In the fall of 2012, the NFL Network's Rich Eisen placed a call to Michelle Beisner. Beisner was a reporter at the network. The call was unusual. It was an errand of love.
"Somebody in the booth wants your number," Eisen said.
Beisner, who is tall and blonde and spent six years as a Broncos cheerleader before moving into broadcasting, was living with a boyfriend. She said she didn't want a date with anyone, even an announcer.
"Don't you want to know who it is?" Eisen asked.
"I started rattling off names," Beisner said last month. "I was like, 'Troy Aikman.' 'Cris Collinsworth.' 'Al Michaels,' I even said."
"No," Eisen said.
"Please don't say it's Joe Buck," Beisner said.
"Well," Eisen said, "it is Joe Buck and why would you say that?"
Beisner had seen Buck in NFL press boxes for years. He seemed like a swell guy. Her reaction, she later realized, was inspired not by the man himself but by the ineffable sense of Joe Buck-ness that wafted through her TV screen. She finally pinpointed it to Buck's National Car Rental commercial, in which he pulled a roller suitcase behind him and talked in his absurdly perfect voice. "He had this look on his face that seemed so smug and arrogant," Beisner said.
More than three years later, Beisner was standing in the big, light-filled house she and Buck share in St. Louis. After Eisen's icebreaker, Buck gently pushed the point himself. ("Still live with that boyfriend of yours? Well, that's dumb.") By the 2013 Super Bowl, Beisner was single. She and Buck started dating. The following year, they were married in Cabo San Lucas in front of God and Troy Aikman. (It was Buck's second marriage.) Beisner now attests that Buck "is the furthest thing from arrogant or smug that any human being could be. I mean, the complete and opposite end of the spectrum."
But Beisner's first, erroneous impression seems worth pausing over. It's the same impression, adjective for adjective, that a small but noisy group of critics has had since Buck announced his first World Series 20 years ago. It's a problem that Buck is trying to solve.
Actually, there are two problems. The first is for Buck to show critics that he's not — as he put it to me, with typical bemusement — "a stiff, prudish dork that nobody would ever want to have dinner with." The second problem is more profound. After spending almost half his life on national TV, Buck finds that he is guided by something like an internal network censor. When enabled, the censor circumscribes his behavior, both on and off the air; there are times when it prevents him from being the fun-loving, carefree guy he wants to be. "I've got so many filters in my head," Buck said.
Last month, I spent an afternoon in St. Louis talking with Buck about the possibility of a relaunch. Of critics discovering the "real" Joe Buck and of Buck embracing the guy himself. Call it the Buckonaissance.
Beisner and I were talking in the kitchen when the house's security system chirped. Buck was home. Buck launders his speech with irony — he regards the world like Marv Albert regards his color man. Beisner alone with a reporter? You could see the joke coming for miles. Sure enough, within seconds, an announcer's voice from the other room shouted, "What ... the ... fuck is going on here?!"
When Buck appeared, he was wearing a green Masters T-shirt and gym shorts. His face — so familiar from TV — retains its features in person, especially the mouth that is forever threatening to curl into a smile. Buck is bigger than he looks on TV. He has notable biceps and something like a barrel chest. He still wears the beard he grew a few years ago. If Buck were a Fox prime-time star, the beard would have been ignored. But in an industry in which Al Michaels does little more than change his tie, it was greeted with alarm: Gee, what's the matter with Joe?
"The stuff that flies through my mind — the critical stuff, the funny stuff — I just swallow 95 percent of it, because it's just not worth the bullshit that comes with it," Buck said after changing into a polo shirt and jeans. "It's not worth the headache. So I just save it for a friend or just go to sleep on it."
Buck was born to be a ruthless self-editor. He's known as the heir of Jack Buck, the voice of the St. Louis Cardinals. In fact, Joe was Jack's seventh child, and the first from Jack's second marriage. Joe remembers trips to the first family's house to drop off alimony checks. "I could just sense I was in a place where I really wasn't welcome," he said. Joe's mom, Carole, felt so much tension that Jack gave her a bracelet. The inscription read, "So What?"
Trailing his dad to the old Busch Stadium, Joe would play catch with Cardinals players' kids. Trailing his dad to road games, he'd see the same players squiring around mistresses. Jack — who called his son by his surname — would say, "Put your head down, Buck. Keep walkin'."
"I didn't run home and tell my mom about it," Joe said. "I just kind of took it all in."
