It was appropriate, I suppose, that I heard about the death of Brewers analyst and former first base coach Davey Nelson during a commercial break. It was during commercial breaks that I got to know and love him.
Davey was my frequent co-host on "Brewers Extra Innings" and regular guest on "Brewers Weekly" on Newsradio 620 WTMJ from 2008 until I left WTMJ for WISN in early 2013. Commercial breaks were always the most fun with him, because we would laugh, joke, and just genuinely enjoy each other's company.
When I started doing "Brewers Extra Innings," I was a 26 year-old hosting his very first show. I had been a co-host, but never before had a led a show and, as one might expect, I was a little nervous--especially when one of my very first co-hosts was a former Major League All-Star and former Brewers coach named Davey Nelson.
He'd forgotten more about baseball than I could ever know. Sure, he seemed kindly and nice on TV broadcasts, but what would he be like in real life?
It turned out he was even nicer.
Milwaukee got to know Davey on those TV broadcasts and on the radio shows we did together, but I got to know him during the commercial breaks or in the idle minutes leading up to showtime, when the two of us and our producer would sit back, put our feet up, and watch Brewers games like old friends--talking and BSing and listening wide-eyed to Davey tell stories about his playing days.
One of my favorites was during his rookie season with the Cleveland Indians, when he was a speedster looking to make a name for himself. It was 1968, and Yankees legend Mickey Mantle was in his final season. Years of injuries and alcohol abuse had made him a shell of his younger self, but he was still seeing action as the Yankees' first baseman. He had almost no mobility, and young Davey saw an opportunity. He dropped a bunt down the first base line knowing that there was no way Mantle could field it before he reached first.
When the inning ended, Davey sprinted back to the dugout confident his manager would applaud him for his strategy. Instead, he was chewed out.
"We don't bunt on Mantle," the manager said.
"But Skip..." Davey protested.
"We don't bunt on Mantle," the manger repeated. "It's about respect."
It was a lesson Davey obviously kept with him for the rest of his life, because decades later, when I met him, I never knew him to treat anyone--from the best Brewers players right to ballpark employees to a young radio host desperate to make a good impression--with anything but the utmost respect.
Davey loved baseball and loved everyone associated with it. Heck, he seemed to love everyone judging by the number of times he would stop to take pictures with and chat up fans who would shout "Davey! Davey!" at him while we walked out to our cars after shows at Miller Park.
That smile you saw on TV? It never seemed to leave his face. Not on the radio, when his favorite response to a point I would make about that night's game was "Dan, you know you're not as dumb as you look." And certainly not during those commercial breaks, when he would talk about his family, his charity golf outing, his Open Arms Home for Children in South Africa (a boarding home for kids orphaned by the AIDS epidemic).
He loved hearing about my young family--my sons were five and two when we hosted our last show together--and told me that I needed to cherish this time in my life because of how great it was and how quickly it would fly by.
He told me that when they started playing baseball, he wanted to teach them how to bunt since that was his specialty.
"Just not on Mickey Mantle, right?" I joked. He laughed uproariously; that infectious laugh that became something of his trademark and made everyone around him just feel better. That's what he did for me. It didn't matter how bad of a day I was having, when I would walk into the studio and see Davey sitting there and he'd smile at me and give me a "Hey partner, some game tonight, huh?" with a big smile on his face, I couldn't help but be cheered up.
Even when he was annoyed, he was laughing. One night, he and I were hosting a postgame show when a caller (who may or may not have had too much to drink), went on the air.
"Yeah," he said, "I just want to know what [former Brewers manager] Davey Lopes thinks about..."
Davey cut him off.
"Well I don't know what Davey Lopes thinks, but I'll tell you what Davey NELSON thinks."
I had to switch my microphone off because I was laughing so hard.
I could tell Davey wasn't happy about a caller misidentifying him, but when we went to commercial and I burst out laughing, he couldn't help himself and started laughing, too, especially when I told him about the number of callers who referred to me as "Donald O'Donnell."
"That sounds better than 'Dan O'Donnell,'" he joked.
Davey loved nothing more than broadcasting and being at the ballpark, and his gift as a broadcaster was to impart that joy, that sheer love of the game, to his audience (and to his co-hosts). That joy never switched off during the commercial breaks, though. That love never dimmed when the klieg lights did. They were genuine. They were Davey.
I feel blessed that he shared them with me--on the air, sure, but especially during those commercial breaks.