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Posts Tagged ‘John Sterling’

Sometimes, I pinch myself. Figuratively though, never literally. Fifteen years ago, I sat in the ballpark across the street and called a Red Sox-Yankees game into my tape recorder. The game was sold out; I rested my scorebook and notes on my right thigh and the tape recorder on my left thigh all while trying not to invade the personal space of those sitting next to me. A good chunk of my play-by-play from that game – Luis Sojo hit a walkoff RBI single in the bottom of ninth off Rod Beck to win it for the Yankees – wound up on my first baseball demo tape. That tape landed me my first baseball play-by-play job. Fifteen years later, I’m on the opposite side of 161st Street at the new Yankee Stadium, eight subway stops from where I grew up, being paid to call a playoff game featuring my surprising Houston Astros squad against the New York Yankees. Sure, it’s “just” a winner-take-all American League Wild Card Game but, in many ways, that raises the stakes. In a seven- or five-game series, losing the first game isn’t the end. However, losing the Wild Card Game is the end. Play six months to get into the postseason and it could be gone – Poof! – after one game, in which anything can happen; if you lose, it’s almost like you were never in the playoffs, the moment so fleeting.

The first pitch from Masahiro Tanaka to Jose Altuve is a ball.

*          *          *

The 2015 season is my 14th year broadcasting baseball – seven years in the minors, seven in the Majors, a play-by-play guy in 10 of those seasons – and I’ve never been involved in a postseason game. As a matter of fact, in only one of the previous 13 seasons had a team I covered finished over .500; the 2004 Kalamazoo Kings of the independent Frontier League. The Kings were in the playoff hunt until the season’s final week. The next year, the Kings won the league title, but I wasn’t there to see it; I’d moved on to the Binghamton Mets of the Double-A Eastern League by then. The B-Mets were in the playoff hunt until the season’s final day in 2006, but they split a doubleheader on that day to finish 70-70 & out of the playoffs.

What I learned this year was that, in the playoffs, the waiting is the hardest part. And the Astros had to wait longer than most to find out what was next for them. Going into the final day of the season on Sunday, there were four possible scenarios involving potential playoff or tiebreaker games in three different cities. After that day’s games concluded, the Astros were locked into the Wild Card Game in New York in two days, on Tuesday. Which meant a cross-country flight from Phoenix, arriving in New York – our third city on what was now at least a 9-day road trip – in the wee hours of Monday morning with a game scheduled for shortly after 8 pm local time on Tuesday. Being exhausted and sleeping through much of Monday morning did make the waiting any easier.

*          *          *

I was in the restroom when I heard it.

Colby Rasmus homered leading off the top of the second, a high, majestic shot to right; that appeared to be more than enough run support for Astros ace, and Yankees killer, Dallas Keuchel. I took my customary break when the top of the fourth inning began, turning the play-by-play over to Steve Sparks – my broadcast partner – which always mean a stop at the facilities. I’d just parked at a urinal when I heard the smooth, but booming, voice of Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling over the restroom speakers announce that Carlos Gomez hit Tanaka’s first pitch of the fourth for a home run. Astros 2, Yankees 0. I’ve been in baseball long enough to know the game isn’t won until the last out is recorded, but I was confident the Astros were going to advance.

*          *          *

I woke up Tuesday morning feeling refreshed. The off-day Monday was needed to get over the grogginess associated with a late cross-country flight from Phoenix and to recharge my batteries after a 162-game regular season which included tension-filled games for most of the season’s final month. Monday was a great day to relax, go for a long walk & visit some friends & relatives in my hometown. Tuesday, it was time to get down to business.

I huddled at the desk in front of my laptop & iPad much of the morning. I updated my notes on the Yankees & made sure I had all the information I needed & wanted. Notes on the Astros’ postseason history and regular-season history against the Yankees were typed. This was my first time preparing for a playoff game, so I was learning as I went. Sure, I’d prepared for plenty of regular-season games, but this was different. How much work should I do for just one game? What information do I absolutely need & what information can be put on the back burner? By the time I closed my laptop & iPad, I felt pretty good about my preparation. I never get nervous for a broadcast if I know I’m prepared. I wasn’t nervous.

