Joe DeLessio
Thursday September 10th, 2015

Back in 1990, when the Bronx was still a zoo and long before anyone had heard of the Core Four, the struggling New York Yankees were headed for just the fourth last-place finish in franchise history. They were getting ripped in the press and on the local sports-talk airwaves, with fans directing much of their ire at owner George Steinbrenner. While broadcasting a Yankees game on the final day of a homestand that June, radio play-by-play man John Sterling, then in his second year with the club, suggested to his listeners that they lay off Steinbrenner and general manager Harding “Pete” Peterson, and instead focus their frustration at the players themselves.

Steinbrenner must have been listening, and he must have appreciated someone coming to his defense when it was unpopular to do so. A few days later, during a rain delay of a Yankees-Brewers game at Milwaukee County Stadium, Sterling ran into the Boss, who had traveled with the team to see his friend, then-Brewers owner Bud Selig: “He said to me, ‘John, I want to tell you something. You’ll always do the Yankee games, and if they ever try to replace you, I’ll veto it.’”

That July, Steinbrenner was temporarily banned by Major League Baseball (he paid a known gambler, Howie Spira, to dig up dirt on former Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield; Steinbrenner was reinstated by MLB in 1993). And in August, Peterson was fired. But 25 years later, Sterling remains at the microphone, having not missed a single game since arriving in the Bronx. He’s the longtime play-by-play voice of the league’s most popular team, in the country’s biggest market. But he’s also become one of the most polarizing figures in sports media for his catchphrase-heavy shtick and occasional on-air blunders.

Sterling knows what people say about him. And he says it doesn’t bother him. In fact, he’d rather people say it to his face.

* * *

Born in 1938 and raised on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Sterling began his radio career at a small station in upstate New York. He eventually landed a gig as a rock DJ in Providence, and later hosted a general talk show in Baltimore. He’d sometimes talk about sports on air, which led to work calling games of the NFL's Colts and NBA's Bullets, back when both teams were still located in the city.

In 1971, Sterling returned to his hometown, and the following year he began hosting a sports-talk show on WMCA. In 1975, he started calling games for the Islanders and the Nets, both of whom then played on Long Island, but he spent much of the 1980s in Atlanta as the play-by-man for the Braves and the Hawks. It was there that he displayed the forerunners to the unique calls that would become his signature. When describing a particularly spectacular play by Hawks star Dominique Wilkins, he’d exclaim “Dominique is magnifique!” or “Dominique is terifique!”

In 1989, Sterling landed the Yankees radio job without an audition, thanks to someone at WABC (then the team’s radio home) who’d remembered his work in New York from the 1970s and had heard him more recently on Atlanta-based TBS. The hire apparently delighted Steinbrenner, who later told Sterling that he’d always wanted him to call Yankees games.

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By the mid 1990s, New York was improving thanks to the homegrown players who would form the foundation of a new dynasty; 1995 alone saw the major league debuts of four players—Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada—who would come to be known as the Core Four for helping the Yankees win five World Series titles. Sterling's calls of those famed teams would help bring him to the attention of fans nationwide.

It was around that time that Sterling began to develop a trademark style. It began with the way he punctuated New York’s victories. After one game during Buck Showalter’s tenure as manager, which ran from 1992-95, rather than simply saying “Yankees win!” Sterling tacked on a few words in his deep, booming voice: “Yankees win! The Yankees win!”

“I did it very straight,” Sterling recalls.

But by changing the delivery, it would soon become one of his signature calls. “One day, for whatever reason, I put a little rock-and-roll into it,” he says: “Yankees win, thuuuuuhhh Yankees win.

“I started hearing it come back,” recalled Sterling on a May afternoon from his broadcast booth at Yankee Stadium. People would yell the phrase back at him from across the street, or tell him that Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo were discussing it on their influential WFAN radio show. “It became a thing, so I kept it,” he says.

Sterling learned early in his career how catchphrases could enter the lexicon: He remembers hearing lines from the TV program Get Smart when he was still a young radio DJ, and even though he himself worked nights and never watched the show, he knew the significance of sayings like “Sorry about that, Chief” and “Missed it by that much.”

