You have to wonder about the well-being of a man who has tromped to the ballpark to call 3,758 games for the Salt Lake Bees, mixed in with a couple of handfuls more for the Los Angeles Angels and the Toronto Blue Jays over the span of 26 seasons and then …
No pitch of the ball, no crack of the bat, no slide in the brick dust, no click-clack of the turnstile, no sounds and smells and signs from his perch atop a hundred minor league green cathedrals.
Just a lost season to a cruel pandemic, just darkness at the ballpark — and barely breathing hope for a sliver of light, for a return of the games sometime soon.
In his quiet moments, the Voice of Baseball in Utah will drive by Smith’s Ballpark and look it over, but only briefly because it saddens his heart. It’s been 530 days and counting since he last entered the booth there. He doesn’t even have a key to get in and wander around — not until he is … what’s the word? Un-furloughed? Unleashed? Unchained?
“Don’t know when we’ll be back,” the voice says.
It was the late former Major League pitcher Jim Bouton who said, “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out it was the other way around all the time.”
That’s Steve Klauke. He’s gripped.
And he’s more than ready to call Bees’ games again.
Nothing else would be expected from an individual who made the determination as a young kid — nearly six decades ago — that he wanted to announce baseball games for a living. More than just that, he wanted to set the scene, describe the action and conjure images for listeners as they heard his words, allowing for them to paint pictures of their own and beam them up on the big screens in their brains.
“I’ve tried to say things that help people paint those pictures,” he says. “I try to make the players more than just a name and a number. I love telling stories.”
He’s told thousands of them on thousands of summer nights now. And itches to tell them again.
A north-side kid who loved the south-side Sox
Klauke grew up just north of Chicago, in Wiinnetka, where he commenced to watch Cubs and White Sox games on television because, as he puts it, “If you wanted to watch the Three Stooges, you’d always see parts of the Cubs games, too. …”
" … If you wanted to watch the Stooges, you also had to watch the ones at Wrigley Field.”
Ba-dum-dum. Classic Klauke.
Although his family’s home was much closer to Wrigley than to the old Comiskey Park on the Southside, and he attended more Cubs games in his youth than Sox games, he gravitated toward the latter rather than the former. As it is with most fans, he can’t really explain why. It just happened.
Klauke reflects back on a White Sox-Yankees game he went to in those early years, giving every detail about it, who was pitching, who was hitting, who drove in the winning run, who gave it up. The Sox won, 2-1, and the kid was hooked.
Listening to Jack Brickhouse, the famed Chicago sportscaster, who did play-by-play alternately for the Cubs, the Sox, the Bears and the Bulls, fascinated young Steve, captured his imagination as he sat and listened to the illustrations being drawn through the airwaves.
Years later, in the midst of Klauke ascending as a game-caller himself, he talked with Brickhouse and asked him how he could best establish his own career.
“He gave me the best advice I ever got,” Klauke says. “He said, ‘No matter how bad a day you’re having, never bring it on the air, because listeners are tuning in to escape their own problems.’ ”
When Klauke went as a sixth-grader to Wrigley Field to watch the Cubs face Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers in 1966, his teacher, who accompanied the young students, asked him, in those less complicated, less insulated days, if he wanted to meet Vin Scully, the Dodgers’ legendary announcer. Klauke said, “Sure.”
Scully was kind to the youngster and went on his way.
Four years ago, when Klauke met Scully again at a spring training game, the legend said to him, “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Said Klauke, “You know, Vin, this isn’t the first time we’ve met. I met you as a kid in 1967 at a Cubs-Dodgers game.”
Scully looked Klauke straight in the eye and said, “And you haven’t changed a bit.”
Klauke had knocked around Chicago-area stations, calling Division III college games in Aurora, Ill. — at the same radio outfit that Chick Hearn, the Hall of Fame Lakers announcer once worked — before that station pulled the plug on sports in the late 1980s.
He subsequently was hired in Salt Lake City in the early ’90s to work with the Jazz and at that time he figured, he says, “that all my baseball aspirations were over.”
Klauke had no idea that Joe Buzas, the owner of the Triple-A Portland Beavers, wanted to move his club to Utah. When he discovered that Buzas did, he suggested to his bosses at their radio station in Salt Lake that if they were interested in gaining the broadcast rights for what would become the Salt Lake Buzz, that he should head to Portland to call the Beavers’ last two games there.