*          *          *

A two-run lead with Dallas Keuchel on the mound against the Yankees felt like a 10-run lead. Keuchel – who hadn’t allowed a run to the Yankees in the regular season – didn’t even allow many hard-hit outs. Alex Rodriguez did punish a pitch that George Springer ran down in the rightfield corner. The three hits Keuchel allowed – all singles – were harmless. He walked Astros nemesis Chris Young in the first inning, but that was the only free pass Keuchel allowed. The Astros got Keuchel another run in the seventh, when Jose Altuve poked a low-and-away pitch – a pitcher’s pitch – from Yankees reliever Dellin Betances into leftfield, scoring Jonathan Villar from second base. Keuchel handed a 3-0 lead to the bullpen – good most of the year, but shaky in September – when he departed after six innings.

*          *          *

I really wanted Caribbean food.

Houston is a great city with fantastic restaurants & plenty of ethnic food options, but finding good Caribbean food has proven to be difficult. Since moving to Houston, I’d heard of one Puerto Rican restaurant, which I tried & found lacking. Another Jamaican restaurant I read about on the Internet wasn’t up to snuff, at least not to me. A second Jamaican restaurant recommended to me by a friend had proven to be the real deal. So, Houston was 1 for 3 in the Caribbean restaurant department – a great ratio for a hitter, but not for my taste buds.

Growing up in the Bronx in a neighborhood filled with people from all over the Caribbean, I developed an appreciation for their food & culture. And I was confident I’d be able to find a good Caribbean restaurant near my Midtown Manhattan hotel for lunch before heading to Yankee Stadium for the game. A search on Yelp turned up a Puerto Rican restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen across town. Probably a 15-minute cab ride. Google Maps said it was a 30-minute walk. I was confident I could walk there in 20 minutes.

*          *          *

I felt a sense of calm when I saw Tony Sipp enter the game from the bullpen for the bottom of the seventh. The southpaw finished the regular season strong & matched up well against a Yankees lineup laden with lefthanded hitters and switch hitters. My calm was justified when Sipp worked around a one-out walk to Chase Headley, retiring the other three Yankees he faced in the inning. I was thrilled to see Will Harris enter the game in the eighth. Harris would’ve probably started the year in the minor leagues if it hadn’t been for injuries to other pitchers, but he never saw the minors in 2015, pitching well all year & earning the right to be the eighth-inning setup man in a winner-take-all playoff game. The Yankees went down in order against Harris, the ball not leaving the infield.

One more inning.

*          *          *

I haven’t been a full-time resident of New York City in over 13 years. Yet, getting back into The City’s routine, the hustle & bustle, is never an adjustment for me. As a matter of fact, I look forward to it. The streets were packed, as they always are around lunchtime in Midtown Manhattan. Office workers flood outside in the afternoons, seeking food. Many use their afternoon lunch breaks to smoke a cigarette or two, either in front of their office building or on their way to & from lunch (New York City has the most stringent non-smoking laws in the country, & public sidewalks are just about the only place where it’s legal to smoke outside of one’s private residence. For now).

The City’s geography is always in my head as I traverse Manhattan. For a New Yorker, memorizing the north-south avenues in order is tantamount to knowing your multiplication tables. The Puerto Rican restaurant was on 51st Street, between 9th & 10th Avenues. I left the Astros’ hotel, on 42nd Street, just east of Third Avenue, & quickly made my way to Lexington Avenue, before briskly walking uptown. I use the traffic lights to determine my moves. A red light at 44th Street meant making a left turn & walking west to Park Avenue, where I barely made the light before a red at Madison Avenue forced me back uptown. I made it through the pedestrian plaza that’s become Times Square before shooting up 8th Avenue for a few blocks. Construction on 9th Avenue forced me uptown again. I finally made it to 51st Street, a residential block with one storefront – the Puerto Rican restaurant. The beautiful fall weather meant my walk across town at light speed didn’t cause me to break a sweat or to be out of breath.

