The Fox play-by-play announcer will broadcast his fifth Super Bowl in February and just released a book about his career behind the microphone
Joe Buck had the good fortune of watching his father, Jack Buck, broadcast countless games as the voice of the St. Louis Cardinals. But when the time came to step up to the booth, the younger Buck made the most of his opportunity. Now he is the lead Major League Baseball and National Football League announcer for Fox Sports, having just completed his 19th World Series and preparing to call his fifth Super Bowl. In his recent memoir, “Lucky Bastard,” Buck recounts his rise, one that almost came crashing down in 2011 when complications from anesthesia during a hair-plug procedure cost him his voice for nearly a year—an absence he previously attributed to “a virus.” He has since recovered to cement his status as a leading voice in sports broadcasting. In this interview, Buck discusses the recent World Series, his approach to Super Bowl broadcasts and the stadiums he likes the most.
In your new book, which you wrote before the World Series, you said that the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series would be the greatest story in sports. Having just seen it happen, do you still believe that?
I do. To be in the middle of all that, especially at Wrigley Field, that was as electric an atmosphere for as long a period of time as I’ve ever witnessed. For the Cubs to have not won the whole thing since before the Titanic went down and before World War I, and to not have hosted it—that’s the difference. Everyone has asked me to compare it to the Boston Red Sox in 2004. While every one is different, and the Red Sox win was thrilling, they’d been in the World Series in 1986 and 1975 and 1967. The Cubs hadn’t been there since World War II. And you’re never guaranteed a long series. Even the Red Sox in 2004 was a four-game sweep. So you put that into the mix and then you get 10 innings in Game 7, with a little 17-minute rain delay in there—the series lived up to the hype.
You knew that it was going to be a historic win for either team. Did you think ahead of what you would say when the last out was recorded?
It’s hard to not let your mind go there. But this was the same as 1998 with Mark McGwire (breaking the single-season home run record). I wrote a script in my score book and was going to make sure I was somewhat poetic: “McGwire rounds the bases and into the history books!” But because he hit the home run just fair and just over the wall, I couldn’t get my eyes down to what I had written. It taught me the lesson that as much as you try to script those seminal moments in sports history for the television call and the constant replay, you just can’t. You have to be as true to the last out as you are to the sixth or seventh out.
NFL ratings were down in the early part of the season but Fox’s Thanksgiving game was the network’s most watched regular-season game ever. How much did the election play into those early ratings?
I can tell you just personally the election changed my viewing habits. I was watching a lot more CNN and Fox News than I’d ever watched before. Now we’re on the other side and there have been some good rating stories. That said, I think the NFL has to look at some things. They have to look at the Sunday morning London starts, which have been played by big-market teams this year. That takes a big part of a rating out. You’re asking fans in Los Angeles, whether it’s for a Rams game or to watch the Redskins play the Bengals, to get up and watch a game at 6:30 a.m. I just don’t see that as a priority no matter how good you think the product is. And then the other part is the product hasn’t been that good this year. There have been a lot of bad games and a lot of bad matchups and a lot of superstars have either been hurt or haven’t played like superstars. So I think the quality of the games has a lot to do with it as well.
Fox will air the Super Bowl this season. How does your preparation differ for the Super Bowl compared to a regular-season game?
I’ve gone kind of 180 on that. This will be my fifth Super Bowl. When I did my first, I felt the world is going to be watching and you need to treat it like this is the game and you have to have a nugget of information for everybody running around down there. You’ve got two weeks after the conference championship games to get ready. And it’s a trap. It wouldn’t speak well of me to say I’ve got Green Bay and Seattle in Week 14 of the NFL season but I’m going to treat the Super Bowl more importantly than what I’m doing this week. You can’t do that. I get clips every day before the Super Bowl and I can drown myself in information to the point where the boards I have in front of me are so jam-packed with little tidbits on every guy that you can’t get through any of it and you forget to watch the actual game. It’s great that the punter has a pet turtle that he brings to every game and he’s had it since he was 10 but you know, is it really a big thing that you want to concern yourself with or do you just want to say that the guy hit a 46-yard punt?
