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Welcome to the page for: John Sterling

Voice of Yankees Draws High Ratings and Many Critics

“It is high, it is far.  It is gone!” John Sterling, author of more than a few trademark expressions, says: “I never hear any criticism to my face.”

By BILL PENNINGTON
Published: October 1, 2011

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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.

Swiftly down a private corridor, he marched into the office of Yankees 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 Sterling, who was there to interview Girardi for a pregame show, pointed to it.

“Cartoons? Perfect theme for my highbrow questions,” he said.

Girardi, 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.

About 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. ...”

He paused, then with his face trembling and the booth seeming to shake, he finished: “It is gone!”

Fans in the box seats 25 feet below could hear Sterling yelling 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.

By the game’s end, an easy Yankees victory, Sterling was ready for his signature, closing valediction. Gyrating in his seat, waving both arms over his head and then pumping a fist, Sterling yelped: “The Yankees win. Thuuuuuuuuh Yankees win!”

All in a night’s work — the roughly 3,800th game Sterling has worked since he joined the Yankees, a period during which he has never missed a game.

Within 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.

There is no more polarizing figure in New York sports broadcasting than the idiosyncratic and eccentric Sterling. His 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 praise him.

At the 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 New York 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.

Sterling, 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.

In 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.

“I find 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.”

No game, then, goes by without Sterling 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.”

In 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...”

As for Sterling’s home 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, Sterling quotes from the play “Mame.”

“Say I’m somewhere between 40 and death,” he says. “Well, you can say 50 and death.”

Public 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, Sterling prefers to be imprecise.

“I not only need to work,” Sterling said, “I love what I do and want to do it until the day I die. So, I don’t do age.”

Growing Up With the Radio

His memory for all other details about his life is remarkably sharp.

Raised in 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.

“He made pretty good money, and we probably lived up to it,” Sterling said last week.

Early recollections revolve around the radio.

“My 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.”

He 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.

“I 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.”

Sterling said he had brief stays at Moravian College and Boston University.

“But then my mother died and I was rudderless, so I came back to New York,” he said. “I took some classes at Columbia’s general-studies program, including a class taught by the WNBC program director. I got an A in that.”

He 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 Providence, R.I., and then a general radio talk show in Baltimore.

“I had 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.”

He 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.

“A very good night to be on the radio,” he said.

He 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 Wilkins.

“Dominique is Magnifique.”

“Dominique is Terrifique.”

Sterling came to the Yankees’ radio booth in 1989 and did every game, although his 100 percent work attendance streak began in 1981 in Atlanta.

“I have not missed a game I was supposed to work,” he said. “I am blessed with a good immune system.”

Michael Kay, the Yankees television announcer and Sterling’s radio 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.”

In his time with the Yankees, Sterling has had five broadcasting partners. He has worked with Suzyn Waldman since 2005.

A typical day for Sterling 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 pool.

Sterling was divorced from his wife, Jennifer, in 2008. The couple, married for 12 years, had four children: a daughter, now 13; and triplets, 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.

He attended his sons’ Little League game last weekend. As Sterling 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 Sterling’s hand but conceded, “I’m a Mets fan.”

“You see, even the Mets fans are nice to me,” Sterling said afterward. “I never hear any criticism to my face.”

Phil 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.”

Mushnick rails at Sterling for putting himself before the game, for inaccuracies and for being a shill for the Yankees brand.

“Yankees 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 Sterling begins his signature home run call only for it to be something other than a home run.

“I’ve 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.”

The Passion of a Fan

Hart 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.

“But for 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.”

And he 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.”

Sterling does not own a computer, nor does he have Internet access on his cellphone. He shuns most modern digital or interactive conveniences.

When the 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?”

Sterling 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.

“You would like everybody to love you,” he said. “That’s not possible in life.”

As for his on-the-air mistakes, he acknowledges that they happen. He does not fret about them.

“Anyone 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.”

Asked if 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.”

However they end up, his home run calls have achieved a certain pop status. At Fenway Park last month, as Sterling 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 46 in New Jersey. When the officers saw Sterling in the backseat, they gathered for pictures with him, related their favorite home run calls and suggested new ones.

“It was 3 a.m., and I just wanted to go to sleep,” Sterling said. “But they had me jotting down new rhymes and calls. It happens all the time. What can I do? This is my life.”

Sterling’s world often seems a procession of random, unscripted events. Those around him, including his friends, call him eccentric and different.

Joe Torre, who managed the Yankees for 12 seasons and considered Sterling a confidant, called him a throwback.

“His 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.

“Are the home run calls silly? Sure, but they made me smile,” Torre said.

Randy 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.

“Some 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 package.”

Sterling 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.

Sterling leaned into his microphone and said: “Are there tears in my eyes? You bet.”

Then he added: “But I cry at hockey scores.”

It was classic John Sterling — evocative, engaging, demonstrative and slightly bizarre.

“Well, I 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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