MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

Tim McCarver, the former catcher and broadcaster, died last week at the age of 81. McCarver was as baseball as they come: a player for 21 years and a broadcaster for 40 more.

To younger fans, McCarver was an oft-maligned analyst who did New York Mets games before becoming the lead analyst with CBS and then Fox Sports for those networks’ national broadcast telecasts of MLB.

He was good, too; so good, he was inducted into the broadcasters wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He was bright, glib, funny, blunt and opinionated, which many fans did not take to later in his career for some reason.

McCarver, though, knew what he was talking about, as he had been a great baseball player first — a two-time all-star catcher and World Series MVP for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1960s. By the time he joined the Philadelphia Phillies in 1975, he was more of a backup to Bob Boone and was used primarily by the Phillies as ace Steve Carlton’s personal catcher. In fact, McCarver liked to joke, “When Steve and I die, we are going to be buried 60feet 6-inches apart.”

Baseball, of course, has long been synonymous with the Fourth of July and on July 4, 1976, our country’s bicentennial, McCarver made one of the most memorable plays of his career while with the Phillies. Actually, it was likely the most infamous play of his career.

It would make perfect sense for Philadelphia to play at home on July 4th every year since Philadelphia is where our nation was born. But on July 4th, 1976 when we celebrated the bicentennial, this particular game was played in Pittsburgh, because there were so many things going on in the City of Brotherly Love that day there was no room at the inn for the Phillies.

It was back in the day when they played regular doubleheaders in baseball, although as much as I loved them then I’d be hard pressed to go to one now given my, uh, experience.

It was also in the day when Willetts Tours took chartered buses to Three Rivers Stadium for Sunday Pirates games. I think a single game cost $11 and a doubleheader went for $18. Hard to believe, huh? It was a great deal even then.

Much to the chagrin of many other passengers, my friends and I were regulars on those trips. In fact, we went to more Pirates games in the mid-seventies than we did Orioles games because the transportation and tickets were provided, it was reasonable, the bus driver didn’t care how we behaved, and our parents were absolutely delighted to not only have us out of their hair, but in another state for the day.

In 1976, the Fourth fell on a Sunday, so we went to Pittsburgh to see the Pirates and the Phillies. Both teams were loaded then and were bitter rivals with one another as well as with the Mets. The teams ended up splitting the doubleheader, with the Phillies winning the first game, either 10-5 or 10-6. I know the Phillies had 10, but they should have had 11.

Early in the first game, McCarver hit what appeared to be a grand-slam home run for the Phillies. But in his excitement running from first to second, McCarver, who was not known for his speed, passed teammate Garry Maddox, who was known for his speed and who had been holding up between first and second to make sure the ball was not caught.

Once everybody realized what had happened, McCarver stopped and held up his hands to the umpire in a “Please pretend you didn’t see that” manner. But the umpire saw it, because everybody saw it, including Maddox, who by this time was doubled over laughing.

Maddox was allowed to come around to score, but McCarver was called out, giving him the rare and dubious baseball achievement of hitting the grand-slam single.

Eight years later when I met McCarver (who was a very nice man, unlike Sandy Koufax … No, I won’t let it go.), I merely said, “I was there July 4th, 1976.”

To which he smiled and said, “Apparently everybody else was, too.” He then said the umpire had given him a bad deal that day, because, “I didn’t really pass him, he lapped me. As I told the ump, ‘Do you really believe I can run faster than Garry Maddox?’ “

He was very nice about it and I appreciated his not making an ugly scene over my asking him about it (See Koufax). It’s something I’ll never forget, which just goes to show you it’s true what they say — You will see something you’ve never seen before in every baseball game you watch. And if you’re lucky enough, you are able to talk about it in a very friendly way with the folks who made it happen.

Thankfully, Tim McCarver spent most of his life talking baseball. I, for one, will always be grateful for all he told us, particularly on that day when he was so kind to talk to me.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT