The poetic stylings of John Sterling

With new Yankees on the team, one rite of spring involves John Sterling’s home run calls. We wait to hear what the announcer dubbed Pa Pinstripe can come up with, and invariably it will make us groan. We’ve heard “Russel has muscle” and “Andruw Jones makes his bones” already this year, and Eric Chavez has yet to homer. As part of The Sports Section’s coverage of Opening Week, New York Magazine writer Joe DeLessio explored the seven types of Sterling’s home run calls. It is, well, something.

I’m pretty sure DeLessio hit on the entire oeuvre. He talks rhymes, plays on players’ names, alliteration, foreign languages (that make little sense in English), the ever-popular Granderson cultural references, references to Babe Ruth and, of course, made-up words. At least it’s not Hawk Harrelson.

Is the end for Sterling and Waldman nigh?

Ed Murawinski's poster of Suzyn Waldman and John Sterling affectionately dubbed the pair Ma & Pa Pinstripe. (Murawinski/Daily News)

Few members of the Yankees’ extended family elicit more debate and dissension than John Sterling and his Yankees Radio Network compatriot Suzyn Waldman. We’ve gone on the record wondering if the Yanks could do better but recognize that we’ve been stuck with Sterling for better or worse. Some people love his histrionics and gregarious radio voice while others would prefer that Waldman and Sterling work on their descriptive abilities and call the game as its played instead of the game in their mind. According to one recent report, though, we may be nearing the end of the Sterling-and-Waldman Era.

Bob Raissman, the well-sourced sports media columnist for the Daily News, questioned the future of Ma & Pa Pinstripe in his column on Saturday morning. The team’s radio deal, estimated at an annual worth of $12 million, with WCBS AM 880 expires after the 2011 season, and so too do Sterling’s and Waldman’s employment contracts. As Raissman puts it, Hal Steinbrenner’s Yankees are in no rush to renew the deal if the finances aren’t just right, and the team may be willing to let its next radio partner pick the broadcast voices.

“The Yankees regime, led by Hal Steinbrenner, will be more concerned with obtaining maximum dollars in a new radio deal than who the broadcasters are,” Raissman says. “Loyalty ain’t even a factor here.”

It will be interesting to see how this storyline plays out. Sterling and Waldman were George’s people through and through. Steinbrenner loved Sterling’s personality and his campy approach to Yankee games, and Waldman has been an organizational favorite and a female trailblazer in sports media for nearly two decades. Compared to the stars they cover, they don’t earn large salaries, but if another station wants to build its own identity, it sounds as though the new generation of Steinbrenners would have little use for the old.

And what might that new station be? Raissman reports of a potential change and one that would not be welcomed by many Yankee fans. “Outside of WCBS, which probably wants to keep the Yankees, it’s highly likely ESPN will – if it hasn’t already – stick its beak into the mix. For ESPN-1050, the process of trying to chip away at WFAN, longtime Mets rights holder, has not been easy,” he reports. Adding Yankees radiocasts to the mix of Jets, Knicks and Rangers would help change the equation – drastically. But how much would ESPN be willing to pay for the radio rights to Yankees baseball? And would pinstripe honchos be satisfied having their games go out over ESPN-1050’s weak signal?”

WEPN 1050 AM has a notoriously weak signal in the New York area. While WCBS 880 AM is one of the FCC’s clear-channel class A stations that doesn’t face competition for signal strength in the eastern half of the United States, WEPN isn’t so lucky. This class B signal is limited by a station in Philadelphia at 1060 on the AM dial, and it must avoid pointing or powering up its signal to the southwest due to the clear-channel status of an AM station in Nuevo Leon, Mexico. Listeners near Boston and Washington, DC, can hear WCBS while residents in Monmouth County, New Jersey, have trouble with WEPN.

Right now, this contract status isn’t a very big issue. The team has another year left, and Sterling and Waldman will be around for it. How this is eventually resolved though will be an indicator of how things have changed business-wise for the Yanks after the passing of King George. Hal’s approach could be much, much different.

WCBS 880 tops MLB cumulative radio ratings

Seemingly in spite of themselves, John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman are reeling in the listeners. Arbitron, the radio ratings board, has released listener totals for the first half of the baseball season, and more fans tune in for Yankees games than for any other team. According to their estimates, from April 4 to June 23, an average of 441,000 listen to the Bombers. That figure eclipses the second-place Mets by 72,500 fans per game. The Cubs, Tigers and Angels round out the top five.

As for market share, though, neither the Yankees nor the Mets can crack the top 15. In baseball’s target demographic — men between the ages of 25 and 54 — nearly 25 percent of Cincinnatians listening to the radio at that time tune into Reds games. Because millions of people live in New York radio, the lofty listener totals just can’t catch up.

