The news was not wholly unexpected; the signs of inevitability were already being sown.  After all, when a broadcaster soon to be 86 starts missing road trips with regularity, you know that your days being entertained by him are numbered.

Still, the suddenness and finality of the announcement that came from the New York Yankees yesterday afternoon was jarring.  As UPI’s Alex Butler reported:

The New York Yankees said goodbye to John Sterling, announcing that their longtime radio broadcaster retired, effective immediately, and will be honored Saturday before a game against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Sterling called more than 5,600 games, including 5,420 during the regular season and 211 playoff contests. That run included a stretch of 5,060 consecutive games, spanning from 1989 to 2019.

“Fans find a certain comfort in the daily rhythms of baseball,” the Yankees said in a news release. “Day in and day out, season after season, and city after city, John Sterling used his seat in the broadcast booth to bring Yankees fans the heartbeat of the game, employing an orotund voice and colorful personality that were distinctly, unmistakably his own.

“John informed and entertained, and he exemplified what it means to be a New Yorker with an unapologetic and boisterous style that exuded his passion for baseball, broadcasting and the New York Yankees.”

Yankee fans have been polarized by Sterling since he became their radio voice; he actually had an earlier history with them as a pre-game host during their years on radio station WMCA, perpetually a weaker-signaled counter to the much more powerful signals on WABC, WCBS and now WFAN, at least to those still old school enough to listen to terrestrial radio at night.  Sterling clearly falls into that demographic, and his fan base skews in that direction.  I would hear from younger Yankee fans I would encounter at games both in New York and even here in LA that he was frequently making mistakes, his shticky home run calls were effectivley “dad jokes” and he couldn’t go a minute without being what they felt was condescending to his boothmate Suzyn Waldman, who would obligingly offer scoreboard updates sponsored by Bigelow Tea amidst his predictable patter.

But as someone who grew up with the histrionics and homerism of Phil Rizzuto, I personally found Sterling more than qualified to take over that role as a Yankee broadcaster who would inevitably provide something that would spark a reaction, good or bad.  Initally paired with the more traditional Michael Kay, who now heads their impressive TV broadcasts on YES, they were a balanced and entertaining team that narrated much of the Yankees’ 90s renaissance.  Both native New Yorkers, both unabashed fans, and both reveling in their rebound.

And fortunately, there are some younger folks who got Sterling for what he represented, such as what was expressed by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’s Jimmy Traina this morning:

It was a late December afternoon in 2019. I was sitting at my desk in the Sports Illustrated office. My phone rang and the name that appeared read, “John Sterling.”

I couldn’t possibly figure out why Sterling would be calling me since baseball was deep into its offseason, but obviously, I was highly intrigued. Especially since I’ve been an unabashed Sterling fan since I can remember.

After exchanging pleasantries, Sterling told me he was doing some end-of-the-year catching up and he realized that he had never called to thank me for having him as a guest on the SI Media Podcast and for being a fan of his work.

Sterling was a guest on the podcast in August.

But that was Sterling—old school. Even months later, he wanted to make sure he offered a thank you. He called to say thanks. He doesn’t have a smart phone. He doesn’t text.

My own memories with Sterling predate his Yankees’ years, memories which his Mets counterpart Gary Cohen eagerly shared on last night’s broadcast.  Sterling began his New York radio career as a nightly call-in host on WMCA when they weren’t broadcasting games.  They aggressively pursued whatever secondary teams’ rights might have been available that broader stations eschewed, and Sterling wound up as the play-by-play guy by default.   The World Hockey Association’s short-lived New York Raiders, where he was ironically teamed with Yankee pitcher and wife-swapper Fritz Peterson (who just passed away).  The World Football League’s New York Stars, who didn’t even make it through a full season playing night games at a decrepit, dimly lit stadium on Randall’s Island that had to deal with additional shadows even in twilight from the underside of the Triboro Bridge (He didn’t get many of those calls correct, either, not that anyone was listening).  The Piscataway-based edition of the New Jersey Nets  where he’d lose his lunch when the likes of Bernard King or Super John Williamson would provide a spark.  His over-the-top insistence that the Nets were a “gutty, grippy, grimy team” still resonate with me decades later.

His home run calls had their haters, but they also were mandatory Google searches whenever a newly acquired Yankee would hit his first (and over his career, the Yankees made a LOT of trades).  “An A-Bomb For A-Rod”, “Burn, Baby, Bern” for the ever-popular Bernie Williams.  An arguably racist-sounding call for Hideki Matsui, who he christened “Godzilla”.

But he’d brush off his detractors with what would appear to be willing ignorance.  And he kept at it, at least as long as his health allowed him to.

And in my view, what Traina shared here tells you all you need to knowL

This was the final home run call of Sterling’s career. It was a perfect ending because it was one of Sterling’s home run calls that included singing.

The ceremony Saturday will hopefully be upbeat; again, the timing of this so early in what so far has been a surprisingly stellar start for the Yankees certainly calls into question exactly how seriously ill Sterling may be.  He’s emceed dozens of them for others.  I’m hoping his words are more akin to Rizzuto’s retirement ceremony than, for example, Lou Gehrig’s.  Sterling will depart second only to Rizzuto in consecutive years of service as a Yankee broadcasters (Phil reached 40).  That’s more than even Mel Allen.  More than Red Barber.  And, at least for now, more than Kay.
Emotions will be quite high in the Bronx on Saturday.  I’ll be watching, and I sure hope dads and grandparents force their kids to do so, too.  With all due respect, his successor, Justin Shackil, is serviceable but indistinguable.  He was previously the announcer for the team’s Scranton-Wilkes Barre minor league team, and at times he still sounds like he’s calling their games.  Waldman tries to draw him out, but she often fails.  But, in fairness, he doesn’t even try and school her.  I’m personally gonna miss the phrase “That’s baseball, Suzyn”.
Ah, yes, those emotions.,  They’ll be high…they’ll be far…and then…they’ll be gone.

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