesan wafting throughout the house, and the Atlanta Braves on the television with Skip and Pete on the call.
Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren were more than announcers. For generations of Braves fans, they were a connection to the team, a daily companion painting a picture of the game of baseball in a way only they could. That is the real legacy that they leave behind. It's not their storied broadcasting records (though those themselves are extraordinarily impressive), but the unique connection that they were able to forge with each and every one who listened to the game. They will forever be as much a part of Braves baseball as Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Bobby Cox, Dale Murphy and all the other players they covered over their long and storied careers.
The French writer Marcel Proust explored memories at great length in his seminal work À la recherche du temps perdu (Literally: In Search of Lost Time). In the final section of Proust's work, entitled Finding Time Again, the author muses at length on art and memory:
By art alone we are able to get outside ourselves, to know what another sees of this universe which for him is not ours, the landscapes of which would remain as unknown to us as those of the moon. Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world, our own, we see it multiplied and as many original artists as there are, so many worlds are at our disposal, differing more widely from each other than those which roll round the infinite and which, whether their name be Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us their unique rays many centuries after the hearth from which they emanate is extinguished.
Their hearths have finally burnt low, but our individual worlds will forever be multiplied by the summer landscapes which Skip and Pete painted for us across thirty years. Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren have shuffled off this mortal coil, but their voices will emanate long after they've gone.