For the Yankees, these high figures mean one thing: More money. Armed with more precise data than ever before, the Yankees and WCBS will be able to milk more money out of the team’s radio broadcasts. “As advertisers look to capitalize on this year’s pennant race, professional baseball on the radio delivers large numbers of listeners for every game,” Arbitron Sports Manager Chris Meinhardt said in a statement. “Arbitron’s Mid-Season PPM Radio Listening for Pro Baseball reports the average game audience for each team.”

Now, if only the team would do something about the quality of their radio announcers. (A tip o’ the hat to Rob Iracane at Walkoff Walk.)

The John Sterling conundrum

John Sterling, left, is everywhere he shouldn't be. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Few members of the Yankee organization generate as much vehement debate as John Sterling. The so-called radio voice of the Yankees is either beloved by those who enjoy his colorful descriptions of the game or hated by those who can’t stand his theatrics. As the old saying in New York goes, the Yanks play two games: the one on the field and the one John Sterling calls.

Over the last few years, we’ve debated John Sterling now and then. Most fans seem to view him as that mildly annoying guy that everyone tolerates but few truly embrace, and over the course of the season, it’s mostly a moot point. I’m not exposed to Sterling on a very regular basis, and neither are too many fans.

This week, though, Sterling aroused the ire of the sports media watchers who obsess over the Yankees. During the team’s appearance at the White House, Sterling, as the above picture shows, was front and center as President Obama toasted the Yankees. Afterwards, everyone was fairly appalled. Columinists Phil Mushnick and Neil Best along with Pinstripe Prophets’ blogger Charlie DeBiase all took Sterling to task for making Monday’s ceremony more about him than it should have been.

“Looking like a wax figure,” Mushnick wrote, “Sterling was posed and positioned so perfectly and prominently in the Yankees/President photos and videos you’d have recalled that he made the catch on Bill Mazeroski to end the 1960 World Series, then, in 1996, sold his playoff seats to Jeffrey Maier’s dad.”

While Best excused the team for not thinking clearly and simply arranging everyone in height order, the Newsweek media watcher urged the team to consider who is truly important to the team’s success. “I have no doubt they are valued members of the Yankees’ extended family,” he wrote. “But it was an awkward look, one players who were out of the frame could not have appreciated.”

Therein lies the rub. John Sterling is, for better or worse, a member of the Yanks’ extended family, but he comes across, according to many in the industry who have met him in various capacities, as thinking that his histrionics are responsible for the team’s success. If he didn’t have an outlandish home run call for the Yanks’ sluggers or if he didn’t make every fly ball “high….far…..and caught at the warning track,” the team wouldn’t win. But he’s not that important to the team. He’s just the guy that keeps people entertained while they’re driving in the car, sitting outside on a warm day or making a pit stop in the bathroom for a few pitches during some inning in the game.

Maybe that’s why I personally have never warmed up to Sterling. The game is about the guys on the field; it’s not about him. But on the radio and at the White House too, it’s always about him.

Edit by RAB: This post was updated at 11:41 p.m. with more information on sourcing.

The great John Sterling debate

As part of its coverage of the Yankees, the Associated Press wrote up a profile of John Sterling, the so-called silver-tongued voice of the Yankees. Although I’m not a Sterling fan, the piece is fairly amusing. Nick Swisher, in discussing how he was anticipating his own Sterling-ized home run, makes the Yanks’ play-by-play man come across as a cult figure, and amusingly enough, Joe Torre calls Sterling “oblivious.” No matter your thoughts on Sterling, the man has some staying power. Now 61, he has been calling games in the Bronx for 21 years.

So as we await the evening games, allow me to pose a question on John Sterling: Do you like him and his over-the-top play-by-play style? Earlier this season, we wrote about how the Yanks play two games every night: the one on the field and the one in John Sterling’s mind. Yet, the man has his fans, and outside of Derek Jeter, for better or worse, he is one of the most recognizable parts of the Yankee organization. Whether that is a good thing, I do not know.

Grading Sterling

When the Yanks clinched the AL East Sunday evening, John Sterling let out his usual “Thaaaaaaaa Yankees Win!” warble, with an added twist to include the division race. It was arguably his most … um … enthusiastic call of the season, and Joe DeLessio of The New Yorker graded it out. Despite the lack of buildup leading up to the moment (everyone knew they’d clinch, eventually), Sterling still walks away with a sterling 26.5 pts out of 35, pun intended. Give it a listen and a read, nice laugh to end the workday.

Can’t the Yankees do better than John Sterling?

The Yankees are the richest franchise in baseball. They spend upwards of $200 million annually on payroll. They just built a new Stadium, and have furnished it with the finest accommodations. Yet there is one area where the Yankees have skimped: their play-by-play men. This criticism is particular to radio man John Sterling, of whom Post columnist Phil Mushnick has had enough. I’d like to second Mushnick’s motion to remove Sterling from the booth.