Joe Buck's rise is usually recorded as the result of a smooth handoff from Dad. Joe was calling Cardinals games at age 21 thanks to — and this is Joe's word, used the way a self-flagellating monk uses a whip — "nepotism." The actor Paul Rudd, who befriended Buck in college, remembers sitting in a car while Joe slipped in a cassette of a game he'd just announced. "Dude," Rudd said. "That's incredible!"
"I used to do fairly good Joe Buck," said the actor Jon Hamm, another pal from St. Louis. "You assume the voice of God and you say" — Hamm slipped into the absurdly perfect voice — "'OK, here we go, 2-and-2 ...' On me, it sounds like I'm trying. On Joe, that's what he really sounds like."
In fact, the start of Joe's career coincided with the worst period of Jack's. In 1990, CBS fired Brent Musburger and tapped Jack, who was 65, to call the World Series. It should have been a dugout curtain call. But during the playoffs that year, singer Bobby Vinton butchered the national anthem in front of Pirates fans. (You could see players stifling giggles in the dugout.) "If you're Polish and you're from Pittsburgh," Jack said on the air, "you can do anything you want with the words." It was one of those harmless jokes that was bound to cause a national crisis. When Jack got back to his hotel room in Pittsburgh, he found a footprint on his pillow.
Jack Buck (Getty Images)
Bad reviews followed: Jack was too old, he'd call a home run off the bat only to see the ball caught at the fence. Joe watched the '90 World Series "holding my breath that he wouldn't make a mistake." After two unhappy seasons, CBS replaced Jack with Sean McDonough. Joe said the stress nearly killed him.
"Jack was Joe's hero," Rudd said. "I don't think there's ever been a sense of competition that Joe has ever felt with his father. All Joe would ever want was for his dad to be proud of him. He knows very well Jack was, and in some cosmic way, still is."
Joe didn't want to displace Dad. He wanted to learn from him. The lesson here was not about the danger of underplaying a moment, which Joe would later be accused of. It was about the danger of sharing too much of yourself — of being a ragged, fully formed character in a job that didn't allow one.
Being a national play-by-play man is one of the most constricting jobs in television. We've spent a few hundred hours in Joe Buck's presence — 18 World Series, four Super Bowls, and, later this month, two U.S. Opens — and yet, by design, he remains a cipher. A play-by-play man is merely the narrator of greatness. Buck's dad used to joke that if he were to drop dead in the booth, a viewer would say, "That's too bad. Who won?"
Beyond stifling his personality, we expect a play-by-play man to suppress his opinions. In this sense, the play-by-play man is a lot like the old network newsman, minus the journalistic mien but with the same code of neutrality.
"Everybody says, 'Hey, we want you to be honest and give an honest opinion,'" said Troy Aikman, Buck's NFL partner. "No, they don't. Our bosses don't. If we did the game like we really wanted to do the game, we'd be out of work. We'd both be fired before the game ended."
Roger Goodell, Troy Aikman, Buck (Getty Images)
Buck has rarely touched the third rail in his career. On January 9, 2005, Randy Moss caught a touchdown at Lambeau Field and pretended to moon the crowd. Buck interjected, "That is a disgusting act by Randy Moss, and it's unfortunate that we had that on our air live." I remember watching the game and thinking, "What's Buck smarming about?" But he never really said anything like that again — if anything, he mostly sounds like an amused fan. (He thinks Mark McGwire and other PED users should be in the Hall of Fame, for example.) The scorn Buck received was more about the constraints of the job. Mossgate defined Buck because we knew almost nothing else about him.
"Everybody says, 'Hey, they want you to be honest and give an honest opinion.' No, they don't. Our bosses don't. If we did the game like we really wanted to do the game, we'd be out of work. We'd both be fired before the game ended." — Troy Aikman
In 2008, when Buck admitted he was as likely to watch The Bachelorette as he was to watch another ballgame, everyone similarly lost their minds. "Joe Buck is the worst of the worst," an Awful Announcing writer harrumphed. Skip Bayless called for him to be removed from Fox's game of the week. Buck's crime was admitting some sliver of his life wasn't devoted to sports.
"Joe wants so badly to just say, 'Fuck 'em all,' and, 'Who gives a shit?' and, 'I'm going to do what I can,'" Beisner said. "But you can't really do that in this day and age."
Case in point: that beard. "My wife loved it," Buck told me. "And I was like, 'If she likes it, I'll keep it.'" It's a nice sentiment. But since he's a "face" of Fox as much as any newsman, Buck had to email network executives to make sure he could wear the beard on the air.
