Staff Photo: John Bohn Pete van Wieren, radio broadcaster for the Atlanta Braves from 1978 to 2008, poses for a portrait at his home, in front of an Atlanta Braves uniform jersey that he received at the twenty five year mark of his career.
Retired Braves broadcaster Pete van Wieren
Retired Braves broadcaster Pete van Wieren shows off some of his favorite pieces of memorabilia and talks about his favorite moments during his career.
IF YOU GO
• What: Gwinnett American Cancer Society’s 37th Annual Crusaders Ball
• When: 7 p.m. on Nov. 3
• Where: Gwinnett Center’s Thomas P. Hughes Ballroom
• More info: Tickets are $85 per person, $160 per couple or $750 for tables of 10. Theme is “Denim and Diamonds” and former Atlanta Braves broadcaster Pete Van Wieren will share his survivor story. For more information or to order tickets, visit denimanddiamondsga.org.
JOHNS CREEK -- In the almost four years since his retirement, legendary Atlanta Braves broadcaster Pete Van Wieren has done a lot.
He and wife Elaine have taken a pair of long-awaited trips to Europe. The Rochester, N.Y., native has returned to the campus of Cornell University for the first time in 50 years. He's written an autobiography. He's watched a lot of baseball and seen countless soccer games featuring his three granddaughters.
He's also been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and battled its recurrence twice.
"That certainly didn't fit with my picture of a leisurely retirement," Van Wieren said this week, the same golden voice that called Braves games for more than 30 years echoing across the living room of his home in Johns Creek.
Van Wieren -- who will be the main speaker at next month's Crusader's Ball for Gwinnett's arm of the American Cancer Society -- began calling Braves games in 1976, broadcasting on both TV and radio alongside fellow icons like Skip Caray and Ernie Johnson Sr. Voted Georgia Sportscaster of the Year eight times, his nickname "The Professor" was earned elsewhere but validated by his reputation for thorough preparation and research.
Van Wieren retired in 2008, and by the fall of 2009 has been diagnosed with lymphoma after he found "a little bump in the back of his head." It was knocked out with some radiation and a drug called rituxan.
A year later it was back "a little more aggressively." Then came the chemo.
A year after that, it came back again. Surgery and more radiation.
There were stories in the newspaper and online all along, but Van Wieren tried to keep his battle as under the radar as possible.
"I didn't really play it up, I really tried not to," he said. "I just wanted to get it over with and move on."
The lymphoma is currently in remission for Van Wieren, who recently turned 68. By his own account, he's not let the disease change his plans for retirement -- treatments have always been scheduled around his life, not the other way around.
"I don't joke around about it; when I need a treatment I go and get it," he said. "But I don't want it to affect everything I do. I still do all the things I wanted to do. We still travel, we still do a lot of things with the grandkids. I go down to the ballpark every once in a while to say hello to everybody."
"I refuse to be somber," he added.
Old habits die hard, and old friendships never do. So, even in retirement, Van Wieren was watching the Braves last Friday when they floundered away their one-game playoff "series" with the St. Louis Cardinals.
And when the now infamous infield fly rule call -- the one that sparked parts of an angry Atlanta crowd to flood the field with beer bottles -- popped up, he couldn't help but think of an old counterpart.
"That's one of the first things I thought of. If Skip (Caray) had been around, that would never have ended," Van Wieren said with a chuckle, referencing his former broadcast partner that made a running joke of fans that frequently brought up the obscure rule during call-in shows.
"I guess really it was the right call by the rule book, but that was just a horrible time and place to call it. A lot of umpires wouldn't have called it. And he called it so late."
The Professor is still rich in baseball knowledge and doesn't hesitate to pontificate on any topic broached.
-- On Chipper Jones' retirement: "He's still -- and I maintain this, I said it that night when I was doing (Jones' retirement) ceremony -- off all the players that I can remember watching, if I had to pick one player to come up in the bottom half of the ninth inning with the game tied, it would be Chipper. He's the one."
-- On the Braves' 1991 "worst to first" season: "We had fans all over the country that were sending us things. They did these carvings and bats and tomahawks. I don't know how many tomahawks we got. We got tomahawks that were knitted, we got tomahawks that were made out of wood. We got some with real blades."
-- On his favorite Braves player over the years: "It would be hard to pick out one. If I go back to the beginning, the player that I'm closest to still is Phil Niekro. We were about the same age when I first came (to Atlanta)."
-- On current manager Fredi Gonzalez: "I like Fredi, I like him a lot. He's very similar to (longtime manager) Bobby Cox. Maybe not quite as fiery as Bobby was. But I was very impressed with the job he did this year."
It's clear that even chemotherapy couldn't kill the baseball bug in Van Wieren. But, then again, retirement is pretty nice too.
"I miss the people more than I miss the schedule," he grinned.
Being diagnosed with cancer, Van Wieren will admit, is like landing on a different planet. There's a new language, strange medications and treatments you can't pronounce.
You aren't prepared for it, even if you made a career out of being prepared.
But the care that Van Wieren and other patients now receive is also a world apart from where it was 20, 10, even five years ago. The drug that's helped put Van Wieren's lymphoma in remission wouldn't have existed had he been diagnosed during the Braves' glory days in the '90s, and wasn't even a thought when he was narrating "15 years of pretty bad baseball" before that.
That's why fundraising is still so important.
"Some of the stuff I was treated with wasn't available 10 years ago," Van Wieren said. "That's why these fundraisers for the American Cancer Society are important. That's where the money comes from, and the research does work."
Van Wieren's speech at the American Cancer Society's ball -- held Nov. 3 at the Gwinnett Center -- will not be a "pity party," he said. He'll share his story, but it probably won't be a tear-jerker.
He will tell people all he's done, and all he still wants to do. He'll tell them that staying positive is half the battle. He'll probably mention his grandkids and, undoubtedly, reference baseball more than once.
Life is still life, even with cancer.
"I try to throw some humor in there and keep it upbeat," Van Wieren said. "There are a lot more people that are surviving. That's the message you want to send. Somewhere along the way there will be $1 that's the tipping point for some cancer. Maybe it will be one of the dollars they donate that night."