Think of them as the three uncles. Ernie Johnson was the essence of avuncular, the nice man who’d shake your hand and ask how you were doing and make you feel welcome. Skip Caray was the sarcastic uncle, the one who’d make fun of your shirt. Pete Van Wieren was the clever uncle, the one who’d show you the ropes of coin collecting or how to use that telescope you’d gotten for Christmas.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Pete, whom Ernie Sr. famously dubbed the Professor and who died Saturday of cancer at age 69, and I’ve realized that little of what I remember has to do with a Great Call or a Signature Line, which are the things we tend to remember about a broadcaster. Just as the pianist Thelonious Monk’s singular genius rested in the spaces between the notes he played, Pete Van Wieren’s brilliance shone through in the quieter moments, in the sixth inning of a 7-1 game on a Tuesday night in May.
Think about it. Skip delivered the “Braves win! Braves win! Braves win! Braves win!” after Cabrera swung and Sid slid; Skip also had the microphone when Marquis Grissom hauled in Carlos Baerga’s drive — “The Braves have given you a championship! Listen to this crowd!” — in 1995. Ernie had the boilerplate lines: “We’re zippin’ right along” and “Back toward that wall …” and suchlike. And Pete? He told you about the game.
That might sound like faint praise, but it’s meant as the highest of compliments. Way too many neo-announcers make themselves the point of their broadcast. Pete made the game the point of everything. He wasn’t without ego — nobody who performs for public consumption is — but his never surfaced on-air. He’d let Skip and Ernie and later Don and Joe crack the jokes. Pete would talk baseball.
In the same way that Vin Scully left Brooklyn to teach the Dodgers’ new audience in L.A. about the sport, the Professor was responsible for tutoring a lot of Southern folks — and with the advent of TBS, not only Southern folks — in the arcana of baseball. You’d listen to his pregame “Diamond Notes” and learn something every single time. He wasn’t the funny uncle, and that was OK. Because he was the uncle who made you feel smart.