The constraints of the job can give Buck the air of a child actor winking madly at the audience, trying to prove there's a living, breathing human beneath the makeup. In 2009, Buck unleashed comedian Artie Lange on his HBO talk show, Joe Buck Live, with instructions to "let me have it." Powered by whiskey and Vicodin, Lange performed a monologue that honored Buck père and obliterated Buck fils. Lange said he and Buck never had a cross word. But it put Buck in the category of pop culture squares — like, say, Jay Leno — who exist to be clobbered.
The HBO show led to another complaint: that what Buck really wanted to be was a talk-show host. When asked if he'd accept the offer of a late-night show from Fox, Buck said, "There was a time in my life where I would have said, 'Are you kidding me? Yes!' ... But not now. I've got the best job in the world. I would be an idiot. It would just be a complete ego stroke."
"His job doesn't allow him to be him," said Beisner, citing an untapped reservoir of wit and humanity. If Buck is resigned to that, he is happy to expose the play-by-play job's artifice. "I'm Joe, he's Troy," he says at the beginning of an NFL game. He does that because he finds the "on-camera" shot ludicrous. "Nobody at home cares about it," he said. "Nobody's thinking, 'Oh, so they're going to try and run the ball today.'" During Game 1 of the 2014 World Series, Buck sipped a beer in the booth while Tom Verducci, one of his color men, looked on with wide eyes.
Which leads to perhaps fans' biggest complaint: that Buck is trying hard to make it look like he is hardly trying. "His wanting to be seen as a loose, carefree guy is a turnoff to some people," one of Buck's friends said. This is less revealing about Buck than it is about the way we see play-by-play men. It turns out we like our broadcasters to be as steely-eyed as our quarterbacks, and Buck, in that sense, is the Tony Romo of the industry. If he's always smiling, people wonder, how good can he really be?
To understand Buck, you have to understand he's working in the school of Pat Summerall. Over beers and lunch at his country club, Buck described his style as "minimalist." He wants to narrate a play with the fewest possible words and then go silent. Should he blab too much, he hears something like a bell ringing in his head — it's that old internal censor. "You're going on too long," it tells him.
"If there was something he learned from his dad, it's when to shut up," said Rudd. "He understands the innate drama of the game, and when it kicks in, it doesn't need to be enhanced by any kind of commentary." Rudd added, "For him, the best moments are probably right after the calls when he lets the drama unfold and he doesn't say anything."
Indeed, if you revisit Buck's big calls, you notice they're followed by cavernous silences. After Jermaine Kearse caught the game winner in the 2015 NFC title game. After Travis Ishikawa hit a walk-off home run in the NLCS the year before. In 1998, when Mark McGwire was on the verge of hitting his record-breaking 62nd home run, Buck wrote a blurb in the top right-hand corner of his scorecard. But McGwire's shot to left had such a weird trajectory that Buck couldn't take his eyes off the ball. After an improvisation — "Touch first, Mark, you are the new single-season home run king!" — Buck went silent for more than three and a half minutes.
Minimalism is a concept we viewers like in theory better than practice. "It's like a dinner party," said Mark Loomis, who produces the U.S. Open for Fox. "If nobody talks for three seconds, you think, "God, this is awkward." Well, why does it have to be awkward? I'm just eating my food. I think a telecast is a little bit of the same feeling."
In 2002, when Buck took over for Summerall on Fox's no. 1 NFL team, it was a fairly historic changing of the guard in sports broadcasting. And Buck, who after 12 years as a play-by-play man was still only 33, found himself venturing an impression. "I tried to sound like Pat," he admitted. Here was Buck's call of a 70-yard Brian Mitchell kickoff return in the playoffs: "Mitchell. Mitchell. Mitchell. Down to the 25." Buck had reduced himself too much — and without John Madden to provide the spark. "People took that as indifference," he said.
Buck reached a happy medium through technology. Whenever he calls a game, he adjusts his headphones so that the natural sounds captured by Fox microphones — the "nats," as they're known — are turned up as loud as he can stand. If he hears the crowd come in big after a touchdown or Jordan Spieth cursing himself at the U.S. Open, he knows he's liable to talk less.
That's Buck, a self-reducing figure on a big stage. "At a certain point, your perception of yourself kind of crystallizes," said Hamm. "For Joe, he's been doing it for so long that I'm sure he still thinks of himself as a young kid, with all the attendant anxiety that comes with that."
Everyone, even Howard Cosell, fears they'll be revealed as a fraud — Buck fears he'll be revealed as a child. "If I'm in a production meeting with Aaron Rodgers," he said, "I still mentally think he's older than me." Buck has 15 years on Rodgers.
