The Voices to Remember in a New York Baseball Season to Forget

The Observer's take on the city's broadcasters

Baseball is full of iconic sounds — the crack of the bat and pop of a mitt, and less than ideal ones, like that fat drunk next to you explaining how differently he would have managed the bullpen. And then there’s the radio and TV broadcasters who play a huge role in the average fan’s baseball experience. Want to know who will make your night a little better and who will make you crash your car in traffic just to save yourself from hearing their voice? With a less-than-memorable baseball season looking like it won’t include October, here’s The Observer‘s take on New York’s baseball broadcasters.

Yankees Radio. John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman take listeners down a rabbit hole of nonsensical comments, over the top emotion, and a shockingly feeble amount of accurate baseball commentary.

John Sterling. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
John Sterling. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

John Sterling – In sports, there’s a commonly held saying that you can teach everything but talent, size and speed. What’s the one thing you can’t teach a play-by-play announcer? The voice. And in Sterling’s case, just about anything else about baseball.

John Sterling has the voice. It’s deep and resonant – the perfect pipes for radio. It’s what the voice says that can sometimes cause trouble.

At his best, Sterling is kind of like the weird uncle you see at holidays. He’s goofy, but in a way that makes you shake your head, smile, and mutter “that John Sterling.” Take for example his primal victory cry of “The Yankees win, thaaaaaaaaaa Yankees win!” It’s over the top, but you can’t help smile at Sterling shaking with excitement as he belts it out. He’s as happy that the team won as the guy sitting in the upper deck.

His home run calls tend toward painful, however. Referring to Derek Jeter as “El Capitan” or lauding “an A-bomb from A-Rod” aren’t great, but at least they make sense. Saying “Sori, right number” (apparently a play on “sorry, wrong number”) for Alfonso Soriano is just bafflingly bad.

The worst part, though, is the fact that he appears to have no idea what’s going on for large chunks of the game. He’ll break into his home run call of “it is high, it is far, it is gone,” just to follow up a moment later with “And it’s caught a few feet short of the warning track.” Sterling frequently dismisses the stats-obsession currently driving baseball fandom (“This is why I’m not a numbers guy,” he intones whenever something unexpected occurs) and celebrates the essential unpredictability of the game (whenever anything occurs). So it’s perhaps not a surprise that he’s squeals with delight over plays that veer from the norm.

What is a surprise is how frequently Sterling fumbles the simplest parts of calling a game; there have even been instances where he claims the batter swung and missed, though he actually hit the ball. Even if he didn’t see that the contact, the crack of the bat and the players running should have alerted him that something was happening. His one job is to watch the game and tell the listener what happens, so it’s beyond me how often he botches the call only to cover it with his bullet-proof protection of “Well, how about that, you just can’t predict baseball.” Sterling has been at this forever, but for at least the last decade, it’s been fair to wonder whether he even still likes baseball, given the increasing number and length and just plain awkwardness of his stories about musical theater.

Suzyn Waldman. (Photo: Getty Images)
Suzyn Waldman. (Photo: Getty Images)

Suzyn Waldman – I wish I could say good things about Waldman. She was one of the first women to work full time covering MLB and famously endured abuse from George Bell. She brokered peace to end the legendary feud between George Steinbrenner and Yogi Berra. But her color commentary makes Waldman among the worst announcers in the history of baseball.

Remember how Sterling has a voice made for radio? Well Waldman is the opposite. It’s shrill and grating with a Boston accent so pronounced it makes the average Brooklyner sound like Tom Brokaw. That could possibly be overcome were she to provide amazing insights as she complements Sterling’s play-by-play. Um, no. If she speaks on the game itself, it’s surface level observations full of empty adjectives (“what a wonderful ovation for a wonderful Yankee”) that don’t reveal any real knowledge. More often than not, she tells personal anecdotes about interacting with the Yankees brass. Just to make things worse, she fills them with overbearing emotion. Unlike Sterling’s homerism, which is tolerable if a bit cringe-worthy, Waldman’s emotional spectrum goes from sobbing on the air to shrieking with delight. Neither is pleasant to hear.