This, of course, will never happen. Sterling has been the radio play-by-play man for the past 20 years, and has a contract which reportedly runs through 2011. Still, his shortcomings have become more pronounced over the past few seasons, to the point where there is now a blog named for his poor calls. But because Sterling is so entrenched in the Yankee family, there is no chance of him going anywhere, no matter how many errors he makes in describing the scene.

Mushnick shares a handful of examples from this past weekend alone. The most egregious came during Saturday’s game, when Sterling mistakenly called Hideki Matsui‘s double a home run. This coming on a ball that didn’t even hit the wall on a fly. Matsui ripped it, no doubt, and Sterling fired up the home run call, beginning with “It is high,” proceeding to “it is far,” and then finishing with the exclamation, “It is gone!” But it wasn’t. Yankees fans have grown accustomed to this false call, though most of the time Sterling utters the first two, but concludes with “it is caught,” many times before the warning track.

Another example Mushnick describes is one I experienced personally on Friday night. Waiting outside Gate 8 for my friend to show up, I was stuck listening to Sterling’s call. There’s really nothing worse than standing right outside Yankee Stadium and having to hear Sterling describe what’s happening just beyond the wall. Derek Jeter, leading off the bottom of the first, hit a liner to left. Denard Span caught it at his waist, but the way Sterling described it I was sure Jeter had doubled off the wall. A train screeched by at that point, so I wasn’t able to hear his correction. It wouldn’t have been necessary had he gotten the call right the first time.

Sterling is also wont to blame others for his own blunders. If the scoreboard count is incorrect, forget about it. He’s John freaking Sterling, he doesn’t need to keep track of the count. Never mind that he has the YES monitor right in front of him. This leads to another criticism. Last week, I believe against Toronto but it could have been Baltimore, the home plate ump was signaling strikes by putting up a fist in front of his chest. This apparently annoyed Sterling, since he couldn’t see the ump’s call. Far be it from him to look at the monitor to see the call.

Not only does he regularly bungle calls throughout games, but he also apparently 1) has no memory of the recent past, and 2) doesn’t bother to learn the players on the roster. On May 7, in a tie game against the Rays, Jose Veras trotted out for the ninth, which would have been his third inning of work. This was just to buy a bit more time for Mariano Rivera, and pretty much everyone knew that. Sterling probably did, too, but he commented that he couldn’t remember the last time Veras had pitched three innings. This would have been a benign comment had Veras not pitched back-to-back three-inning affairs just two weeks before. He pitched three innings on April 18th against Cleveland, in the blowout game, and then pitched 3.1 in the 14-inning game against Oakland. Regarding knowledge of the roster, my dad called me from the Jersey Turnpike during Spring Training, bemoaning Sterling’s lack of knowledge about Mike Dunn, who had just entered the game. Is it so much to ask a guy whose job is to talk about the Yankees to know the players on their 40-man roster?

We could take all day and chronicle the shortcomings of John Sterling, and some of us might have fun doing so. Yet no matter how much we complain about his errors in the booth, he’ll still be ready to go at 7 p.m., as he is most weeknights — the man hasn’t missed a game yet. However, the entire issue boils down to this: John Sterling’s ego is so massive that it gets in the way of his ability to call the game. Like Tim McCarver, Sterling is in love with the sound of his own voice. That sometimes leads to unintentional humor, like his drawn out “off the mezzzzzzzanine” calls when home runs hit off that part of the park, or like IIH, IIF, IIC’s Warble Index. Most of the time, though, he’s too busy mocking people who think about and analyze baseball to accurately call a game.

Mushnick sums up his stance thusly:

But something’s gotta give — either Sterling gets better (most unlikely), gets his time reduced by a fresh voice (why not?) or gets out.

And the idea that New York baseball fans, the last 20 years and counting, deserve better is too parochial. What baseball fans, and where, deserve this?

The answer to Mushnick’s rhetorical is no one, anywhere. This goes especially for the Yankees. The team is rich enough to bring us multiple $100-million players and a ritzy new Stadium, but can’t find the courage to remove a force which has been detracting from their brand for the past five, ten years? That’s what kills me the most: the Yankees talk endlessly about their powerful brand, yet that brand is represented in large part by John Sterling. He is like an ambassador for the team, spreading their message via AM radio waves. And on an almost nightly basis, he embarrasses that brand.

Yankee fans deserve better. They deserve to have games called accurately by someone or someones who understand not only the Yankees, but baseball as a whole. They deserve someone who will do his or her homework and bring fresh ideas to the fans who listen by radio. They don’t deserve John Sterling and his ego. Unfortunately, we’ll have to deal with it for at least two more seasons after this one.

And to think, we almost had Vin Scully.

Just for kicks:

The jiggle

Jim Norton on the irritating Sterling