Mccarver Unmasked The Main Line's Gift To The Mets Has Become The Bon Vivant Of The Broadcast Booth - Oh, Baby!

Posted: June 02, 1987

NEW YORK — Good golly Gotham, Robin! The Garbage Barge slinks into New York Harbor, and Dr. K slips out of a drug clinic! BROWNSTONE INFERNO ROUTS SAKS SHOPPERS, and people have to stop buying things on Fifth Avenue for an afternoon. And at Shea Stadium, the mood is as dark as the sky over Mudville after Casey strikes out.

Yes, Met-detesters, last year's mighty Metropolitans - not the opera, not the art museum, the baseball team - are bombing like a one-night run on Broadway, and the tabloids are in a tizzy. "A NEW LOW!" the Daily News cries. "WHO'S WORSE?" one paper wonders. Holy tabloid headline!

Into this stormy scene floats one of the most famous residents of Philadephia's Main Line, to restore order to things, of course.

No, no, no - not a Chew or a Pew or a Biddle, nor a Cadwalader or a Morris - a McCarver, as in Tim McCarver of Gladwyne, Pa., once the Phillies' catcher, once the voice of Silent Steve Carlton, now better known than ever as the literate and Lettermanesque voice of the New York Mets (18 million viewers on WOR-TV), man in the booth on Monday Night Baseball (millions more), star of HBO specials, radio, GQ magazine, the World Series and Winter Olympics later this year in case you miss him and - whew! - author of a book in which he shares his feelings on all this, Oh, Baby, I Love It!

And so he does. It's a long way from Memphis, Tenn., from his roots as a ''roughneck . . . in a tough, run-down neighborhood." Time has finally thrown McCarver a soft pitch, but it's a curve! Now, he would just as soon discuss the war between the North and the South as the rivalry of the Phillies and the Pirates; now, he'd prefer a Mouton Rothschild to the beer ballplayers guzzle; now, he'd rather quote William Shakespeare than Billy Buckner.

Tim McCarver, at 42, is the catcher of a wry irony.

It's a dismal May night at the ballpark, where jets swamp the roar of the crowd in the best of times. The temperature is dropping like a squibbed bunt; rain is squirting over Flushing like tobacco chaw out of a manager's mug; the sky is as low as the visiting San Diego Padres, as dark as a confessional.

And here comes McCarver, in blue blazer and cream-and-red tie, as sunny as Sunday afternoon on the Schuylkill.

"Hey, Billy," McCarver says to his producer. "Hey, bro," to Nelson Doubleday, Mets owner and publishing scion, in neon-pink shirt and new-grass- green tie. ("Hey, Ace," Doubleday replies.) "Hey" to Mets stars Keith

Hernandez and Darryl Strawberry, to sportswriters, broadcasters, ticket-takers and groundskeepers.

"I'm late," McCarver says at 5:30, two hours before the game, and a rare cloud passes over the smile of a man who makes well over $200,000 a year. Traffic turned the trip from the Main Line in his Mercedes into a three-hour nightmare. "I have an innate fear of arriving at the park too late. I hate it. I'm usually here at 4:30 to talk to the ballplayers."

He gets a phone call in the booth. Great news! He has finally got tickets to Fences, on Broadway with James Earl Jones. "It's supposed to be fabulous." He calls his wife, Anne, in the posh midtown hotel where they make their home-away-from-home, with glad tidings. Later, McCarver - gourmet, gourmand, oenophile, Civil War buff who recently read Douglas Southall Freeman's three-volume, 6,000-page Lee's Lieutenants - makes dinner plans at an elegant Manhattan restaurant. (His favorite is Le Cirque; in Philadelphia, La Truffe and Le Bec-Fin.)

"If you want to never run into a ballplayer," McCarver says, hanging up the phone, "go to a nice restaurant."

This is a catcher?

The gritty backstop for the St. Louis Cardinals, the Boston Red Sox and the Montreal Expos as well as the Phillies for 20 years? Bearer of knocked knuckles, diced digits, broken finger bones, a balky back and no-good knees? Wearer of the face mask, chest protector and kneepads - the "tools of ignorance"?

Well, yes. Tim McCarver also has told his audience that a triple reminds him of a love scene from a Philip Roth novel ("Do you love me?" "Do you mean more than a triple?"), has borrowed lyrics from the Stephen Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park With George, and has quoted Shakespeare after a dramatic Mets loss ("As Lady Macbeth said, 'What's done cannot be

undone' ").

"He's uncanny," says Neil Postman, professor of communications at New York University. "His command of language is suprisingly sophisticated. One wouldn't expect that sentence structure from someone who spent all those years behind the plate."

At 6 o'clock, McCarver, who is a hit in the society of both "thinking men and yahoos," as GQ observed, leaves the booth for another world - the world of fried-chicken food spreads and dead-animal pranks and jokes that would make an umpire blush.

He goes out onto the field, where Hernandez is complaining about the weather.

"Life's a bitch," McCarver says, with a twinkle in his eye. "It's breathe, breathe, breathe - then you die."