Artie Lange said, "Joe does this thing — Marv Albert used to do it, too. When a shitty player does something good, he puts a little surprise in his inflection. 'Tino Martinez will ... steal a base.' It's so subtle. Even Tim McCarver wouldn't get it."
In 2002, the no. 1 Fox NFL booth consisted of Buck, Troy Aikman, and Cris Collinsworth. It was a mutually unhappy experience; the two analysts had to push a button in order to talk to a producer, which Collinsworth felt was like trying to compete on a game show. When Collinsworth moved to NBC in 2005, the Buck-Aikman booth became the jolliest in all of broadcasting. Their standard exchange has Buck making a point, and Aikman replying, "You're absolutely right, Joe!" "Sometimes, I'd like Troy to say, 'You're full of shit, Joe!'" said Richie Zyontz, their producer. "But, look, they do get along, and if that's the criticism, so be it. I'd rather have it that way."
Buck and Aikman are cosmic twins. They're two years apart in age; they both have two daughters; they even got divorced around the same time. "I'm there to promote Troy," Buck said.
When I repeated the remark to Aikman, he laughed and said, "That's a very politically correct answer." After a moment, Aikman added, "At times, when I say something that's not factually accurate, Joe has a very easy way about him of circling back and correcting it without drawing attention to it" — that is, he never makes Troy look like a dope.
Both men are famous for their game preparation. But Aikman looks serious; Buck looks like he's winging it. "I'm probably not as locked in as I may appear to be, and Joe may not be as loose as he wants you to believe, either," Aikman said. But that is the act, the devil-may-care play-by-play guy and the serious quarterback. "He takes some of the edge off me," Aikman said. "And, I don't know, maybe I help get him a little more screwed down than he wants to be."
The funny thing is, very little of Fox's old bad-boy image creeps into its football coverage. A Buck-Aikman broadcast is a collage of dry jokes, strategic silences, and super-slow-mo close-ups (usually coming at the end of a replay sequence) that evoke the noble-warrior aesthetic of NFL Films. As Zyontz put it, "We went from being brash outsiders to the establishment stalwarts of the game."
Michelle Beisner is a lifelong Broncos fan. In February, she and Buck went to the Super Bowl and sat in the stands. Beisner cheered and made friends with anyone wearing a Denver jersey. She asked Buck to join in.
Buck consulted his internal censor. The Fox play-by-play guy cheering at the Super Bowl? Even out of conjugal duty? "I can't," he said.
Michelle Beisner and Buck (Getty Images)
CBS televised the game, and when it was over, Buck did something he'd never done. He got on Twitter and began searching "Jim Nantz" and "Phil Simms." The hate — especially for Simms — was so overwhelming that it offered a strange kind of relief. "You just can't say anything," Buck said. "If you say the sky is blue, people are going to say, 'What shade of blue is it, asshole?'"
Just about everyone in the industry knows Buck has a Twitter problem, and most are puzzled by it. Within sports TV, Buck is close to universally admired. "If I'm watching a game, and it's not called by Al and Cris, I want it to be called by Joe and Troy," said Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer of NBC's Thursday and Sunday football telecasts. "They're my favorite announcing team in any sport other than my guys."
"I've done a lot of things that are considered high-profile events and I think I've been kind of put in a box, with at least the online discussion," Buck said. "It couldn't be farther away from me."
When Jack Buck called the World Series for CBS in the 1990s, he absorbed fire from Rudy Martzke, the sports media critic for USA Today. (Joe carried one of the crueler articles around with him for years.) If the blasts were wrenching, they represented a straightforward relationship between critic and performer. By the time Joe called his first Super Bowl, in 2005, sports-media critics were exiting their ailing newspapers. They were replaced by people on Twitter. You don't have to subscribe to the slur about "bloggers in their moms' basements" to admit Twitter presents a nightmare for a play-by-play man, whose telecasts can now be picked apart line by line, and who no longer has a relationship with his critics. Ken Rosenthal, who reports from the field for Fox during baseball games, observed: "In the middle of a World Series broadcast, you're not going to hear on Twitter, 'Man, Joe Buck is killing it tonight.'"
In 2012, Will Leitch listed the indictments against Buck: that he was "smug" (that word again), that he under-emoted — that is, he didn't seem as excited to call the game as those of us at home were to watch it. Buck said the second gripe was occasionally true, but not for the reasons his critics thought. Before a 2006 NLCS game, the public-address system at Shea Stadium played a song by the band Toto. Buck sang along in the booth — only to have the stadium take the camera feed and put his mugging on the scoreboard. "People booed the shit out of me," he said.