*          *          *

Yankees closer Andrew Miller was his usual dominant self in the top of the ninth, retiring the Astros on a harmless fly ball & two strikeouts. As Astros closer Luke Gregerson made his way from the visitor’s bullpen to the mound, the Yankee Stadium crowd was trying to summon up the strength to cheer their team to a rally, but it was obvious their heart wasn’t in it. Sparks pulled out the t-shirt & shorts he wore when he covered the Astros’ Champagne-fueled celebration from the clubhouse in Phoenix just two days prior; it was his job to get post-game interviews with players & coaches during every Astros clinching celebration. I’d just gotten back on the air when Sparks motioned to me that he was heading downstairs to prepare for another postgame party.

*          *          *

I stood behind four other patrons waiting to place their order; there was barely enough room for the short line. The restaurant was dominated by the kitchen & food prep area on the right. On the left was a narrow area with three sets of tables & chairs. One table was occupied by two women who were finishing their lunch. It quickly became obvious I was the only person in the restaurant who wasn’t fluent in Spanish. I felt right at home.

I was in line for a few minutes when a restaurant employee approached me.

“You eat here?” He asked me in a thick accent.

“Yes, I’m going to have lunch here. Not to go.”

“Sit! Sit!” He implored, waving toward a table. “I take care of you. Gimme 5 minutes. You want soda?”

I answered in the affirmative as I followed his instructions. Five minutes later, he asked me what I wanted to eat. I never saw a menu, but I didn’t need one. I settled on baked chicken with yellow rice (arroz con pollo) with plantains. “Maduros,” I told him, meaning I wanted the soft, sweet plantains, rather than the hard, salty ones. The food came quickly & in the large portions typical of a Caribbean restaurant. When I finished, I walked to the counter, which separated me from a short, raven-haired woman. After glancing at the chicken bones & stray pieces of rice remaining on my plate, she asked me if I had a soda. I told her I had. “Eight dollars,” she said. An eight dollar lunch in Manhattan? It’s a miracle!

The walk back to the hotel was a little longer than the walk to the restaurant. A full stomach will do that to you.

*          *          *

When he was with the Astros in 2004, Carlos Beltran turned in one of the greatest postseason performances in baseball history. However, he spurned the Astros for the Mets in free agency that winter & many Astros fans still boo him whenever he returns to Minute Maid Park. So, I’m sure many Astros fans took an extra bit of satisfaction in seeing him strike out swinging to begin the bottom of the ninth. The next hitter, Rodriguez, also struck out.

One out remaining.

*          *          *

I always try to take a 20-30 minute nap before I head to the ballpark. Even if I just close my eyes & don’t fall asleep, I feel refreshed & am less likely to get tired later in the day. Given how excited I was, it was a little surprising to me that I was able to doze off so easily after I slipped out of my shoes, packed my briefcase, fluffed up two pillows & laid face up on top of the bedspread.

Whenever I wake up from my early afternoon naps, I’m like a bucking bronco when the gate opens, & today was no exception. I bolted out of bed, quickly slipped on my shoes & grabbed my briefcase before storming out of the hotel room. After checking out at the front desk, I expertly wheeled my briefcase through the endless pedestrian traffic on my way to the subway station. I happened to arrive on the platform just as the 4 train was entering the station, which, to many New Yorkers, is tantamount to winning the lottery.

After arriving at my stop, I briskly walked to Yankee Stadium. I couldn’t wait to unpack, get settled in & to start my day.

*          *          *

One of the things I love about doing play-by-play is the unpredictability & spontaneity; you never know what you’re going to see & you usually don’t know exactly how you’re going to call something until it happens. I rarely think about what I’m going to say before it comes out of my mouth. Even when I give speeches, I never write them down verbatim; maybe I’ll jot down some brief notes or bullet points if I write anything down at all. However, when the final out was recorded, I knew exactly what I was going to say long before I said it, a rarity for me.

