On Monday, the Yankees officially began the second half of their season, and of all the high-priced talent on their payroll, only one person has appeared in every inning of every one of their 82 games.
John Sterling, the distinctive and inimitable radio voice of the team for the past 30 years, who will celebrate his 80th birthday on Wednesday.
Sterling likes to say he is the only living person who saw every pitch thrown by Mariano Rivera and every pitch thrown to Derek Jeter. John Sterling’s work ethic puts Lou Gehrig’s to shame; since 1990, he has not missed a single moment of any Yankee game. That means 162 regular-season games, a few dozen spring training games each season, and over that span, an addition 181 post-season games.
This is actually a reduced workload from the early 80s, when Sterling called the games of both the Atlanta Hawks and the Atlanta Braves. In those days, he averaged 242 games per year.
“I don’t think of it like, ‘I’ve never missed a game, I’ve got to do it,’” he said. “I just get up every day and go to work. It doesn’t feel like work to me. I’ve loved sports my whole life and I look forward to the games.”
But when pressed, Sterling will admit, “I’m kind of proud of the fact that I show up.”
Sterling shares his July 4 birthday with, among others, George Steinbrenner, the late Yankees owner who once told him, “You’ll be here forever,” and with the patriotic composer George M. Cohan, no doubt one of Sterling’s favorites.
But unlike the Boss, who passed away eight years ago this month, it often seems as if Sterling might actually be here forever. And there is no doubt that the Yankees radio broadcasts, which he has shared with analyst Suzyn Waldman since 2005, will never be the same after he is gone.
On what other baseball broadcast – or sports broadcast of any kind – can a listener hear snippets of Broadway show tunes, anecdotes about Frank Sinatra and Al Jolson, and a litany of personalized home run calls for Yankee players that Sterling’s fans, and they are legion, recite back to him from memory?
“That happens every day of my life,” Sterling told me recently. “Every single day! Can you believe that?”
Well, yes. Sterling’s distinctive style is not for everyone, of course. To some, baseball games are as serious as a heart attack, with no room for extraneous information or gratuitous laughs. They are the ones who want their broadcasters to turn over an egg timer in the booth to remind them to repeat the score, the inning and the situation at least once every three minutes.
But for those who see sports the way they should be seen, as fun and games, Sterling’s broadcasts are more like spontaneous symphonies – unpredictable, often meandering, sometimes awe-inspiring and always highly entertaining. And of course, always delivered in capital letters and italics.
Among his recent gems:
- Referring to the Yankees dugout as “The House of Rothschild” as pitching coach Larry Rothschild returned form a trip to the mound;
- Modifying his home run call for Didi Gregorius (“Yes In-Didi! Gregorius makes Yankee fans euphorious!”) with “The is the dawning of the Age of Gregorius!”;
- Remarking that members of the Texas Rangers “run the bases like drunks” after a baserunning gaffe;
- Singing “Solar-tay,” to the tune of Volare, for a home run by former Yankee Yangervis Solarte, and “The sun will come out Tanaka,” from the Broadway show “Annie,” after a good pitching performance by the Yankees Masahiro Tanaka.
Those were just off-the-cuff additions to his well-known trove of classics – “Bern Baby Bern,” the granddaddy of them all; “A Thrilla from Godzilla”; “Jorgie Juiced One,” “You’re on the Mark, Teixeira” and, of course, “An A-Bomb! From A-Rod!”
This season, his most eagerly awaited call was for the Yankees shiny off-season acquisition, Giancarlo Stanton. In anticipation of many home run calls – Stanton hit 59 last season for the Miami Marlins – Sterling consulted with a teacher of Italian to come up with “Giancarlo non si puo stopparlo,” which translated to “Giancarlo can’t be stopped!”
That one was met with confusion, some disappointment and a certain amount of disdain, so naturally Sterling’s response was to double-down. A few weeks later, the great man added a sung portion — “Non dimenticar, that ball sure traveled far, Giancarlo!” – delivered in a more than passable Jerry Vale imitation.
Already knowing the answer, I asked Sterling what the reaction was to his Stanton call.
“Amazing!” he told me.
Really, I said, I heard some people weren’t crazy about it.
“That’s true,” he said. “But the attention it’s getting!”
John Sterling thrives on the attention of Yankee fans, even when it isn’t always positive. Although it almost always is. I have seen him accosted by fans on the street, begging for autographs, reciting his trademark calls back to him, and requesting him to deliver their favorites to them live.
“Think of how good it makes me feel,” he said. “On a daily basis, people come up to tell me how terrific the broadcast is, how much they love listening. They say please don’t ever retire. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
Sterling’s relationship with Waldman is as unique as their broadcasts; for the past 14 years, the two have eaten dinner together, virtually every night, in a ballpark media lounge for the six-plus months of the baseball season. In some respects, their relationship is closer than many marriages, and certainly they spend more time together than most husbands and wives.
“John doesn’t have a mean bone in his body,” says Waldman, who earned a college degree in math and economics and left a Broadway career to become a trailblazing female sportscaster in the early 1980s.
And yet, they are not particularly close in the off-season and lead very different lives away from the ballpark.
Still, they make a point to remember one another’s birthdays. This year, Waldman is presenting Sterling with two gifts he is sure to love. One is a personalized book documenting the events going on in the world when Sterling was born on July 4, 1938, a gift that is sure to appeal to his love of nostalgia.
The other is a collection of boutique scotches, a gift sure to appeal to Sterling’s love of fine food and drink.
(There is little danger of spoiling Sterling’s birthday surprise since he neither owns a computer nor spends any time at all surfing the web.)
But there is nothing Sterling loves more than calling baseball games – and being recognized for it.
In January, Sterling underwent cataract surgery on both eyes, which he says has vastly improved his ability to see the action on the field.
But before the surgery, even the eye doctor couldn’t resist trying out his own John Sterling imitation.
“You won’t see better,” the doctor told him. “You’ll see MUUUCCCH BETTTTTER!”
Needless to say, Sterling loved it.
What more fitting tribute could there be to a national treasure?
Happy birthday, Sterls. And don’t you ever retire!