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.
Gary is competent; Ron is incisive; Keith is subversive.
“The moment of revelation for me was when I realized that we are better as a threesome than any combination of the twosome,” said Mr. Cohen.
It was a few hours before the cough-button incident, and the Mets and Yankees were gearing up to take the field. We were inside the SNY broadcast booth at Citi Field, which is cramped, but right above home plate with an expansive, nearly perfect view of the field. Mr. Cohen was sitting behind a desk filling out the lineups on his scorecard; Mr. Darling was sitting to his right; and Mr. Hernandez was pacing around, quietly groaning about pain in his leg.
“Somehow it works,” Mr. Cohen said. “We don’t script any of it. There’s not one word for three hours we’re planning, but somehow it all works. It’s more … It’s more? What do you say? Free-form jazz?”
“Yeah, Yeah! It’s free-form jazz,” said Mr. Darling. “There are producers that will literally say, ‘Gary, I need you to get Keith right now.’ We don’t have that.”
Mr. Hernandez let the back of his head bounce gently against a wall.
“I had always been warned about traffic,” Mr. Darling continued. “Traffic, traffic, traffic. ‘In a three-man booth, there’s going to be all this noise and you gotta watch out never to talk over each other.’ That’s something that hasn’t happened here and it hasn’t happened since day one. I think that’s unusual.”
Tom Seaver, the Franchise, the Mets’ only Hall of Famer and maybe the most popular player in team history, took over the booth in the late ’90s, and it was a terrible bore. He was condescending, he talked down to players—you’d never get away with that in my day—and his ego dominated the broadcast.
The current team prides itself on being uncompetitive about airtime.
“To me, the game comes first, and everything else springs from there,” continued Mr. Cohen. “It’s not like I’m thinking, ‘I have to get an anecdote in or I have to talk about this.’ It’s not the way it works. Something happens in the game and Keith says something that makes Ronnie think of something that makes me think of something and then we get focused on the game and then we get back to where we were and then before you know it the inning is over.”
During the sixth inning of the game that night, Yankees pitcher A. J. Burnett was working on a no-hitter against the Mets until Alex Cora delivered the Mets lone single, a solid line drive that landed in center field.
Gary and Ron talked about how deflating it is for a pitcher when he’s working on a no-hitter and loses it. Inevitably, the conversation turned to the time the Mets—who have, amazingly, never had a no-hitter—came their closest to one: a game in July 1969, when Tom Seaver was two outs away only to surrender a left-center hit to the Cubs’ reserve man, Jimmy Qualls.
“Seaver looked like he wanted to go and strangle Jimmy Qualls,” said Ron. “That’s the look he gave.”
Keith: “He’s a winemaker now—Thomas.”
Ron: “Don’t forget Nancy Chardonnay.”
It was a reference to the wine Seaver named after his wife.
Keith: “It’s Nancy Fancy—it’s a red.”
Ron: “Oh, it is? I thought it was a char.”
Keith: “It’s like a petite sirah, almost.”
Gary: “Are you oenophiles done?”
Ron: “It’s a blend, right?”
They all laughed.
Keith: “Sorry, Gar.”
Gary: “It all tastes the same to me.”
Keith: “I had a splendid Joseph Phelps the other night!”
Gary: “Reyes down swinging, and that’s seven strikeouts for Burnett.”
MR COHEN, a tall, balding, pencil-necked New York native who used to call soccer games with George Stephanopoulos at Columbia, is the passionately opinionated baseball historian. He was trained as a radio guy, only switching to television in 2006.
“From the beginning, I remember just looking at him and being like, ‘Oooooh! That’s pretty darn good,’” said Ron Darling. “His call is so strong.”
For years now, when a ball flies over the fence, Mr. Cohen won’t say “It’s gone!” or “It’s a homer!” or “Kiss that baby goodbye!” It is always, always—Mets or opponent—“And it’s OUTTA HERE.”
“There was a game in Flushing at Shea,” Mr. Darling said, “that Carlos Beltran ended a 16-inning game against the Phillies and it had been a long game, but a great game, and Gary’s call was ‘It’s outta here! And we’re going home.’ Was that the call, Gary?”