Satellite radio has made it possible to enjoy radio broadcasts from all MLB teams. A good bit of comparative study reveals that the Yankees might have the single worst radio broadcast in all of baseball; unacceptable for the sport’s marquee team, and especially puzzling considering the estimated $13-14 million that WCBS pays for the privilege, widely considered to be the highest radio rights fee in the world, by a good margin. Actually, that might be part of the reason the Yankee broadcast is so atrocious. To offset the high cost, WCBS sells a ludicrous number of “drop-ins” – those short, announcer-read sponsorships where Sterling will tell you that the 15th out of the game is brought to you by Geico. The New York Times found that on one game, the Yankees broadcast played 61 drop-ins compared to 21 for the Mets game on the same day.

Yankees TV.

Michael Kay. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Michael Kay. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Michael Kay – Kay is the other voice of the Yankees besides John Sterling and does a better job of being listenable than his counterpart. His home run call (“There it goes…see ya!”) is enthusiastic, but not forced. He even does it for both teams, which reduces his homerism by a little (although visiting teams get a less emphatic call).

Even with that small amount of balance, Kay still can’t say very much bad about the Yankees. While that’s the YES Network’s decision, not his, and to Kay’s credit, he has been very tough on A-Roid throughout the PED scandal. As a fan, there’s almost something insulting about hearing him blatantly gloss over a bad play or an off-the-field issue.

Although he is reined in by the powers that be, Kay shines when he’s able to show his baseball knowledge, which is abundant and on better view during his ESPN radio show. Kay also skillfully shows his knowledge of small quirks intrinsic to the Yankees. For example, he gives frequent shout outs to the Bleacher Creatures (those crazy fans who do the roll call in right field) and can even point out something as small as the fact that they refuse to take part in the wave.

Here’s an odd quirk of the Yankees television broadcast team: they cycle through several former-player color guys, none of whom is particularly amazing. You’d think a team with their history (and payroll) could afford to find one true legend and have him do every game. Instead we’re stuck playing Russian roulette: will I turn on the game and get the decent former Baltimore Oriole Ken Singleton or the wacky anecdotes of Paul O’Neill? Some quick bullet points on the color crew.

Ken Singleton – Other than being a former AL East rival, he’s really not that notable one way or another. He’s the most frequent color commentator and even does play-by-play sometimes. With his smooth voice and generally positive descriptions, Yankee TV viewers could do a lot worse.

David Cone. (Photo: Getty Images)
David Cone. (Photo: Getty Images)

David Cone – Probably the best option in the booth. He’s smart and has the pitching chops to describe what those enigmatic men on the mound are thinking as they suddenly lose control of their pitches. He’s understandably vanilla, but shows moments of breaking through the Yankees mind control. For example, when he saw a clip of David Ortiz smashing a dugout phone, he remarked that he was irresponsibly sending “fucking shrapnel” into his teammates.

John Flaherty – Probably the second most common after Singleton and a mixed bag. Sometimes “Flash” can have illuminating remarks about why a catcher called a certain pitch, but most of the time he’s just filling dead air. He’s very smart but lacks color and his short career as a mediocre player didn’t provide the kind of rich history that allows for personal anecdotes.

Paul O’Neill – Not on the air all that often, but when he is, he’s a star. He has some interesting stories about his days in pinstripes, but he could read your tax return and Bombers fans would love it because of his legacy as a gutty right fielder during the 90s dynasty, his super-competitive nature taking him farther than many similarly skilled players. O’Neill displays real broadcast chemistry, as well, constantly ribbing Kay in his high-voiced signature sing-song. The rhythm of a non-player play-by-play guy working alongside a former-player color guy calls for the former to pose questions that only a pro can answer authoritatively. It’s called “teeing up” in broadcasting and the Kay-O’Neill team produces the best “What does it feel like?” moments of all the Yankee TV teams.

Mets Radio. Howie Rose and Josh Lewin team up to produce an all-around solid broadcast that could be at home in an era where radio thrived.

From its start with the wonderfully kitschy “Meet the Mets” song, the broadcast is just comfortably old school. It’s kind of like the old, worn-in glove you used when you were a kid. Sure, your dad found it in the back of the shed and it was kind of ratty, but it never did you wrong.  Howie and Josh might not blow your mind, but they’re pretty good at what they do.