In the Mets' clubhouse, he passes by the players reading newspapers, doing crossword puzzles, playing cards. McCarver is working.

"How's Sid?" McCarver asks a trainer, inquiring about pitcher Sid Fernandez's knee. He wants to ask Mets star Kevin McReynolds, a slugging outfielder the Mets acquired from the Padres, about a quote in Sports Illustrated from former Padres teammate Rich "Goose" Gossage that McReynolds was a "cancer" on the San Diego team. But McReynolds isn't around.

In the San Diego dugout, coach Harry Dunlop asks him to autograph Oh, Baby, I Love It!, which McCarver wrote with Ray Robinson. Dunlop loves McCarver's stories about Cardinals coach Joe Schultz, who traded autographed baseballs for anything he needed - fan belts, kielbasa in Philadelphia, sourdough in San Francisco - and landscaped his front lawn with spare Busch Stadium sod lifted

from the team clubhouse.

"The first time I read it in the clubhouse, four players said, 'Did he rip guys in it?' " Dunlop says. "I said no."

Tim McCarver has not written Ball Four or The Bronx Zoo, a catch-and-tell sizzler. "I just tried to make it as positive as I could and to tell the truth," he says. "This isn't a witch hunt, because people could say just as bad things about me as I could about them. I make my living in this game; it would be foolish of me to do that."

Back in the press box, "Trader" Jack McKeon, general manager of the San Diego Padres, is telling stories about minor-leaguers who bit off the heads of frogs and parakeets, and threatened to shoot the manager unless he played them. A journalist is discussing his sex life.

McCarver nods, laughs at the jokes, smiles politely, and always gets back to baseball, in this case, a Mets pitcher: "Do you think Ojeda will need surgery? . . ." (As it turns out, he did.)

McCarver skips dinner. He paces. He gulps a couple cups of black coffee. He studies his notebooks filled with scribbles on each player, such as Gossage, the Padres' fireballing relief pitcher: Majored in forestry at Southeast Colorado State Univ. and he's been sawing off bats ever since.

"I get excited before I go on the air," McCarver says. "I get fired up. It's fun."

In the top of the fourth, he slides into the broadcast booth, beginning his six-inning share of a rotation with broadcasters Ralph Kiner and Fran Healy. ''I'm fired up and ready to go," his says, his voice carrying across three states to 750,000 viewers of SportsChannel, a cable service.

McCarver slid gracefully into a broadcasting career after playing in three World Series, two All-Star games, compiling a respectable .271 lifetime batting average and ending his career as a trivia question (Who's the only catcher to play in the major leagues for parts of four decades (1959-

1980)?) He broke into broadcasting in 1980, doing Phillies games with Harry Kalas, Rich Ashburn and Andy Musser.

"He's so far off the wall you can really have a good time with him," says broadcast partner Ralph Kiner, the great Pittsburgh Pirates postwar home-run hitter. "Once he got on marmalade because he hates it, and he said, how can anyone eat marmalade? Of course, a lot of people sent us marmalade and jelly. It's kind of a new school of broadcasting. If you can't have fun with him, you can't have fun."

Having fun - or restoring order - to this night's game will be difficult.

The Mets and Padres combine for six errors.

"This is a bad major-league game," McCarver tells his TV audience. ''This is a bad any kind of game. If you're taping this game, just hold it about five minutes and let it self-destruct."

McCarver says a Padre who lunges after strike three is "walking the dog."

He notices a bizarre ceremonial skull in the Padres' dugout, and says manager Larry Bowa must be "using his head."

He notes that the moody Bowa (a former Phillies teammate) is standing far

from his players in the dugout, "as if he's been ostracized - he's down with the ground crew. . . . That's what happens if you're nine (wins) and 30 (losses)."

After three agonizing hours, the Mets lose, 7-5, "and this debacle is over," McCarver says.

McCarver is critical - but he doesn't sound harsh or vindictive. "I know how hard this game is to play," he says. "It looks too easy on a TV monitor."

On the way out, well-wishers crowd him in the elevator. Sometimes, McCarver, the son of a Tennessee police officer, seems uncomfortable with his success. He wants to appear more sophisticated than a baseball player, he indicates in his book, but he needs to be one of the guys. Above all, "you have to be human," to have flaws, he says, or viewers won't like you.

"I'm a plodder," McCarver offers. "It takes me more time to (read) than other people."

As he's leaving the park, San Diego broadcaster Dave Campbell admires McCarver's gold Mercedes. "It's nothing," he says. "It's just a car."

Driving to his second home in Manhattan after midnight, McCarver - somewhere in midtown, somewhere between two cities and two worlds - sounds less certain than the author of Oh, Baby, I Love It!

"I went from not total anonymity, but from wearing a mask, to total visibility. The turning point was New York. I was kind of naive about what a mecca this is. . . . It shows you more than anything else the power of television. . . . I hate false humility, I really do. I'm happy with what I do, and I make a lot of money. Is that success? I don't know."

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