A voracious reader—particularly of books about Golden Age entertainers—Sterling cites something comedian Bob Hope once wrote, about how he and his collaborators would say lines during a radio broadcast, and then later in the week hear that same line from listeners. Indeed, the idea that a particular phrase is successful if it “comes back” to its originator seems to inform much of his style.

Consider his personalized home-run calls for each player on the Yankees, which draw on everything from Broadway lyrics to groan-worthy wordplay, and have gotten increasingly stylistic ever since he innocently debuted his first ones, for Bernie Williams, the Yankees’ longtime centerfielder. (One of Sterling’s Williams calls, “Bern, baby, Bern,” was meant as a reference to the civil rights rallying cry, not the song “Disco Inferno.”)

Almost all of his home run calls begin with the lines “It is high, it is far, it is gone.” The personalization follows: When former Yankee Curtis Granderson went deep, Sterling’s call was “Oh Curtis, you’re something sort of Grandish,” a reference to the musical Finian’s Rainbow. Lance Berkman hit just one home run for the Yankees but he still got a personalized call, one owing to the musical Camelot: “Sir Lancelot rides to the rescue! C'est lui! C'est lui!” Melky Cabrera’s homers were announced as “the Melkman delivers.” Alex Rodriguez’s dingers are “A-bombs from A-Rod.” Tino Martinez was the “Bam-tino”; Jason Giambi, the “Giambino.” Once upon a time, only select players got individualized calls, but now that it’s part of his established shtick, there’s demand for more.

“The home run thing has become a cottage industry,” says Sterling. “Now I have to do it for everyone.”

And so as soon as the Yankees add a player to their roster, he’ll start thinking about potential calls, never revealing to anyone what he’s going to use until he says it on the air after the player’s first homer. Everyone around him offers suggestions, some of which he actually uses. When light-hitting shortstop Didi Gregorious hit his second home run as a Yankee on May 23, Sterling used a line fed to him by the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen: “Gregorious makes Yankee fans euphorious.” After that one, a solo shot that came with the Yankees down 15-1 to Texas, broadcast partner Suzyn Waldman couldn’t help go for a playful dig: “Euphorious? 15-2?”

* * *

Such calls have led to criticism that Sterling is more showman than broadcaster. In 2011, though, he told the New York Times, “I never hear any criticism to my face,” and he says that’s still true today.

“I think it’s too bad,” he says of his critics’ anonymity. “I’d much rather hear it from someone, instead of hearing, ‘Oh John you’re the greatest, you’re wonderful, and then [as if turning away] boy, he sucks.’”

Sterling, who does not own a computer, wouldn’t pay much attention anyway to the cruel things said about him online. “The Internet has given rise to people who can say anything they want, anonymous. So if it’s anonymous, I’d never even mildly listen to it.”

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Sterling’s critics, including the ones who attach their name to what they say, can be vicious. Tommy Craggs, then of Deadspin, once called him “the Yankees' godawful radio play-by-play guy...for whom some people have developed an unaccountable hipster taste, like moose antlers.” Phil Mushnick, the New York Post sports-media columnist, has been especially cruel, writing in 2008, “that the ‘Voice of the New York Yankees’ may be the worst broadcaster in professional sports has been a 20-year absurdity.” (Another Mushnick dig, from 2012: “He’d rather holler his asinine nicknames and so-often-wrong ‘signature’ calls so the fools at ‘SportsCenter’ can reward him with a sound bite and a credit.”) In 2011, the Wall Street Journal ran a complimentary piece about Sterling, and the reader response was so negative that they ran a follow-up about it. One letter to the author read: “If Jack Buck, Red Barber and Mel Allen weren't already dead they would have killed themselves after reading your article.”

In general, Sterling says he’s not bothered when people make fun of him, seeing it as a natural reaction to being on-air. “You could say I really don’t take myself seriously,” he says. “I don’t think what I’m doing is helping mankind.”

