Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

Joe Buck was on the phone Monday, en route to Rangers Ballpark for ALCS Game 2 and sounding remarkably like . . . well, Joe Buck.

Normally that would not be noteworthy, especially for one of the most familiar voices in sportscasting. But for months, Fox viewers had wondered when, if ever, that voice would sound right again.

For NFL fans, the answer came late last month. But it wasn't until Saturday night, for ALCS Game 1, that Buck unveiled his new/old self on a national baseball broadcast.

"I don't even really think about it anymore," he said, referring to a virus that struck a nerve in his left vocal cord in February and left his voice glaringly weak for most of the spring and summer.

"Saturday I thought was basically a normal broadcast. We were on for five hours . If it was ever going to be tested, that was it. I feel like I've climbed out of the woods."

Doctors assured Buck the problem would dissipate with time, but his voice is his livelihood. He acknowledged he would be lying if he said there were no anxious moments.

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But he kept insisting he was making progress, and since Week 2 or so of the NFL season, he mostly has felt like himself again, both "physically and emotionally."

"I've said this, and it probably seems like B.S., but it's the truth: It's been a good experience in a lot of ways," he said. "I think when you do something as long as I have, you start taking things for granted.

"When I couldn't do what I wanted to do in April and was trying to piece it together, it was a challenge. I realized how much I love what I do and how lucky I am to have been healthy to do it as long as I have."

Buck, 42, now must test his voice through the grind of the baseball playoffs. Game 2 lasted 4:25, and there will be no day off until after Game 5, if necessary. "I think that's good,'' he said. "I've noticed the more I work it out, the better it is.''

For the first two ALCS games, Buck had to play a larger role than usual because novice analyst Terry Francona sat in for Tim McCarver, who after a minor medical procedure last week is set to return Tuesday night.

Buck has known Francona since 1990, when Buck was calling games for Double-A Louisville, where Francona was a 31-year-old in his last pro season.

The former Red Sox manager's guest gig was a huge critical hit. That was no surprise to Buck, who lobbied for it.

"I knew the kind of humor he had, the quick wit, the sharp mind, all of which makes him way overqualified for this job, by the way," Buck said of Francona, who was sitting behind him in the car as he spoke.

"I thought the risk was outweighed by the relevance of someone who had just managed these games to come up and tell us about them."

Did Fox consider keeping Francona around as a third man in the booth for the rest of the ALCS?

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"I don't think Terry can handle this lifestyle any more than two days," Buck joked. "He looks like hell."

Did ESPN blow up Big East?

Boston College athletic director Gene DeFilippo was shockingly candid in an interview The Boston Globe published Sunday.

His biggest bombshell addressed ESPN's alleged role in the ACC's addition of Pittsburgh and Syracuse, a body blow to the Big East:

"We always keep our television partners close to us. You don't get extra money for basketball. It's 85 percent football money. TV -- ESPN -- is the one who told us what to do."

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The conference denied that. ESPN did, too. "The driving force on realignment lies with the conferences and universities," a spokesman said.

Still, ESPN's college deals do have a "conference composition clause" that triggers discussions on rights values when teams are added or subtracted.


End of road on East End

Since 2008, East Enders have been able to listen to Knicks and Rangers games on WLIR-FM (107.1), a Hampton Bays-based station that simulcasts 1050 ESPN, whose regular signal struggles to reach that far.

But WLIR was sold earlier this year, and in August, it switched to a format of Christian programming, ending the simulcast arrangement.