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The Big Picture: Uecker reigns as Milwaukee's Myron Cope

Monday, April 26, 1999

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Editor

Mr. Belvedere's boss -- George Owens, the witty, dashing, life-is-a-sitcom, Pittsburgh sports writer -- was back in town this weekend.

 

George Owens' alter ego is Bob Uecker, the Milwaukee Brewers radio announcer whom you probably know from that old ABC Friday-night staple (1985-90) still in television syndication. Or you probably know him from "Major League," the second-best baseball movie ever, behind "Field of Dreams" with James Earl Ra... er, I mean, Jones. Or you probably know him from his colorful baseball commentary on NBC or his 12 Miller beer commercials or his nearly 100 "Tonight Show" appearances or the two "Major League" sequels or sundry other TV shows.

What you probably don't know is this: He's the Myron Cope of Milwaukee.

With one hellacious bad back and a boss Hog.

"Bob Uecker is Brewers baseball," Bill Schroeder, a former Milwaukee catcher himself and current team TV analyst, was saying yesterday at Three Rivers Stadium.

"People tune into the radio, it doesn't matter what the score is. I think some people do like it better when the game's out of hand, so they can hear Ueck's storytelling. People don't turn on the game because the game's crappy, they turn it on because Ueck's up there."

Ueck's up there, all right. Sure, he was thrust into the NBC box with the eloquent Bob Costas and the baseball-expert Joe Morgan purely for comic relief. Yet that was a departure for the man who -- as Cheeseheads from Appleton to Wasau and we "Major League" fans understand -- is a primo play-by-play announcer.

"I tell you what," Schroeder said, "nobody knows the game better than Ueck. He's got a great combination of comedy and baseball.

"People in Milwaukee are lucky to have him. I hope they realize that."

Uecker could have sat out this season, you know. OK, so sat isn't exactly the accurate term for it. The author of "Catcher in the Wry," the journeyman catcher for the Milwaukee-Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Philles, he tries to make fun of his debilitating back pain, saying of the ailment that caused him to leave the NBC booth for good last season: "I think a lot of it is from sitting on the bench all that time."

Four disks in his lumbar area are so far gone, doctors informed him they need to open up his stomach and back, fuse parts of the ailing area and place him in a cast from pelvis to neck for nine weeks.

As Schroeder put it perfectly, "That ain't Ueck."

"I'm supposed to have surgery, but I keep putting it off," Uecker said. "It's bad. But I don't want to do it yet, either."

So he swims, he takes walks, he rides his beloved Harley Davidson motorcycle (the one with a cool ball-and-bat drawing on the gas tank). "There are people worse off," he said. Still, his back throbs with pain whenever he's lying down or sitting -- which is the heart of his play-by-play job.

The Mahrn of Milwaukee is the heart of the Brewers, too. When the front office put together an advertising campaign for Miller Park's 2000 opening, it chose two spokesmen: Hall of Fame inductee Robin Yount and Uecker. When the Brewers fashioned their media guide, they put the radio announcer on page 19, right behind the front office and in front of the manager, coaches and players. The Pirates, by contrast, place their announcers on pages 306 and 307, five from the end.

His national-TV days behind him, Uecker remains a celebrity. Why, just yesterday morning, he was stopped by Steelers backup quarterback Mike Tomczak and coach/bon vivant Bill Cowher. "I always liked Pittsburgh," he said of his former "Mr. Belvedere" hometown.

With the opening of Miller Park, he just might perform in another of the company's memorable beer commercials. "Those were a lot of fun. That was like being back on a team. Those reunion spots were five days of insanity." Yet the third and latest installment of "Major League" may well have been his last. The movie was so bad, the comic ex-catcher began, "I finished filming and got on the airplane the next day, and it was playing on the airplane."

He'll always be first-run, two-thumbs-up in the Brewers' booth and Cheeseheads' minds. But, him being 64, you wonder how much longer his "always" will last.

"I'm happy with what I'm doing here," Uecker said, amid his 44th April in baseball, his 28th as a Brewers broadcaster. "I don't feel tired, and I don't know what else I would do."

Well, art could imitate life, and he could become a sports writer.

Nah.

Too witty.


Blass from the past

Wonder if Steve Blass' broadcast contract with the club contains any language that would enable him to make a pitching comeback?

Then again, if the club permits him to start, on 24 years' rest, then Bob Walk might demand a chance, and everything's a mess.


You can reach us at cfinder@post-gazette.com

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