During a baseball or football broadcast, how aware are you of the atmosphere in the stadium?
I’m really aware of it. I do something that I don’t know if other guys do. I make sure that the natural sound in my headset is turned up to a level that is representative of how it is in the stadium. Some guys don’t want to hear any of that crowd noise in their head while they’re calling a game. I want to hear what it sounds like coming across your television. That’s a great little crutch to lean on and a good barometer as to how much you really need to talk over a roaring crowd, or over a good level of crowd noise. If it is a good level, then you don’t need to overdo it. I make sure that the natural sound is from the microphone down on the field, where you can hear a quarterback bark out signals. If you’re hearing that at home, that’s cool and I don’t want to talk over that.
Fox has started to air golf’s U.S. Open, which got mixed reviews in its first year in 2015. What was the biggest adjustment you had to make for 2016?
I think the biggest adjustment was we had done it once. It’s no different than doing baseball or football. Until you’ve done it you don’t know what you don’t know. The mechanics of doing golf are way more complicated than doing a baseball or football game because you’re in one stationary spot with your back to the golf course, the little part that you can see. You’ve got 150-plus golf balls in the air on a Thursday. And you’re trying to make conversation and look at trends and dip into someone’s third shot on a par 5 on the 14th hole. There are a lot of moving parts. We had a lot going against us that first year. You had me, who had never done golf but had a lot of TV experience, guys who had played a lot of golf but hadn’t done much TV, and then a golf course that nobody had seen that looked brown and the golf ball was hard to find. People criticized our camera people for not being able to follow the ball. They’re all freelance people—the same people that did it for NBC. It was a difficult venue just because of the grass color and the glare. It was a tough way to start, but that’s OK. The second year we were all more comfortable.
You receive constant criticism from fans who are convinced that you dislike their team. Does it bother you as much as it did early in your career?
In the beginning of my career it wasn’t an issue. As social media has taken on a life of its own, it’s given fans voices that they didn’t have before. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I don’t run from the criticism and I don’t take it personally. The play-by-play guy—especially in baseball in the postseason—gets it more than the analyst. The play-by-play guy is the guy screaming and yelling during the play. It’s the fan base whose team has just given up the big home run or just struck out with the bases loaded that hears you emoting and it’s kind of kill the messenger. It doesn’t feel personal, as nuts as that sounds.
Your father broadcast before social media was there to pounce on any mistake or politically incorrect comment. Did he have it easier than you do?
There’s no doubt. I’m not saying it’s right, but on some level he was free to be himself. He said politically incorrect things and, I give a couple of examples in my book, but in today’s world you wouldn’t last the inning, let alone the game or the season. You’d be gone. My dad had a very carefree attitude toward that sort of thing, but it’s one of the things that keeps me up at night. If I say something that could be interpreted the wrong way, how much rope am I going to get from Fox?
Which sports venues do you get most excited to visit?
Old Yankee Stadium was always No. 1 because of all the greats who had played there. But I guess, in order, it would be Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Dodger Stadium. And in the NFL, it’s Lambeau Field. What they’ve done to that place to make it a 365-day-a-year venue is crazy.
How many miles a year do you travel?
I’ve never kept a log of that. I probably should total it up some year. It might be too depressing to actually know the number. [Laughs.] I know that by the end of the season I’m pretty run down. I’m lucky to do what I do and I would never complain about the travel. But by the end of the baseball season and certainly by the end of the football season—since one bleeds into the other and it’s kind of one long season for me—I’m done. I just want to sit and be at home.
What was the reason for writing this book now?
I think I started writing because of the whole vocal issue in 2011—the irony and the comedic side of it with the hair-plug surgery leading to the loss of my voice. It wasn’t funny then but now as I look back on it, that’s what drove me to my laptop to start writing something. And then the idea that through all these World Series and Super Bowls, people have no idea who I am or what I’m about or what I’ve dealt with over the years personally or professionally. They know I’m somebody’s son getting into the business that his dad was in. But beyond that, I think if you try to define someone between ball one and strike two, you’re not getting a very full picture. So I felt I wanted to put something out there on the record as to who I am and what I’m about.