Lifelong Met fan Rose primarily handles the play by play, and allows his voice to lead the action. If there’s a hot line drive, his pace increases. A lazy fly ball gets drawn out as we wait for the ball to return to earth. Sometimes, though, he stays in the ‘fast paced’ zone a bit too much, which sometimes makes big calls seem a little less climactic. For example, his signature “put it in the books” doesn’t carry the same punch if you’ve heard Howie’s “excited voice” for the past 20 minutes. He’s also comfortably colloquial; you’ll hear plenty of ‘ems and ‘yas and yeahs to make you feel like you’re casually talking sports and not being lectured.

Josh Lewin with former Met Tom Grieve. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Josh Lewin with former Met Tom Grieve. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Josh Lewin – If you don’t hear him for a few minutes, don’t worry — he didn’t call in sick; Lewin is just prone to odd quiet spells from time to time. It was odder on Fox, from whence Lewin came, because of the forced rah rah pace on their broadcasts. On The Fan, the dry spells are fine, and when he does talk, though, you’re glad he’s there. While he doesn’t bring any brilliant, Mets-centric analysis to the booth, he’s good at posing rhetorical questions or making general league-wide statements. Sometimes, the pair even switches roles to play off of this; Lewin narrates the game and leaves Rose free to break out some facts and stories. They may even be better at the reversed roles than at their normal positions.

**Special Programming Note**

Last November, CBS bought 101.9 from the horribly mismanaged Merlin (alt-rock shifted to all news in a market dominated by 880 and 1010 then back to alt-rock!) and started simulcasting its WFAN broadcasts. Listening to the Mets game in hi fidelity is a huge improvement (despite the tortured attempt to work in the new dial position to the Fan’s classic jingle) and it’s hard to imagine that the Yankees won’t find a similar solution soon.

Mets TV. The best of the local broadcasts, the Mets’ team provides a huge amount of insight into the game without overwhelming the viewer. They’re so good; they almost make the Mets worth watching…almost. Gary Cohen handles the main play-by-play duties and is correctly regarded by the entire baseball community as one of the very best. Always prepared, always informed, Cohen’s ability to keep the broadcast focused is especially notable because his two color partners are both prone to shaggy dog stories. Plus, his home run call – “and it’s outta here!” – is outstanding.

Ron Darling – While he’s not on as much as he once was, Darling is the broadcast’s “straight man”. As a pitcher, and a pretty damn good one at that, he’s got plenty of credibility. He doesn’t mail it in though; although soft-spoken, he’s analytical, but not overwhelming. While he may be able to break down why a pitcher threw a backdoor slider instead of a high fastball, he doesn’t make it feel like a lecture only comprehensible to baseball scholars. Although he can drone on a bit at times, he’s a necessary complement to his partner and former teammate Keith Hernandez.

Keith Hernandez. (Photo: Getty Images)
Keith Hernandez. (Photo: Getty Images)

Keith Hernandez – Subtlety isn’t Hernandez’s thing. When you show up to work wearing a fur-lined coat, a World Series ring on your pinky and perpetually rock a porno mustache, it’s a pretty safe bet you’re a bit of a character. He’s the over-the-top yin to Darling’s intellectual, quiet yang.

With a voice as noticeable of his wardrobe, Hernandez isn’t afraid to make his opinions known during the game. Although he knows more about baseball than most can forget and can effortlessly explain what a player should be doing in the field or the batter’s box, there’s much more to his broadcast. And Hernandez refuses to compromise his standards, constantly complaining in a “get off my lawn” whine about the poor fundamentals of today’s players, especially infielders. He’s been known to shout, “What are you doing?” when a player fails to execute and can definitely hold a grudge when it comes to criticizing certain players. He has weird little turns of phrase like saying, “bases intoxicated” instead of “loaded.”.

It’s as if he sometimes doesn’t think and comments like he’s sitting on his couch talking to a buddy. You know what? That’s refreshing. Unlike most personalities, he isn’t changing who he is or bullshit you for corporate appearances. Keith Hernandez is going to tell you what Keith Hernandez thinks of the game and dare you to tell him otherwise. While he goes a bit overboard at times (he’s faced criticism for asking why a female trainer was in the dugout and referring to a broken bat as a “dead soldier” on Memorial Day), you simply don’t know what he’s going to say next. That’s why you can’t help but listen to him. The Voices to Remember in a New York Baseball Season to Forget