When the Cardinals won the World Series later that month, Buck's call — "For the first time since 1982, St. Louis has a World Series winner" — was, he told me, "the worst call I ever made in my career ... so flat and monotone and dead." The critics had gotten in his head.
"Every announcer says they want feedback," said one senior sports TV executive. "But the ex-players crave it. All their lives coaches have been telling them they sucked. Broadcasters take it harder. Their egos are more fragile. They're not used to people telling them they sucked."
Aikman said the best survival training he had for social media was playing quarterback for the Cowboys. "As far as Twitter goes, I look at it objectively," he said. '''OK, this person is kind of right.' No one else tells you anything in this business. You may as well read Twitter if you can learn something."
Buck dips into Twitter only occasionally. He'll download the app on a cross-country flight and "throw some bait in the water." To a tweeter who claimed Aikman was "the only human being on earth" who liked Buck:
To a tweeter who quoted the words "disgusting act":
With the pool chummed, Buck deletes the app. "Just so that I can't on a whim go, 'Oh, I wonder what they're saying about me on Twitter right now.'" He winds up playing a lot of Sudoku.
The critique Buck hears most is the simplest and probably the nuttiest: that he is a homer. Anyone who moves from the local to the national booth gets this rap — I know a sports TV executive who thinks Doc Emrick, when he's calling hockey for NBC, is a sleeper agent for the New Jersey Devils. The executive is serious about this.
Buck finds himself in an odd position. San Francisco Giants fans think Buck is in the tank for the Cardinals. Whereas Cardinals fans, who heard Buck deliver that lousy World Series call, feel that since he left town he has worn a bogus mask of nonpartisanship. "I'm a man without a country," Buck said. "I'm Snowden."
"I'm a panderer," Jack Buck wrote in his memoirs. "I want people to like me." In St. Louis, Jack achieved his goal through a combination of civic attentiveness (every Kiwanis Club was honored with a visit) and gentle homerism ("Go crazy, folks! Go crazy!"). The effect was so complete that Jack was once summoned to a prison in the hopes his presence would put down a riot.
Joe also wants people to like him. "He's a people pleaser," said Beisner. But being a national guy — homer! Bachelorette watcher! — makes total love impossible. "I'm in a bad position to want everybody to like me," he said. Buck and Beisner went to Napa for their honeymoon. They were sitting in a bar when a Giants fan came in and asked Buck why he hated his team.
What's left is a guy who knows he'll never please everybody, but whose internal network censor is nonetheless turned up to 11, scouring even basic social interactions for possible offense. When Buck listens to Beisner and his daughters talk, the censor often switches on and says, I know what you meant by saying that, but that person you're talking to right now doesn't know what you really meant by that. "I get real judgey that way," Buck said. The women mostly laugh it off.
His menschhood assured, Jack Buck became an expert at not giving a shit. He gambled on football games; during the '96 presidential campaign, he introduced Bob Dole at a rally in front of the Gateway Arch. It is Joe Buck's fate that he cannot not give a shit. "I feel like someday I'm going to wake up and say, 'I wish I had more fun while I was doing what I was doing,'" he said. "I love it, but I wish I just didn't worry so much."
In 2002, Buck remembers Jack lying on his deathbed, trying to relate a final, plaintive message to his son. "I hope me lying here teaches you that when you get to this point, it's too late," Jack said. "Live your life. Have fun. Stop worrying."
"He was trying to teach me that to the day he died," Joe said. "Maybe someday it'll sink in."
There are signs that the Buckonaissance has begun to spread across the world at large. Last December, a thread appeared on Reddit that was populated by NFL fans who, once upon a time, might have thought Buck was smug or arrogant. Who might have been told they should think that. But the fans realized that, in fact, Buck was their kind of smartass. "Joe buck is kicking out the 4th wall and stepping directly into our hearts," one wrote.
When Beisner and Buck started dating, she told him that she loved men with tattoos. It was at that moment that Joe Buck decided to do a goal-line plunge over his internal network censor, performing an act that we could never ascribe to the Joe Buck from TV. Buck went out and got tattoos on each of his inner biceps. Today, you can just glimpse them when his sleeves ride up.
"When I saw them, I was like, 'Wow, Joe, really?'" said Paul Rudd. "I didn't see that coming."
Buck got the tattoos as a gesture to Beisner. But the messages he chose, he said, were "a reminder to myself." They are the intellectual foundations of the Buckonaissance — Successories posters in ink. One biceps reads, "So What?" — Jack's Zen koan for not giving a damn. The other biceps reads, "Bastante," which is the Spanish word for "enough." "I think he would like to be able to live by those words," Beisner said. "Enough of the bullshit."