I’d been thinking about Frank Sinatra’s version of “Theme from New York, New York,” which is played after every Yankees home game, win or lose. I used to work in Kansas City, where I covered the Royals; after their wins, they play Wilbert Harrison’s version of “Kansas City” at Kauffman Stadium. The winner of this game was going to play the Royals in the American League Division Series, with the first two games in Kansas City. If the Astros won, I knew what I wanted to say, & it would incorporate elements from both songs.

Brian McCann stood in for the Yankees, their final chance to extend the game. The drama was quickly extinguished when Gregerson got him to swing at the first pitch.

“Ground ball, right into the shift! Fielded by Correa to the left of second. Throws to first, in time! And that is the ball game! Start spreadin’ the news, the Houston Astros win the AL Wild Card Game, beating the New York Yankees three to nothing! Kansas City, here they come!”

A perfect ending to a perfect day.

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My first play-by-play gig was as the voice of the Yakima Bears, a minor league baseball team affiliated with the Arizona Diamondbacks in the short-season Northwest League. The Bears played 76 games in 80 days. Exactly 75 of those 76 games were played at night. As a first-time broadcaster, the season was a grind, but I loved the challenge and looked at every day as an opportunity to improve. Not a day went by in which I wasn’t tweaking some aspect of my preparation or listening to a half-inning of my work or experimenting with different things on the air. My experience with the Bears wouldn’t have been ideal for every first-time broadcaster – some would prefer a more structured environment working with an established broadcaster – but it was perfect for me and, by the end of the season, I felt like I’d developed a solid foundation even though I knew there was still a lot of room for improvement.

Before the season began, I’d come up with several phrases and expressions I planned on using on the air; the only one I remember is “forrrrrr-get it!” for a home run. Once I got on the air, I found myself rarely using those scripted phrases and, when I did, they were usually forced; I found that my best home run calls were spontaneous reactions to what I was seeing. It also took me a while to learn how to show the proper level of excitement on certain plays; I’ve always been very low-key and have never been much of a shouter or yeller. As the season progressed, I learned how to raise my voice to convey what I felt was the appropriate amount of excitement. That summer, I learned the most important tenet of play-by-play broadcasting:

Be yourself.

Several months ago, I defended the play-by-play style of New York Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling, who does exactly what I realized I couldn’t do: use pre-planned phrases. However, that works for Sterling and I think he truly is being himself. When I first heard Gus Johnson call college basketball games on CBS, I didn’t like him; he was very excitable and emotive and I thought he was trying too hard. But, now I’m one of Johnson’s biggest fans; over time I realized that Johnson’s unique, high-energy style matched his personality and that he was being himself. Both Sterling and Johnson are polarizing figures who most fans either love or hate with no in-between, but there’s no doubt in my mind both broadcasters are being themselves. Every play-by-play broadcaster needs to be prepared and descriptive but, beyond that, there are no hard and fast rules for having a play-by-play style that’s well received and will lead to a fulfilling career. Play-by-play is like writing: it’s important to learn the proper mechanics, but success will be elusive until you find your voice. Not to mention, “success” is very subjective and means different things to different people; whether it be working at the network level, calling your alma mater’s basketball and football games or serving as the long-time voice of a minor league team. And, just like one’s style, no one truly knows what will define success for them until they’ve been in the business for a few years.

I’m not sure when over the last decade I realized I’d figured out what “being myself” meant for me, probably because there wasn’t an Aha! moment; it was a gradual process achieved only after gaining self-awareness and lots of experience. And, I don’t even know how to describe what my style is. But, I know it when I hear it. When I listen to audio of games I’ve called, I cringe every time I hear a bad description, a misused word or a mangled phrase. I cringe most when I don’t sound like myself, when I can tell I’m trying too hard because I’m trying to be perfect or because I’m thinking too much about saying something that may sound good on a demo CD rather than focusing on describing what I’m seeing. And, if I don’t think I sound like myself, the listener will eventually pick up on that lack of authenticity as well.

