Walking through the crowded hallway just outside the locker rooms at Yankee
Stadium last week, John Sterling, unlike most everyone else, was not wearing
a badge, security identification or media credential.
Dressed in a crisp navy blue suit that he plucked from his closet that
morning because he saw President Obama on television wearing a similar one
he merrily waved his hand as he passed attendants at various checkpoints.
down a private corridor, he marched into the office of
Manager Joe Girardi, who rose from behind his desk. An animated children’s
program was playing on the big-screen TV above the desk, and
was there to interview Girardi for a pregame show, pointed to it.
“Cartoons? Perfect theme for my highbrow questions,” he said.
dressed in a T-shirt, shorts and sneakers, laughed and took a seat
shoulder-to-shoulder on a couch beside
Sterling, who in the kingly manner that colors all of
his speech promptly began his questioning.
Sterling used no
notes, and except for an odd reference to Dean Martin, the three-minute
interview was seamless.
three hours later, with a drive off a Yankees bat arcing toward the
right-field seats, Sterling pursed his lips closer to the microphone inside
the Yankees’ radio broadcast booth to shout, “It is high, it is far. ...”
paused, then with his face trembling and the booth seeming to shake, he
finished: “It is gone!”
the box seats 25 feet below could hear
and turned away from the home run to gape at the team’s radio voice of the
last 23 years. It was but a mere warm-up.
game’s end, an easy Yankees victory,
ready for his signature, closing valediction. Gyrating in his seat, waving
both arms over his head and then pumping a fist,
“The Yankees win. Thuuuuuuuuh Yankees win!”
All in a
night’s work — the roughly 3,800th game
worked since he joined the Yankees, a period during which he has never
missed a game.
90 minutes of the final out,
Sterling is usually at home in his apartment in Edgewater, N.J.,
where he lives alone. In public, he always seems undeniably on display, a
tall man stalking through hallways with a booming voice that precedes him.
Late at night, he mixes a drink, revs up the DVR and reclines in the quiet
of his living room to watch the soap operas he missed earlier in the day.
no more polarizing figure in
New York sports broadcasting than the
idiosyncratic and eccentric
home run calls — “An A-bomb from A-Rod” or “Robbie Cano, don’t you know” —
are cultural references that will permanently mark this latest era of
Yankees success. He is unquestionably popular among the cosmic community of
Yankees fans, his presence entering or exiting Yankee Stadium causing the
same commotion as most players’. The ratings for Yankees radio broadcasts
are strong. The team’s management and players routinely and unwaveringly
same time, he has spawned more than 100 Web sites dedicated to denigrating
his emblematic calls and his anomalous broadcasting style. He is the regular
whipping boy of two
tabloid sports media columnists. Radio talk-show hosts play tapes of his
radio calls almost daily, frequently mocking his shtick and picking apart
his missteps, whether they are misidentified players or a hasty, over-amped
home run call on what ultimately became a long flyout.
who has put in more consecutive years as the everyday play-by-play announcer
than anyone else in Yankees history, joins a long list of hometown baseball
broadcasters revered and celebrated for their quirkiness. But the
Sterling experience includes an acidic animus,
all for a broadcaster who does not even appear on the primary resource for
fans following the team: television.
truth, despite the fact that Sterling is a native and now noteworthy New
Yorker, few know much about him and even fewer have asked him what he thinks
about the phenomenon that has become John Sterling.
it remarkable that people recognize me at all or spend time talking about
me,” Sterling said, using his left hand to sign his name and “Theeee Yankees
Win” on more than 200 baseballs, a collectible that will retail for $70
online — and sell out. “I just wanted to be one of the disc jockeys I
listened to as a teen, like the guys on WNEW radio. A voice having fun.”
then, goes by without
reminding his audience — with an omnipresent throaty chuckle — that “you
just can’t predict baseball.” Lately, he has cautioned, “I say this every
game.” But he still adds, “You just can’t predict baseball.”
Sterling-speak, all batters who reach base with no outs should be moved over
one base, and managers, or players, who do not follow this stratagem incur
the host’s contemptuous ire. Sterling likes to umpire, too, as pitches are
often “low but called a strike.” As he does at the end of games, he has a
peculiar fascination with the word “the.” Often before a pitcher delivers
the ball, Sterling
almost hums the word, saying, “Thuuuhh pitch...”
run calls, various languages have been represented. There was Spanish for
Bobby Abreu (“El Come Dulce”) and French for Lance Berkman (“Sir Lancelot
rides to the rescue! C’est lui! C’est lui!”). The latter is a reference to
“Camelot” — citing old Broadway shows is another
Sterling tradition. Talking to Sterling off the radio is not much
different from listening to him on the radio. Asked when he was born,
from the play “Mame.”
somewhere between 40 and death,” he says. “Well, you can say 50 and death.”
records and interviews with associates past and present suggest
Sterling is in
his early 70s.
