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The best announcer in baseball

The Blue Jays' Jerry Howarth calls the game the way Fred Astaire danced and Jack Benny told a joke; he gives you its essence

JAY TEITEL October 2 2006
THE BACK PAGES

The best announcer in baseball

The Blue Jays' Jerry Howarth calls the game the way Fred Astaire danced and Jack Benny told a joke; he gives you its essence

JAY TEITEL October 2 2006

The best announcer in baseball

THE BACK PAGES

radio

The Blue Jays' Jerry Howarth calls the game the way Fred Astaire danced and Jack Benny told a joke; he gives you its essence

JAY TEITEL

This past year, there was a concerted campaign in Toronto and environs to convince the Baseball Hall of Fame to grant the 2006 Ford C. Frick Award for baseball broadcasting to Tom Cheek, the late and legendary Toronto Blue Jays announcer, who died in 2005 of brain cancer. As a fan, it wasn’t hard to understand the outpouring of affection for Cheek, the Blue Jays play-by-play man from the inception of the team in 1977 to the year before his death. A big, affable man with a voice to match, and a definite human touch, Cheek had also made the most famous call in Blue Jays history, of Joe Carter’s World Series winning home run in 1993: “Touch ’em all, Joe! You’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life!” But when Cheek, a Frick nominee in 2005 as well, failed to win the award, I didn’t consider it the injustice most fans did. For one thing, I’d never loved Cheek as an announcer; he used to drive me crazy with what I regarded as the fatal flaw in radio announcer-dom—he never gave you the score. (“But what’s the f—ing score, Tom?” I yelled more than once at the car radio of a summer evening in the ’80s and ’90s.) And for another thing, I’d always thought the guy sitting in the booth beside Tom for 13 of his 18 Blue Jay years, who would have called Carter’s homer but for the coincidence of the inning—he and Cheek alternated playby-play and colour during games—was worthier of Hall of Fame inclusion. More than that, it says here that Jerry Howarth, the announcing partner in question, is the best radio announcer in baseball today, probably the best baseball announcer overall (including TV), and possibly one of the best

baseball announcers who ever lived.

This claim is not made, certainly, on the basis of great insight or humour or, heaven forbid, large emotion. Jerry Howarth will not illuminate you the way a Joe Morgan will or assault you like Joe Bowen or even endear you to his large-headed, homey soul, like

John Madden. He won’t impress you with the arcana of his vocabulary like Danny Gallivan, or galvanize you with the strange staccato diction of a Foster Hewitt. All he will do is tell you what’s going on. Howarth commentates baseball the way Fred Astaire danced and Jack Benny told a joke; he gives you its essence. As an announcer he is lean, supple, light of tone and nuance, nasal, austere, precise, timeless, and about an inch deep. He is the distillation of baseball, the best describer of the game, especially on the medium the

great CBC broadcaster Allan McFee used to call “Vacuumland,” since Vin Scully. To listen to Howarth do a baseball game is to understand the old paradox: “Why do I prefer radio to TV? The pictures are better.”

Here, for instance, is Jerry describing the action in the bottom of the second inning in a recent game between the Blue Jays and the Cleveland Indians (there’s one out, Shin-Soo Choo of the Indians is on first, and A.J. Burnett is pitching for the Jays):

“Lyle Overbay holds on the runner Choo at first, one out, and Burnett sets. There goes Choo, good jump, the pitch, lined to centre field, coming on Vernon, reaches down, makes the catch, and he’ll just come on toward first, flip it on a bounce to Overbay, now call it two, an inningending double play! Vernon with that Gold Glove looking for a third Gold and he’s probably going to get that and a lot more. That takes Burnett off the hook with the leadoffwalk, and at the end of two it remains Blue Jays 1, Cleveland 1, as you’re listening to General Motors Blue Jays baseball on the Fan Radio Network...” Sounds simple, no? Not if you’re standing on your patio on a summer night, listening to the radio through the kitchen window. With pure concision we’ve just heard—seen— that as Burnett threw his pitch, Choo broke to second to steal, with a good chance of

stealing the base, the Cleveland batter hit a line drive to centre field which Vernon Wells charged and caught just off his shoe-tops, and then without breaking stride, and, because Choo was obviously caught so far off the bag, nonchalantly flipped the ball to first base—so nonchalantly that he threw it on a bounce—to double off Choo and end the inning. An indelible picture with nary an adjective in sight. With the score thrown in.

A couple of innings later Howarth does it again, amending his earlier description of

Lyle Overbay of the Jays scoring a run in the bottom of the third inning on a Bengie Molina flare single:

“it’s 2 to 1 Blue Jays as we go to the bottom of the fourth inning. Shin-Soo Choo’s throw from right field was up the third baseline on a bounce, it was taken by the catcher Victor Martinez, and Lyle arched his thigh, went around the tag of Martinez and then, headfirst, went around toward the plate side with his left hand, slapped the plate and was in safe, a beautiful slide; Molina cut down at the second-base bag to end the inning...”

