SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- This will be the 59th Opening Day since the Milwaukee Braves signed a hometown catcher named Bob Uecker, who went on to become a famously average big leaguer but a beloved entertainer and broadcaster. He already has a spot in the broadcasting wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and by the end of this season, Uecker will have not one, but two statues at Miller Park.
After turning 80 in January, Uecker is cutting back his travel schedule for the first time, though he will continue calling all Brewers home games and most road games. Before going to work, Uecker sat down with MLB.com to discuss the start of another season. Here's a portion of that conversation:
MLB.com: When I say "Opening Day," what comes to your mind?
Bob Uecker: Getting out of Arizona [laughs]. No, every Opening Day is a special day. Not just because it's Opening Day, but because it's the start of a new career for a lot of players -- guys who are going to be Major League stars down the road. I always look at the opening as a new beginning for a lot of these young kids.
I remember my first Opening Day. I thought the year before I was going to go north with the club out of Florida, and I made it as far as Louisville. They dropped me off there, which was the Braves' Triple-A town. … But I made it the next year, in 1962, and for me it was special only because I was born and raised in Milwaukee, and to be able to play with the Braves -- or sit, depending on what was going on that particular day -- it's a major thrill for a player. I would imagine for any guy, in any sport, that first time for you [is special].
Then, of course, there's always a rush. Opening Day is your biggest crowd of the year. It's going to match any crowd you have that year. At Miller Park, we don't have the cold or the ice or the snow that we used to have at County Stadium or Wrigley Field or Cincinnati -- any of those parks that didn't have a roof. I remember some of those Opening Days at County Stadium where there was no reason we should be playing. … You know, the pitcher and catcher on those Opening Days back then were the only guys having a good time, because they're playing catch back and forth. Everybody else, they're pounding their gloves and they're like concrete. They're freezing their rear ends off. And the pitcher and catcher were having a good time. There were a lot of games I never thought we would play, or should continue. I remember games being stopped because of snowstorms over at County Stadium. The umpires would call it [because] guys couldn't see the ball."
MLB.com: Did you play in any Opening Day games?
Uecker: Oh yeah, in the Minor Leagues, yeah. I played in one Opening Day at Wrigley Field, I think. [Uecker actually played in three season openers, but he is talking about 1965 here]. Tim McCarver was hurt. I was with the Cardinals. In the first inning, I'm chasing a pop foul near home plate, and I get close to that box-seat railing and the bricks, and I get my foot jammed in the gutter that carries the water out to the street. I get my foot jammed in there and I twisted my knee, and I ended up in the hospital. That was on Opening Day in Chicago, and it probably kept me from having a lot of good years, because I faked that injury for many years after that.
MLB.com: By this point, at the end of Spring Training, do you have a good sense of what sort of season it's going to be for the Brewers? What do you feel right now?
Uecker: I feel pretty good. You know, pitching is everything. Matt Garza is going to be a huge part of what happens with this team. There's no getting away from that. They spent a lot of money on him, and I like Matt Garza. In the games that he's pitched against us, he's a tough dude. He's not afraid to let anybody know that, either.
A lot depends on Ryan Braun, of course. Ryan Braun is one of the best hitters I've seen. Whatever he did outside of normalcy, I have no control or no idea, but he served his time and we'll see how he plays coming back. I think he's going to play good. Ryan Braun is still a friend, and he's a big part of this club. As Ryan goes, so goes this club.
Rickie Weeks is in the final year of his contract. I'm hoping Rickie comes back and has a big year, whether he's going to be platooned with Scooter Gennett, I don't know. I would say whoever has the most going for him when we get out of here, that's going to be the guy. … Where are they last year without [closer] Jim Henderson? Hopefully he's going to come back and be what he was. I don't understand how that guy stayed in the Minor Leagues so long, after seeing him last year. Jean Segura, how can you predict a year like that guy had last year, coming in a deal with the Angels for one of my favorite guys, Zack Greinke? What a shortstop he turned out to be. That remains to be seen, too: Does he do it two years in a row? Is he that way from now until forever? Carlos Gomez, one of my favorites. … Jonathan Lucroy doesn't get the credit that he should get. He's a good catcher. He's a good thrower, and he can hit. There's not a lot of us who were in that harness who could hit.
MLB.com: Is it still as much fun as the day of your first professional opener?
Uecker: Oh yeah, I'm still having a good time. The only reason I'm cutting back on my schedule is my National Guard unit got called up and I don't want to miss any of that, so I'm going to take some time off.
No, I'm not going to take the trips west. Our owner, Mark Attanasio, has been telling me for the last five years to back off a little bit. But I still feel good. I don't feel bad. There's been a couple of clubs that are trying to talk me into being an active player again, and I don't want to do that, either. It would take too long for me to get in shape.
I get a kick out of every Spring Training game. Joe [Block, his broadcast partner] and I have a great time on the air, we do. … But this all revolves around Opening Day, everything.