Every now and then, a novice play-by-play broadcaster will e-mail me a clip of his or her play-by-play to critique. I try to help those broadcasters whenever I can; I know what it’s like to feel like you’re calling games in a vacuum, wondering if you’re any good and if you’re getting better. Also, there aren’t very many people who “teach” play-by-play, so critiques combined with carefully studying your work and the work of others is really the only way to learn how to effectively call a game. Most of the broadcasters who e-mail me their play-by-play need more reps and instruction and are still learning the basics of the craft, which is where every broadcaster should start. And, as you get more proficient with the basics of description and preparation, a style will emerge; to be as good as you can be, that style can’t be forced and has to emerge organically. Forcing one’s play-by-play style is similar to lying; one leads to more and, before you know it, the lines between truth and fiction are blurred and you don’t even know who the real you is anymore.

So, when I hear broadcasters screaming at the top of their lungs or unnaturally distorting their voice to convey excitement or using catch phrases for nearly every play or trying to make their voice sound deeper or more authoritative than it actually is, I wonder if they’re trying too hard, a question only the broadcaster can answer accurately (and an accurate answer comes only with the proper level of self awareness). But, over time, listeners figure out who’s being true to themselves and who isn’t. As with athletes, the careers of play-by-play broadcasters top out at different levels depending on a variety of factors. But, no broadcaster who isn’t true to himself or herself will go very far.

If you’re a play-by-play broadcaster trying to move up in the business, someone who’s trying to figure out what your next move will be, remember to always be yourself and to seek honest and critical assessments of your work. You may not go very far in broadcasting – a business that depends a lot on subjectivity and on being in the right place at the right time – but you will find your voice.

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Meeting John Sterling this summer was quite a treat. For years, I’ve heard his bombast, nicknames and expressions on New York Yankees radio broadcasts. But, it’s one thing to hear someone on the air and another to actually meet him or her. Many broadcasters are nothing like their on-air personae. However, talking to Sterling was like hearing him calling a game, only he was responding directly to me.

How you feel about Sterling depends a lot on what you value in a broadcaster. If you value accuracy above all else, you won’t like him. Sterling admits he tries to be “ahead of the play”, calling the action as it happens or before it happens. Play-by-play broadcasters are generally taught to be on top of the play or slightly behind the play, allowing the action to unfold. Being ahead of the play – a style that, to my knowledge, no other play-by-play broadcaster uses – leads to more drama and excitement when correct, but sounds awful when you guess wrong. Anyone who’s listened to Yankees broadcasts for any length of time (or has visited the numerous websites that regularly ridicule Sterling) has heard Sterling break into his famous home run call, “It is high! It is far! It is…gone!” only to hear it altered to “It is high! It is far! It is…caught” because what initially looked like a longball to Sterling was a long out instead.

If entertainment value is what you look for most in a play-by-play broadcaster, you’ll love Sterling. He’s probably best known for his home run calls for Yankees players, all of which involve some sort of wordplay. A blast by Nick Swisher is “Swisherlicious!”, Jorge Posada’s homers are followed with “Georgie juiced one!”, Curtis Granderson’s dingers are “Something sort of Grandish!” Sterling also ends each Yankees victory with “Ballgame over! Thaaaaaa Yankees win!” dragging out the word “the” for several seconds. Those traits, along with many others, serve to bolster Sterling’s popularity with Yankees fans (although there’s a vocal bunch of Yankees diehards who despise him) and increase the frequency of complaints about his broadcasting style, particularly from sports broadcasting critics and fans of the Yankees’ opponents.

I find both the fans and critics of Sterling fascinating. His fans love his catchphrases and look forward to what his home run calls will be for the newest Yankees players. Many of his fans also feel Sterling’s calls add drama and excitement to Yankees games. Sterling’s critics deride his frequent mistakes – most of which are the result of Sterling’s desire to be ahead of the play. Those critics often use words like “homer” and “unprofessional” to describe the Yankees voice.

Since I’ve done play-by-play for 10 years – seven of them in baseball – many would assume I dislike Sterling’s broadcast style. After all, I don’t think I’ve met another play-by-play guy who has kind words to say about Sterling. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend that young play-by-play broadcasters emulate many elements of Sterling’s style, I think there is a lot that can be learned from him.

