We thank you John: The Voice of the Yankees John Sterling retires after 64 year career

For the past 36 years the soundtrack of the summer in New York was the voice of John Sterling calling Yankees games.

As only baseball radio broadcasters can become, because of the plethora of games and the portability of sound as we move about through the season’s summer months—cars, barbecues, porches, beaches, etc.—Sterling is the beloved soundtrack of a generation. Moreover, his timing, like his suits, was impeccable. He also is the soundtrack of the greatest dynasty of the free agent era, still behind the microphone in the many historic October nights in the Bronx.

However the time has come for Sterling to pass the microphone to the next generation as after a 64 year career, the hall of fame broadcaster signed off for the final time on Saturday afternoon.

Sterling took the field for a pregame ceremony with his family to a roll call that spread from the right-field bleachers to the rest of the ballpark. He received video messages from former Yankees greats Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neill. He was presented with gifts, including an 83-inch television and a Yankees home jersey with the number 5631 — the total number of Yankees games he called on the radio.

Finally, Suzyn Waldman, his radio partner since 2005, introduced Sterling to the crowd. Sterling thanked the Steinbrenner family. He thanked Michael Kay and Waldman, his partners over the past three decades. Lastly, he thanked the fans.

“What I really want to do is to thank you and I’ll tell you why,” Sterling told the fans, who stood through the tribute. “Person after person, group after group, have come to me with kindness, respect and love, and how lucky can you be for people to celebrate what you do for a living? So you, the fans have been phenomenal to me over the past 36 years.”

Sterling, who turns 86 on July 4, explained the unusual timing of his retirement during a news conference before the ceremony, saying it came down to: “I’m really tired, so I’m looking forward to not being on the air.”

“I did it all wrong,” Sterling said. “I should have quit on March 1st or March 15th, but I decided I’d do one exhibition game, which is useless, and you well know, and when we went on that long trip, we went to Houston and Arizona, and, boy, I knew that was it. I didn’t want to work every day — and I told you how long I’ve been working. If you work 64 years and on your next birthday you’re going to be 86. I think it’s time.”

Sterling called 5,420 regular-season games, the last against Toronto on April 7, plus 211 postseason games. Sterling broadcast 5,060 consecutive games from September 1989 through July 2019 after starting with the Yankees as a pregame host.

He called 24 postseasons and seven World Series. He narrated the Yankees’ dynastic run in the 1990s, the final game at the old Yankee Stadium, Jeter’s 3,000th hit and Aaron Judge’s 62nd home run. But he said Saturday’s celebration stood alone in his professional life.

“I never, ever dreamt that I’d be recognized,” Sterling said. “I told my boss earlier this might be the biggest day of my life — outside of marrying Jennifer, of course.”

Clips of his most memorable calls were played. Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter gave video tributes, Tino Martinez presented sterling silver Yankees cufflinks and Kay and Waldman an engraved silver microphone. The entire Yankees team surrounded Sterling for photos.

Sterling is the only voice that generations of Yankees fans know. His energy and creativity along with his brutal honesty when assessing the team created an admiration for the broadcaster from the fans. But his home run calls is his bread and butter.

His baritone voice booming and frequently punching a fist or two in the air to add emphasis, Sterling explained the origin of his signature, exclamatory home run calls.

“It wasn’t meant that way. I just happened to do something for Bernie Williams. He hit a home run and I said, `Bern, baby, Bern!’ And it kind of mushroomed from there. But it never was intended for every player, because, frankly, I’m not smart enough to do something for every player. But I did the best I could, and it’s amazing what started out as — became so big.”

His favorites?

“I did say `A-bomb from A-Rod!’ when he hit a home run and I did say: `Robbie Cano, don’t you know,’ and I think those were pretty good,” Sterling recalled of his calls for Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Canó.

Set aside whatever you think of his technical merits as a broadcaster. To judge Sterling by a conventional rubric  is asinine. The very point of Sterling’s greatness is his originality—and his authenticity.

It may seem to his many critics—and, lo, has the modern world launched too many of the genus with increasing bile—that Sterling is self-aggrandizing, especially given his trademark, over-the-top personalized home run calls. Those critics are wrong. John Sterling perfected the art of being John Sterling. What seems pretentious to a hater is his essence, and as humans we can never go wrong with being the best version of our authentic selves.

Is that not the essence of Sterling? He is himself, and that’s what he sells. Is Sterling a showman? Yes, but a genuine one. He is Broadway John, a devout fan of musicals, stagecraft, lyrics and enunciation. No one has ever emphasized the humble, overlooked article “the” more than Sterling—and not just for his signature “The-uhhhh … Yankees win!’ but even something as prosaic as “the-uh pitch …”

Even at age 85, Sterling came to a baseball game—or to be more exact, behind a microphone—with wonder. He was perpetually happy to be calling a game. Even last season, when the Yankees were a terribly boring offensive team, Sterling would be awed, not distraught, over the absurdity of giving play-by-play night after night where nothing much happened. Every game, every season, every decade, you could hear astonishment in his voice. What a gift for him and for us.

The Yankees were a bad team when Sterling arrived. He called four straight losing seasons with New York—increasing his run of losing teams to eight years—until the Yankees finally won more than they lost. As the Yankees developed into champions under manager Joe Torre, Sterling rose to the challenge and the attention. He loved how the power of his beloved microphone increased with the rise of the franchise. The more the Yankees won, the more baseball suited him, the more he could emote and take creative license. Brightly lit, this was the Broadway he always wanted. Fans came to anticipate his home run calls like fans of pop stars waiting for new songs to drop.

Sterling never played the role of the unabashed homer of an announcer, calling out the Yankees’ shortcomings, obvious or not, and thankfully avoiding the awful use of “we.” He did allow friendships to show, such as with Torre, Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, and there is nothing wrong or unprofessional about that.

More subtly, attuned Yankees fans could tap into the leanings of his heart as the team rose or fell. Many times, I have tuned into a Yankees game and knew whether they were winning or losing just by the level of energy in his voice, a key barometer when he is not so quick to give score updates.

Baseball and the Yankees will move on without Sterling. The game rolls on like some deep, wide river unbowed by even the biggest personalities in its path. But there will not be another Sterling, not because the modern style conspires against it but simply because of the uniqueness of his personality.

A long time ago, Vin Scully told me the best advice he ever received was from Red Barber, who encouraged him as a young broadcaster not to assimilate the styles of the established stars of the field. “You’ll water your own wine,” Barber warned him. And just as long ago, I learned that the greatest broadcasters are sui generis, a Latin phrase meaning “of its own kind.” Harry Caray never tried to be someone else. Neither did John Sterling.

When you are on the air speaking extemporaneously three hours a night for 162 games a year for 35 years, that’s 17,010 hours of content, a veritable bottomless feeding trough for the trolls waiting to find fault. That’s just the nature of modern media.

That is not, however, where a legacy is found. It is found in how you lasted that long. In Sterling’s case, it was showing up every day dressed for an event with a bounce in his step, a gleam in his eye, an encyclopedic knowledge of Broadway musicals and a yellowed noir detective fiction paperback in his leather satchel.

But all about him, even as contrived as the most tortured of his home run calls may have been, was real because of the simple joy he exuded from living out a boy’s dream. Few, if any, broadcasters—especially to age 85—enjoyed being behind the microphone more than Sterling. The wonder in his voice never dimmed.

So John, as you have countlessly thanked Susan, and Yankees fans for decades, we have one last thing to say to you.

We thank you John.

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