On a recent Saturday night at Citi Field, the Mets were getting killed. Down 5-0 in the top of the 9th inning, they had only one base hit, and were about to drop their third straight to the Yankees. In those three games, they had been outscored 29-1.
Late-night heroics didn’t appear to be anywhere on the horizon, but the Mets broadcasting triumvirate of Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling were on TV, and—as has often been this case during this disappointing season—were picking up the slack.
Gary: Bless you.
Keith: Did you hear that? I put on my cough button!
Gary: You were a little late.
Keith: I was tardy?
Ron: Were you tardy?
Gary: Your sneeze was in the catcher’s mitt.
Keith: It’s one of those sneezes that sneaks up on you!
A minute passed, and Mr. Cohen said, “Do you have something in your hand, Keith?”
The camera turned to the Mets broadcast booth above home plate. There was Mr. Hernandez, glasses pinched at his nose like a librarian, but still unmistakably the former star Mets first baseman from the 1980s—bushy mustache, a jock’s chest, dark hair, a head the size of a melon—holding a tiny silver box with a big red button in the middle.
The camera shot eventually turned back to the field. The announcers didn’t.
Keith: You know what happened to me once? I pressed the wrong button, and I thought I had the cough button on and I didn’t.
Ron: You pushed my button!
Gary: In other words, something went onto the air that wasn’t supposed to.
Keith: It wasn’t anything that got me into trouble.
Ron: On TV, Keith, you can say anything once.
Gary: Yeah, that’s true.
Keith: Are you sure?
Ron: Yeah, I’m sure!
Gary: You can say whatever you want right now! We just might not see you tomorrow.
The old adage for a good broadcast is that when things are going well, it’s like you’re having a conversation with the viewer at home.
Keith and Gary and Ron have done just that over the past four years, for 60 games a season, and about another 90 games using some combination of two of them. But the viewer they’re talking to is jaded, and cosmopolitan, and, not infrequently, a little bored with the Mets.
Keith and Gary and Ron don’t pull for their team. They remark, cruelly and accurately, on the Mets’ poor play. They voluntarily discuss the Mets’ horrific collapses of the last two Septembers. They digress.
This wouldn’t work in St. Louis, where approximately 100 percent of the supposed best fans in baseball wear red to the games, or on the North Side of Chicago, where there is a rich tradition of homerism in the booth. Nor would it work in the Bronx or in Boston, where the fans crave reinforcement of a smug certainty that their organization is different, and special, and superior.
What Keith and Gary and Ron do is something less obvious, and more difficult.
“They reflect the Mets fans’ mentality,” said Greg Prince, co-author of the excellent Mets fan blog Faith and Fear in Flushing. “Being a Mets fan is recognizing reality and accepting sometimes that things are too funny to be sad and sometimes too sad to be funny. It comes across in the three of them.”
Back in the booth, Mr. Cohen took a stab at returning to baseball.
“The Mets are trying to avoid being one-hit for the first time in nearly three years,” he said.
“We’re trying to avoid the highlight of this program being the audio-box display,” Mr. Darling responded.
IN MANY BOOTHS around the league, the announcers have clearly defined roles: The play-by-play man with a broadcast-ready voice stares at the field and describes what happens to the baseball. The ESPN (and former Mets) announcer Dave O’Brien is perhaps the model straight man: great, deep voice; no affect. Balls, strikes, hits, double plays.
The announcer next to him, almost always a retired player, explains why the baseball went where it went. Today’s color analysts are typified by ESPN’s Joe Morgan and (disastrously unsuccessful former Mets general manager) Steve Phillips. Too often, they are heavy on cliché and manufactured attitude, and light on original insight.
On the Yankee-owned YES Network, there is Michael Kay—a fast-talking, abrasive former newspaper reporter. He is usually put on air with people like David Cone and Al Leiter, former players who were beat-reporter favorites.
During a lull in a recent Yankees-Mets game, Mr. Kay, Mr. Cone and Mr. Leiter spent two minutes debating the designated hitter rule in earnest. It was nothing a 10-year-old fan wouldn’t have heard a dozen times.
On Sports Net New York, the four-year-old network started by the Mets, Gary, Ron and Keith were talking, intensely, about the aesthetics of their favorite out-of-town scoreboards. It was strange and funny.
ALL THREE MEN are instantly familiar to Mets fans. Mr. Cohen, 51, has been the sharp, intellectual and crisp-voiced announcer for the Mets radio station WFAN since 1989; Mr. Hernandez, 55, and Mr. Darling, 48, were the star first baseman and a star pitcher, respectively, on that ’80s team. Two-thirds of the booth attended Ivy League schools. (Mr. Cohen went to Columbia; Mr. Darling, a native of Hawaii, attended Yale until after his junior year, when he was drafted.) Mr. Hernandez was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1971, when he was 18, but affects the sardonic air of an intellectual hippie. He is from San Francisco.