Sterling, who looks much younger, says he does
not mind speculation about his age, but in a business in which everyone
rightly fears ageism and fibs accordingly,
to be imprecise.
only need to work,”
“I love what I do and want to do it until the day I die. So, I don’t do
Up With the Radio
memory for all other details about his life is remarkably sharp.
Manhattan, where he lived on the
East Side in the upper 80s, he was well read but not a good
student. His father, Carl, was an advertising executive.
pretty good money, and we probably lived up to it,”
recollections revolve around the radio.
family was listening to the radio and I heard a guy with a great voice say,
‘Live from Hollywood,
it’s “The Eddie Bracken Show,” ’ ” he said. “Listening, I didn’t want to be
Eddie Bracken; I wanted to be the announcer.”
played sports but spent many hours by the radio trying to learn from
broadcasters of all types. Because he was a Yankees fan, that included the
voice of the team then, Mel Allen.
studied and mimicked everyone — disc jockeys, news readers, baseball and
football announcers,” Sterling
said. “I used to get teased as a young boy for my deep voice, but I learned
I could use it to adapt to different radio styles.”
said he had brief stays at Moravian
then my mother died and I was rudderless, so I came back to
New York,” he
said. “I took some classes at
general-studies program, including a class taught by the WNBC program
director. I got an A in that.”
prepared an audition tape and within months left school for a job at a radio
station in Wellsville,
N.Y., about 60 miles south of
Buffalo. He soon
hopscotched through a string of tiny radio stations in the Northeast until
he hit it big with his own morning rock ’n’ roll show in
and then a general radio talk show in
no idea what I was talking about in
Baltimore,” he said, adding the inimitable
Sterling snicker. “But I knew how to do a talk show. I argued
with nuts who called up.”
started adding sports talk to the dialogue, which yielded work on some
Baltimore Colts and Bullets games. In 1971, he returned to
New York at WMCA and happened to fill in for the celebrated talk
show host Bob Grant the night of the
Attica prison riot.
good night to be on the radio,” he said.
landed a full-time sports talk gig on WMCA a year later. Not long after, he
was broadcasting Nets and Islanders games. Nine years later, he had moved to Atlanta to do play-by-play of Braves
and Hawks games. Yankees fans should know that before there was a “Burn,
Baby, Burn” — the first renowned
Sterling home run call, for Bernie Williams —
there were these aggrandized descriptions of dunks by the Hawks star
“Dominique is Magnifique.”
“Dominique is Terrifique.”
came to the Yankees’ radio booth in 1989 and did every game, although his
100 percent work attendance streak began in 1981 in
not missed a game I was supposed to work,” he said. “I am blessed with a
good immune system.”
Kay, the Yankees television announcer and
partner from 1992 to 2001, said: “I do 125 games a season, and that feels
like a lot. I don’t know how he has done 162 games a year for 23 years.”
time with the Yankees,
Sterling has had
five broadcasting partners. He has worked with Suzyn Waldman since 2005.
typical day for
starts late because he stays up late. Besides having an affection for TV
soap operas, he is a voracious reader of mystery novels and celebrity
biographies. He tries to swim every day for at least a half-hour. On the
road, it is a familiar sight at the Ritz-Carltons and other fashionable
hotels where the Yankees stay to see a soggy
Sterling striding through the ornate lobby in a
terry-cloth robe, goggles perched on his head on his way back from the hotel
was divorced from his wife, Jennifer, in 2008. The couple, married for 12
years, had four children: a daughter, now 13; and
two boys and a girl, who were born in 2000. The children visit him at his
Edgewater home during the baseball season when the Yankees schedule permits.
In the off-season, he sees them more frequently.
attended his sons’ Little League game last weekend. As
stood on the sideline, other parents came up to him and imitated some of his
home run calls. The manager of another team approached to shake
but conceded, “I’m a Mets fan.”
see, even the Mets fans are nice to me,”
afterward. “I never hear any criticism to my face.”
Mushnick, in his time as a sports media columnist for The New York Post, has
written more than 270 articles about
Sterling. Early in
Sterling’s term with the Yankees, he called Sterling a “dishonest, self-promoting
clown.” In May of this year, Mushnick had updated his opinion: “He is a
narcissistic, condescending blowhard.”
putting himself before the game, for inaccuracies and for being a shill for
the Yankees brand.
fans who like him are people who just want someone to root for the team,”
Mushnick said. “He’s a waste of a great voice.”