Try telling that, though, to a certain kind of baseball fan—one who considers the airwaves sacred, and expects every announcer to aim for the tamer standard set by legends like Vin Scully (whom Sterling admires). To them, Sterling represents an ego-driven brand of announcing that’s more about him than the game.

To those who prefer do a broadcast with less flair, Sterling says, “They have a right. Then go somewhere else. That’s not what I do.”

Sterling uses himself as an example. “I have never listened to 15 seconds continuously of rap,” he says. “It’s not music to me. I like Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and yada yada yada, so if someone says ‘I hate your broadcast,’ I’d say, ‘You have a right, turn it off. Big deal.’”

Sterling doesn’t get testy or defensive when his detractors are mentioned. He believes that what he does is all in good fun, which in his mind justifies the theatrics he’s so often criticized for. “The fact that people react to it, don’t you think that’s great, that you hear it come back all the time?”

* * *

On the afternoon of Jan. 21, Sterling parked his car in the underground garage of his luxury apartment complex in Edgewater, N.J. He lives alone—in 2008, he got divorced from his wife of 12 years, with whom he had four kids, including triplets who started high school this fall—and that day, despite smelling smoke, he took an elevator to the complex’s fourth floor. There, he opened a door near his apartment and saw a thick cloud of smoke. “I couldn’t see a thing,” he recalls. “I said to myself, ‘John, you better get the hell out of here.’”

He did, checking into a nearby hotel. He didn’t get to see any images of the fire on television until watching the 10 o’clock news, but he knew things were bad when he started getting phone calls and texts from friends all across the country.

It was a devastating blaze. One of the buildings in the complex was destroyed, permanently displacing about 500 residents, including Sterling. Everything in his apartment was gone, including his beloved book collection, his extensive wardrobe (he’s known for wearing sharp suits in the booth, even though he’s on the radio), and four of his five World Series rings. Only the 2009 ring on his finger the day of the fire remains.

He lost photos, phone numbers and letters. (One of them, he says, was from Erika Eleniak, the actress and former Playboy playmate. Sterling had written to her PR firm, asking them to tell her that he loves her movies and thinks she’s beautiful. She replied with a signed photo and letter.) One night, he woke up in in his hotel in a panic, “petrified” that something would happen to his one remaining pair of eyeglasses. “If I don’t have glasses, I’m f-----,” he says. He quickly ordered two more pairs, which he keeps handy in the broadcast booth, just in case.

A few months later Sterling moved into a new apartment not far from the old one, but he isn’t preoccupied over what was lost. Instead, he’s thankful that no one died in the fire, and considers himself lucky that it happened in the middle of the day, and not in the middle of the night, when he’d have been inside and asleep. “If this occurred at 2 a.m., I wouldn’t be here,” he says.

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The outpouring of support after the fire was almost overwhelming. Among those who offered him a place to stay were Showalter and Alex Rodriguez. WPIX’s Marvin Scott, a fellow longtime New York broadcaster, called to let Sterling know he’d be getting replacements for his 12 Emmy awards. YES broadcaster Michael Kay, who shared the radio booth with Sterling for 10 years, hooked him up with a friend in the clothing business who gave him some new suits. And the Yankees sent over a suitcase, a bottle of scotch and boxes of toiletries.

“The terribleness of the fire and losing everything was mitigated by everyone in the business calling me and texting me,” says Sterling. It made me feel awfully good.”

* * *

John Sterling is 77 years old. For years, he avoided discussing his age, fearing that making it public wouldn’t be good for his career. But various outlets have since dug around and reported it, and “at this point, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “Nowadays, you can’t be fired for age.”

Sterling doesn’t have a lifetime deal. Instead, he’s under contract with WFAN, the team’s current rights-holder, which is owned by CBS Radio, and while the Yankees can’t hire or fire their radio announcers, they do have input.

Sterling says he hasn’t considered retirement (“I think I’ll keel over here [in the broadcast booth]”) and doesn’t care who replaces him (“I wouldn’t care who it is”), but he does know exactly how fortunate he has been. “I’m combining my vocation and my avocation,” he says. “I’m very lucky that I found something I love.”

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