Mike Emrick’s connection to hockey is so strong and his play-by-play so vivid that it may be surprising that he has such a fervent love for baseball.
But Emrick, 69, grew up listening to the Pittsburgh Pirates on KDKA Radio, with Bob Prince on the microphone; played baseball in tiny, rural La Fontaine, Indiana, where 200 or 300 people would turn out for Little League games; and looked up to baseball coaches as his heroes.
And on Aug. 9, 1959, he, his parents, his older brother Dan, and another family drove four hours in a station wagon to Forbes Field and saw the Pirates play the Chicago Cubs.
It was the first major league game that Emrick attended, in general-admission seats behind home plate.
“If anything could follow up on the radio appeal of the Pirates, it was seeing Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski play in person and see Elroy Face’s 15th win,” he said. “He was 15-0.”
Face was on his way to an 18-1 season, all in relief.
Emrick kept that scorecard.
Fifty-seven years later, Emrick will call a game with Bob Costas for MLB Network when the Cubs play the Pirates on July 8 at PNC Park.
Costas, an NBC colleague of Emrick’s, contacted him late last year, after he learned of Emrick’s bucket-list desire to call one inning of a Pirates game during a segment of “Real Sports” on HBO.
“I said, ‘Look, if you want to call a baseball game, we can make it happen,’ ” Costas said.
Emrick is a hockey broadcasting star. He calls the game at a feverish pace, using a wildly creative glossary of verbs (where pucks are feathered, whacked, paddled, skittered or pinwheeled) and tossing in stories and rule explanations. He is not worried about slowing his rhythm. The main challenge, Emrick said, will be to focus on the field from the somewhat distant perch at PNC Park and not to keep looking at the monitor beside him.
“I just want to make sure that what I do is at least at MLB Network level — maybe the bottom of the bar they set, but I want to be halfway professional,” Emrick said with characteristic modesty.
Costas said he would call the first three innings, during which he and Emrick would talk about his connection to the Pirates as a fan and his favorite broadcasters.
“And then I’ll say, ‘To take us through the next few innings, here’s Doc Emrick,’ ” Costas said.
Costas is not expecting a polished baseball announcer beside him at PNC Park. But Emrick is skilled at using anecdotes, a critical skill in a baseball booth.
“No matter how great a guy is, he’ll be better on his 10th game than his first,” Costas said. “But he’s a lifelong baseball fan and follows the Pirates so closely, he’s not going to be asking, ‘Which one is Andrew McCutchen?’ And he’s an obsessive preparer.”
Emrick will not come to the game with a mouthful of creative synonyms for breaking balls or pop-ups, though.
“The law of averages doesn’t favor that,” he said. “I don’t have a home run call. Whatever happens, happens.”
Emrick got in a little practice during spring training at the Pirates’ complex in Bradenton, Florida.
He and his wife, Joyce, have a winter home nearby and a season-ticket plan. Without telling the Pirates he was rehearsing for the MLB Network game, Emrick sat in for a few innings of one game on radio and another on television.
While he sat with the former Pirates pitcher Steve Blass, who is now a broadcaster, Emrick said, he recounted being at a game on Aug. 31, 1968, which was Face’s last before he was sent to Detroit. Blass got out the first Atlanta batter, moved to left field while Face retired the next one (letting him tie the record for most games by a pitcher in one league) and returned to relieve Face and complete the 8-0 Pittsburgh win.
Emrick kept that scorecard, too.
Emrick’s passion for the Pirates extended to attending a fantasy camp the team hosted, where fans got a taste of the major leagues, four years ago. He played second base and wore Mazeroski’s No. 9.
“About 30 guys in the camp wore No. 9,” Emrick said, laughing. “And Blass said, ‘You know, Maz doesn’t care if you’re wearing 9.’ ”