Howarth produces little gems like this half a dozen times a game. His stock phrases—“There she goes!” for home runs, “The Blue Jays are in flight!” for the home team’s first run in a game, “Call it two!” for double plays, “Yessir!” for any number of positive developments, and his descending, slightly mournful two-note siren “he scores” for all Blue Jay runs—may be a tad cheesy and nostalgic, but they’re also acutely tuned to avoid being conspicuous clichés; they serve the tone, and not the intoner. No modern announcer is less conscious of himself. It’s a little-remembered fact that in the sixth game of the 1992 World Series, which pitted the Blue Jays against the Atlanta Braves, Howarth handed the microphone back to Tom Cheek in the

bottom of the llth inning with the Jays leading 4-2, even though it was still his inning to call, so that Cheek, the original Blue Jay announcer, could commentate the first Jays championship. “I was very pleased to do that,” Howarth said later.

The same modesty is evident in his progression through the announcing ranks.

Born in 1946 in Pennsylvania, Howarth spent his childhood in San Francisco, eventually attending the University of Santa Clara, where he originally planned to be a sportswriter; he only settled on announcing after taping a few football and basketball games and subsequently thinking the play-by-play was so poor that “I said, I think I can do bet-

ter than this.” He did football and basketball play-by-play as well as baseball, but at no time did he appear to fancy himself main act material. Even today, as the main act in the Blue Jays booth, his reticence can be a bit maddening. Interviews with Howarth tend to be studies in ennui; by the end, you’re dying for him to say something distinctive.

He is a patently lovely man, a true gentleman, and the last person on earth you’d probably choose to have lunch with. In other words, the perfect play-by-play guy.

Which makes it even more curious that Howarth has been basically overlooked, and mis-rated as an announcer, by the baseball world. A 2005 USA Today ranking of cur-

rent announcing crews in the major leagues placed the Blue Jay crew of Howarth, Mike Wilner and Warren Sawkiw in 12th place in the American League, out of 14 teams overall. Warren Sawkiw, the crew’s colour man, wins my vote for weak link; a career minor-leaguer, he seems constitutionally incapable of direct criticism of any player; he is a chronic enabler, just too nice a guy. Howarth for his part isn’t nice in the same way at all: his steel appears when the integrity of the game he describes is at risk. Early this season he convinced the scorer at a Blue Jays-California Angels game to change an apparent steal of second base by Jays catcher Bengie Molina (the first for the glacially slow Molina since 2003) to “defensive indifference,” because the Angels hadn’t tried to throw Molina out. And

while more than a few baseball announcers today narrate big plays by visiting teams in flat tones verging on the disgusted, Howarth is steadfast in being as animated-all right, almost as animated—for opposing home runs and defensive feats as he is for the exploits of the home team. He isn’t just a terrific announcer, he’s an honest one, which might be rarer. And which just adds another note of scandal to baseball’s neglect of his excellence.

Howarth’s genius, after all, is based on a baseball “virtue” that is touted as unique among pro sports: respect for the past. Not only is his knowledge of the game encyclopedic, he has an iconic delivery that in a world besotted by overspeak and hype can

appear to be dated. What fast-lane fans miss is the fact that Howarth isn’t old-fashioned but classic. It is, as an acquaintance says, “soothing to turn on the radio and be back in 1930 again.” Phil Rizzuto was quaint. Jerry Howarth is therapeutic.

But he is not momentous, which is his truly big sin. All the legendary calls in sports history—the 1951 New York Giants pennant win, the Lake Placid American hockey victory over the Soviets, the Thrilla in Manila, the 1972 Russia-Canada eighth game—are paeans to drama, larger than life. They escape grandiosity only because the events they described actually are grand. But Jerry Howarth doesn’t have an ounce of hot air in him; he lacks the ability to be a blowhard, and so he’s constrained in the heights he can reach. The final irony is one the man with the strange and perfect voice would probably

HE IS A LOVELY MAN, A TRUE GENTLEMAN, AND PROBABLY THE LAST PERSON ON EARTH YOU’D CHOOSE TO HAVE LUNCH WITH

appreciate himself. Maybe it was only right that he handed the mike to Tom Cheek in 1992, and fortunate that Cheek had it in ’93. I can’t imagine Jerry Howarth calling Joe Carter’s home run any more than I can hear him saying “Henderson has scored for Canada!” He’s not made for the moment of a lifetime, only for the moment of the evening. Counting the playoffs, there are a possible 183 games in a baseball team’s season. Jerry Howarth is right for 182 of them. And that’s good enough for me. M