As hard as this is for many to imagine, back in the 1980s the New York Yankees were one of the most pathetic franchises in professional sports.
The team was owned by a tyrannical loudmouth who seemed significantly more interested in making a buck (and back page headlines) than winning a championship. Managers came and went with staggering regularity and players were treated as pieces of meat, not actual human beings. At the same time Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Keith Hernandez and the Mets were owning the city, the Bronx Bombers were trotting out uninspiring rosters stuffed with overhyped prospects (Hensley Meulens), past-their-prime misfits (Toby Harrah) and, quite literally, every available mediocre middle reliever who'd been given up for dead by other franchises (Cecilio Guante, anyone?).
In other words, the Yanks were a mess -- Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, Willie Randolph and a whole lot of excess junk.
Thank goodness for Bob Sheppard.
When all was bleak at Yankee Stadium, when bushels of tickets could easily be had and the Richard Dotson-Don Slaught battery was the best hope for a good day, Sheppard, the team's public address announcer from 1951 until 2007, reminded fans that, results be damned, these were still the New York Yankees. His sound has been repeatedly described as "the voice of God," and the take is a perfect one. Through the years, dozens of thespians have filled the role of God on TV and in the movies (ranging from Alanis Morissette in Dogma to Tony Todd in Three Chris's), and none come remotely close to matching Sheppard's innate grandeur.
"[He had] a voice that you hear in your dreams," Chipper Jones said Sunday.
Because we are still digging our way out of the festering pile of manure that was the LeBron James insanity, and because half the planet was glued to the World Cup finale, and because broadcasters and reporters and PA announcers generally play secondary roles in the sports we love, Sheppard's passing at age 99 on Sunday probably didn't receive the attention it warranted. But while Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle and Derek Jeter go down as the greatest Yankees of all-time, Sheppard may well be the most important. He was the one who made a trip to the stadium, well, a trip to the stadium; the one whose booming voice suggested to fans and participants alike that this wasn't Milwaukee or San Diego or Oakland; that playing baseball on a field in the Bronx was special.
Or, think of it this way: I've probably covered, oh, 1,000 major league games in my career as a sportswriter. With the exception of Sheppard, I couldn't name another public address announcer. Not one.
As a kid growing up in New York in the '80s, I cherished trips to the stadium, often to revel in Sheppard tackling new and funky-sounding names. To hear him regally state, "Number 13, Alvaro Espinoza, number 13 ..." was a vocal artistic treasure, as was the oral gravitas he brought to -- in no particular order -- Omar Moreno, Claudell Washington, Jim Walewander, Mike Pagliarulo, Lee Gutterman and Orestes Destrade. (His favorite all-time names to say: Mantle, Espinoza, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Salome Barojas and Jose Valdivielso.)
In this age of look-at-me buffoonery, many in Sheppard's shoes surely seek to market and brand themselves. They have been gifted with great voices, and they strive to milk it for all they can.
Sheppard never did. He was, by all accounts, humble and decent, a proud St. John's grad who was active in his church and excessively giving with his time. Unlike James, who clearly likes referring to himself as "King," Sheppard never took the "voice of God" compliments to heart.
Which is why, in hindsight, they were so perfect.