For one, I have a tremendous amount of respect for play-by-play broadcasters who’ve been able to work for decades calling major professional sports. Not only has Sterling called the Yankees on the radio since 1989, he also did play-by-play for Atlanta Braves baseball and Atlanta Hawks basketball in the 1980s and Baltimore Bullets and New York/New Jersey Nets basketball and New York Islanders hockey in the late 1970s and early 1980s. All told, Sterling’s been calling games for more than three decades. And, you don’t stick around for three decades if you’re a talentless, unprofessional hack.

And what does “unprofessional” mean anyhow? I’ve heard and read several who’ve described Sterling as unprofessional, and I don’t buy that at all. An unprofessional play-by-play guy does little or no research and doesn’t know much about the teams or players. I don’t get that impression when I listen to Sterling. I know he doesn’t spend much time in either team’s clubhouse before games, but there are several very good and professional broadcasters – mostly those who are older and more established – who don’t. I’ve seen Sterling prepare and I know he’s a voracious reader of each team’s daily media notes and of the media guides. Could Sterling do more to prepare? Sure, but I don’t think you can say he doesn’t prepare at all, or enough, so I don’t buy the “unprofessional” rap some have given him.

Sterling has also been called a “homer”, because his calls are heavily slanted in favor of the Yankees. While I agree Sterling openly roots for the team that signs his checks I wouldn’t call him a homer. In Confessions of a Baseball Purist, the wonderful autobiography of legendary baseball play-by-play broadcaster Jon Miller, Miller says a broadcaster is a homer if he only views things from the perspective of his team; everything his team does is good and everything going against his team is bad. However, I’ve heard Sterling criticize Yankees players on numerous occasions. He’s especially critical of players who don’t properly execute the fundamentals – moving runners over, throwing to the correct base – whether they play for the Yankees or not. While I think Sterling may embellish the good deeds of the Yankees a bit too much, I wouldn’t call him a homer.

Many have also described Sterling as “being bigger than the game.” In other words, Sterling is more interested in being the story than he is in letting the game be the story. Now that it’s possible to watch every Major League Baseball game on television or on the internet, most radio baseball play-by-play guys aren’t well known outside of their local market. However, Sterling’s calls are regularly played on ESPN and the MLB Network and on sports-talk radio shows across the country. Sterling’s calls have appeal because of his unique and unmistakable sound and because he’s called games for the Yankees – one of the most prominent and polarizing franchises in professional sports – during one of their most successful eras. I would agree Sterling’s acting like he’s bigger than the game if I thought he was intentionally embellishing his calls so that they’d get more play nationally, but I don’t believe that he is. I think Sterling loves the attention his work has gotten – what broadcaster wouldn’t? – but I don’t think Sterling has altered his style so he can get more attention.

What I like most about Sterling is he is unapologetic for his play-by-play style. While many would consider Sterling’s style to be shtick, he insists that it isn’t. And, I tend to believe him. I think what we’re hearing from Sterling on the radio is Sterling being himself. Sterling’s had the Yankees play-by-play job much longer than he’s had any other play-by-play job and, as a result, he’s gotten comfortable, which has allowed his personality to come out. When you hold a play-by-play job for a brief time and/or aren’t sure how long you’re going to be around, you’re much more likely to play it safe and close to the vest. While it may seem like being careful will keep you employed longer, in many cases, it doesn’t. The play-by-play broadcasters who last, the ones who make an indelible impression, are the ones who let their personalities shine through in their work. I don’t like every one of Sterling’s on-air mannerisms, but I don’t doubt their authenticity. Some things Sterling does – namely, the unique home run calls for each player – have taken on a life of their own, but Sterling still seems comfortable with what he’s doing.

The hardest thing for a play-by-play broadcaster to do is find his or her voice. Too many broadcasters try to sound like someone they aren’t and are completely different off the air than they are on the air. If Sterling had the same broadcasting style, but wasn’t being himself, listeners would see through it and he wouldn’t be very successful. The main reason Sterling resonates is because he’s himself. And, I think that’s the most important lesson other play-by-play broadcasters can learn from Sterling.

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