They agreed and when Buzas heard part of Klauke’s calls, he decided in short order that whatever station in Salt Lake employed Klauke would get his team’s rights.
The rest is written in the hot-summer-night stars.
‘This has never become a job’
Anyone who likes baseball, but doesn’t really care one way or the other whether Salt Lake City’s Triple-A team wins or loses, but just wants to paint those pictures along with the artist in the booth, has enjoyed Klauke’s work over the past quarter of a century.
Although he doesn’t consider it that.
“This has never become a job for me,” he says. “I love it. But there are facets of the [Triple-A] game that have disappointed me. It took me a long time to realize that baseball at this level isn’t about winning, it’s about development of the players. I always thought winning was a part of development, but it’s not.”
Hence, the best interests of individual players is what wins out — how to play them, when to play them, when not to play them, etc. The final team numbers up on the board? Not so much.
But the game itself has burrowed into Klauke’s being.
“It’s a great team sport, with a lot of one-on-one aspects to it,” he says. “It’s a beautiful game to watch. There’s no time frame attached to it. A game can be two hours one night and five hours the next. There are great stories around the game.”
So Klauke tells them.
He remembers great joy and great sadness. He remembers the game played against New Orleans when the Baby Cakes scored nine runs in the first inning and Salt Lake came back to score eight of its own in the bottom half.
He remembers when the Bees first heard about the death of their former teammate Nick Adenhart who was killed after pitching in a game for the Angels when his car was hit by a drunken driver not far from Anaheim Stadium, the Bees subsequently suspending their next game.
He remembers players such as the mega-talented Mike Trout coming through the organization, Trout on his way to becoming the best player in all of baseball, and the second-best player Klauke ever saw on a field, behind only Willie Mays.
And he remembers pitcher Toby Borland going to the mound before every appearance, removing his cap, taking a knee, saying a brief prayer, standing up, putting his cap back on, scratching the dirt behind the rubber twice, always twice, once in the memory of his father who had died and once to pay tribute to his 4-year-old son who had died due to the ravages of brain cancer.
He remembers pitcher Eddie Guardado, a slave to tradition and superstition, always eating a bowl of Cream O’Wheat before every start.
He remembers watching A.J. Pierzynski and Doug Mientkiewicz, and many other less-difficult-to-pronounce names on their way to the bigs.
He remembers Denny Hocking, trying to stick with the Twins, taking a rocket shot off the bat of Jose Canseco into the teeth in spring training, and later worrying that he from that time on would look, as Hocking said it, “like the Elephant Man.”
He remembers Phil Roof arguing with umpires.
He remembers when Pat Mahomes, Patrick’s father, played in Salt Lake, back when his quarterback-to-be son was 1 year old.
He remembers having guests show up in his booth during games, people like Bill Buckner and Brent Musburger and Harmon Killebrew and Jim Palmer and Geena Davis.
He remembers trying to illustrate those images in the consciousness of listeners.
A baseball dispensary
One image he did not attempt to draw was the time he bashed his knee underneath the counter in the broadcast booth in the middle of a game, the collision being so severe that Klauke passed out. He recovered in time to do the postgame show.
Klauke can give every detail of all those stories and millions more, his 66-year-old mind still like a baseball dispensary.
The man has a passion for all of it, even though he, like so many other Triple-A players, has never made it full-time to the Majors, only as a temporary fill-in. He’s been interviewed multiple times for announcing jobs with MLB clubs, but never gotten the call.
“The opportunity just hasn’t come,” he says.
No matter, he adds, “It’s still baseball.”
It’s still not a real job.
“I love the game,” he says, fondly looking backward, and with even more enthusiasm, looking forward, to the games yet to call, the stories yet to tell. “I just love going to the ballpark.”
Exactly when he will go again, he’s not sure. He’s waiting, like everyone else around minor league baseball, to hear when the games will start up again, after the pandemic has cleared to a proper level, when he will work again.
Or not work, just live the game, describe the game, paint the game.
In the meantime, Klauke has worked basketball games for Weber State. He’s also gone on long walks every week, losing 20 pounds in the process. One other thing, he says: “My yard looks a lot better than it ever has.”
The yard at the park will look better than ever, too, when Steve Klauke, the Voice of Baseball in Utah, climbs back in the booth once more.
“I wouldn’t trade it,” he says, “for anything.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.