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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Tim McCarver's first-guessing was perfect that World Series night in 2001

Luis Gonzalez gets the winning hit off of

Luis Gonzalez gets the winning hit off of Mariano Rivera in the 9th inning of Game 6 of the World Series. (Nov. 4, 2001) Credit: Newsday/John Keating

It was Nov. 4, 2001. Surely you remember, but let's let Joe Buck set the scene:

"The chance of a lifetime for Luis Gonzalez -- 2-2, bottom of the ninth, Game 7 of the World Series, bases loaded, infield in, one out," Buck said on Fox that night.

Gonzalez fouled off the first pitch from Mariano Rivera. "Strike one," Buck said.

Then Tim McCarver said this:

"One problem is Rivera throws inside to lefthanders. Lefthanders get a lot of broken-bat hits into shallow outfield - the shallow part of the outfield. That's the danger of bringing the infield in with a guy like Rivera on the mound."

On the next pitch, Rivera threw inside to Gonzalez, who hit a broken-bat single to the shallow part of the outfield, a ball Derek Jeter likely would have caught from his normal position.

Said Buck: "Floater! Centerfield! The Diamondbacks are World Champions!"

We bring all this up today because on Wednesday, McCarver will begin his record 24th (and final) World Series as an analyst, his 16th alongside Buck.

And rather than attempt to summarize a career that revolutionized baseball analysis much like John Madden's did for football, better to focus on that one moment in 2001 that tidily illustrates the rest.

McCarver has been reluctant to feed nostalgic looks back at his career, so instead I asked Buck about that night in Arizona.

"I remember that like it was yesterday," he said last week. "I turned to him, I think, before the ball landed and I just mouthed the word, 'Wow.' "

Sometime during their 3 1/2 minutes of silence that followed Gonzalez's game-winner, McCarver and Buck shared a quiet high-five over the historic first-guess. "That's as good as it gets," Buck said.

First-guesses were a McCarver trademark over a long career that included stints in the Mets and Yankees booths, partly thanks to the nature of baseball. Buck said while football is heavily focused on replays and thus looking back, baseball lends itself to thinking deep thoughts and looking ahead.

McCarver is the master.

"Nobody does that better than him," Buck said. "I think that comes from being a catcher and trying to anticipate, 'OK, how'd we get this guy out before? Where is the defense playing? How are we going to try to pitch that guy?'"

Buck called the Gonzalez at-bat "the moment for him, at least with me, and we've been together for 18 years."

What made it more impressive was that given the magnitude of the situation, Buck and most viewers were so busy focusing on the bigger picture that it was natural to forget about technical, strategic matters.

"I do remember when he said that it made me look," Buck said. "I never thought about it this way, but it made me actually stop what I was doing and look at the positioning of the infielders in relation to the outfielders.

"It made me like I was almost at home listening to him as opposed to just working with him. It made me want to see where the fielders were."

Buck said the natural tendency in a tense, important moment is to almost sit back "taking it all in" from the booth. But McCarver "still was looking for stuff and still finding something in what we're watching that will help the viewer understand what could happen here."

The ensuing high-five had nothing to do with which team won, but rather was a celebration of a job well done.

"We stick our necks out week after week and in the postseason night after night and when you do something like that and it comes through it's exciting for us," Buck said. "We have to take pride in that or otherwise, why are you doing it?"

McCarver has been criticized -- sometimes rightly -- for repeating observations to the point of overkill, and let's just say there are corners of the Internet in which his pending departure from Fox was unlamented.

But Buck said dealing with critics is one of the many things McCarver has taught him.

"I've learned about being on the big stage in the big moment, from a broadcaster's perspective," Buck said. "I'm not dumb enough to think what we're doing is changing the world or the flow of the Nile. But I think dealing with criticism, dealing with people picking at you, whether it's a writer or now from Twitter or whatever, you just plow forward and do your job.

"And I've learned so much about preparation. A guy who's done it as long as he has and played in and won world championships and caught a couple of the best pitchers in the history of the game still outworks everybody. So I have learned lessons that I will carry forward the rest of my career, however long that goes."

Last month Rivera left the big stage. Soon McCarver, 72, will join him, his greatest professional moment forever entwined with Rivera's worst.

"They have done completely different lines of work, but they've done it where they've poured everything they had into it and done it in a classy way," Buck said of McCarver and Rivera. "The moment never was bigger than them and yet they're always respectful of the game.

"I don't know anybody who loves this game more than Tim. I don't know anyone who loves more what this game brings, the intricacies of it, the strategy, the nuances of it. Even to this day I've seen absolutely no diminishing enjoyment from him since we started working together 18 years ago. Same guy."

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