Particularly grating to Mushnick are the times when
his signature home run call only for it to be something other than a home
read where he said he likes to be ahead of the call and that it’s more
exciting and entertaining that way,” Mushnick said. “You know what would be
really exciting and entertaining? If he waited until it was actually a home
run before he launched into his home run call.”
Passion of a Fan
Seely is a co-founder of the blog It Is High, It Is Far, It Is ...Caught.
Seely calls himself a Sterling fan. He has for years taped each of
Sterling’s broadcasts to mine nuggets of
Sterling lingo and lore.
“Sometimes, John is like a caricature of a baseball announcer who would be
on a TV sitcom,” Seely said. “I’ve often thought he could play himself on a
TV sitcom and easily win an Emmy.
the serious Yankees fan, he has a lot of appeal. Some people, most of them
not Yankees fans, think that because the Yankees are a flagship franchise,
they should have a network-level announcer who is never a homer. But the
truth is, when the Yankees do something wrong, John rips them, like any
psychotic Yankees fan. At the same time, like a true Yankees fan, when they
win, John cannot control himself. The joy bursts from his breast.”
has style all his own.
“Broadcasters usually skip over the little words,” Seely said. “It’s John
Sterling’s nonplanned, nonsensical genius that he focuses all his energy on
a forgotten word: the.”
does not own a computer, nor does he have Internet access on his cellphone.
He shuns most modern digital or interactive conveniences.
most biting criticisms of his work were read aloud to him as he sat in a
mezzanine-level lounge at Yankee Stadium last week, he looked offended, even
hurt, although he responded flatly: “That’s nice, isn’t it?”
conceded that he once took negative comments more personally. “I wanted to
punch the guy’s face off,” he said. But as he has endured and prospered —
with a radio contract, expiring this year, that pays him about $375,000 with
ancillary income of nearly $100,000 — he has handled disparaging remarks
with more aplomb.
would like everybody to love you,” he said. “That’s not possible in life.”
his on-the-air mistakes, he acknowledges that they happen. He does not fret
doing baseball for four hours talking extemporaneously is going to make
mistakes, and I make my share,” he said. “I’m not reading a script up there.
And, yes, it is my style to be ahead of the play. You can do play-by-play
after the fact, but I choose not to.”
he is embarrassed when he begins, “It is high, it is far ...” and then has
to admit the ball is off the wall or caught, he shakes his head.
“It is a
long call, so I have to start early,” he said. “And in fact it was high and
far and caught at the wall. You know how many games I do and how many
pitches I see? I do my best and hope that it works out.”
they end up, his home run calls have achieved a certain pop status. At
last month, as
walked along the right-field line before a game, players in the Red Sox
bullpen serenaded him with “an A-Bomb from A-Rod” and “the Grandy Man can.”
Returning from a trip the same week,
Sterling had arranged for a driver to take him
home when the car was pulled over at a drunken-driving checkpoint on Route
When the officers saw
Sterling in the
backseat, they gathered for pictures with him, related their favorite home
run calls and suggested new ones.
3 a.m., and I just wanted to go to sleep,”
“But they had me jotting down new rhymes and calls. It happens all the time.
What can I do? This is my life.”
world often seems a procession of random, unscripted events. Those around
him, including his friends, call him eccentric and different.
Torre, who managed the Yankees for 12 seasons and considered
confidant, called him a throwback.
calendar has marks for things that no one else has marks for,” Torre said.
“Like not wearing white shoes after Labor Day. He does a lot of things
nobody does, like dressing for TV every day even though he works on radio.
home run calls silly? Sure, but they made me smile,” Torre said.
Levine, the president of the Yankees, who is currently negotiating a new
team radio contract with several outlets, would not comment on Sterling’s future but called him “a
unique character and a real asset.” The team has the right to approve all
announcers chosen by its radio partner.
people like what John does, some people don’t, but everybody talks about it,
and that’s good,” Levine said. “With John, you have to take the whole
was alone in the booth Sept. 19 when Mariano Rivera set the career record
for saves. Rivera then stood on the pitching mound waving his cap as the
Yankee Stadium fans gave him a standing ovation.
leaned into his microphone and said: “Are there tears in my eyes? You bet.”
added: “But I cry at hockey scores.”
classic John Sterling — evocative, engaging, demonstrative and slightly
do cry all the time,” he said later. “Maybe that’s not for everybody, but
that’s me. So I thought I would admit to it. It’s how I’m going to call a
game. I like living that way. I like caring.”
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