Mr. Cohen looked up from his scorecard and nodded.
Interestingly, Mr. Cohen does a number of things wrong when he calls games on TV. When you’re on the radio, you announce that the catcher is set up on the inside corner and the pitch is a back-door slider and the hitter is jammed and the ball goes down the third-base line and David Wright back-hands the ball and makes an off-balance throw that Daniel Murphy scoops on one hop to beat the runner by a step. On television, where the producers and the cameramen do the hard part for you, you probably should say nothing other than: “Grounder. Back-hand. Out.”
Mr. Cohen often forgets this.
“I still think in radio,” said Mr. Cohen. “I have to translate in TV, which means talking less and playing with others.”
MR. DARLING HAD a rough transition at first to the broadcast booth. After a stint with Fox Sports at the beginning of the decade, he called games for the Oakland A’s, and then for the Washington Nationals.
“When I watched that demo tape from Washington, I said, ‘Oooh! We gotta lot of work to do,’” said Gregg Picker, the producer of Mets games on SNY.
Mr. Darling is now invluable: a pitching specialist who has gotten very good at explaining the overall mechanics of the game to viewers. But he is still the most self-conscious of the three in the booth. During the Yankees game, he began a story with two outs—a no-no—and actually said, “Oh, I’m starting a story with two outs. O.K., well …”
Mr. Hernandez is the least predictable element. He was known for his intensity as a player, but his participation in the broadcast is … casual.
Consider this moment in 2006, preserved on Metsblog.com, when the Mets were playing the Rockies and leading 10-3 in the top of the ninth inning:
Hernandez: Are you getting hungry?
Cohen: No, actually, I had a pretty big dinner. You?
Hernandez: I’m starved.
Cohen: You’re always starved. … And there’s ball four. … You know, they have really good food here at the ball park.
Hernandez: No …
Cohen: Would you like me to go out and get you something?
Hernandez: I’m gonna head over to the steakhouse after this …
Cohen: Because they have really good fajitas in the back.
Hernandez: … and I’m gonna order a bottle of wine, with my daughter, and my wife, and I’m gonna savor it, after this debacle of a game.
Cohen: Are you saying you haven’t enjoyed the quality of play tonight?
Hernandez: No, I have not … but I will enjoy the quality of the red wine.
Cohen: Would you like to have tonight’s winning pitcher pick it out for you?
Hernandez: No, no, I can pick it out myself.
Cohen: O.K., I just didn’t know if your wine-picking credentials were up to snuff. … Nothing and one to Jose Valentin … A red or a white?
Hernandez: Oh, a red, a big, hearty, heavy, spicy red, maybe a red zinfandel … My stomach is growling, I’m so hungry.
Cohen: Wow, that’s out there. … Zero-one to Valentin, who’s one for four on the night … Now, are you thinking rib-eye, or …
Hernandez: No, I never eat heavy at night. … I may drink heavy, but I never eat heavy at night.
Cohen: O.K., thanks for sharing. … See you in the morning. … One-two to Valentin … Maybe have some shrimp … The Mets looking to tack on, they lead in the ninth.
Hernandez: [sighing] Wait, there’s nobody out? [sighing]
Cohen: You just noticed that? Oh, boy.
Last month, late in a game that took place a week before the Mets’ 5-0 loss to their crosstown rivals, the Yankees were beating the Mets 15-0.
Mr. Cohen and Mr. Darling were talking about historic Mets blowouts in which the team, out of desperation, or indifference, brought position players in off the bench to pitch: Matt Franco in 1999 against the Braves; Derek Bell the following season. Mr. Darling revealed a secret about Darryl Strawberry having thrown 80 miles per hour from the mound before a game in Montreal and hurting his arm for a few days. Purposefully dorky stuff.
Gary: So there’s plenty of history on the line. You don’t want to tune away and miss something historic. Right?
Ron: It won’t be for our call of the game!
Gary: Besides, you never know what Keith might say.
Keith: I wasn’t paying attention.
Ron: Right answer!
Keith: You guys lost me a while ago.