"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: Bob Sheppard

Behind the Mic

Being a broadcaster has been a dream of mine going back to childhood. Perhaps I’ve mentioned it here and there in four years’ worth of columns here at the Banter. From hosting a college football audio chat show with Terry Bowden — now, this would be equivalent to a podcast — to doing web-specific video and actual TV fill-in work for Chris Shearn while at YES, to doing guest spots here on Bronx Banter TV and other SNY blog bits, I’ve been fortunate to have had a wide range of on-air experience, even though being on the air wasn’t the sole focus of any job I’ve had. It was a nice diversion.

Back in college, I did play-by-play, color commentary, anchoring and reporting for about a dozen Ithaca College and Cornell sports for Ithaca College television and radio. The best experience, though, was the five months I spent in Los Angeles as public address announcer for UCLA Baseball. I was lucky enough to announce every home at-bat for Chase Utley and Garrett Atkins that season, as well as visiting at-bats from Mark Teixeira (Georgia Tech), Xavier Nady (Cal), Eric Munson (USC), David Parrish (Michigan), and Joe Borchard (Stanford); and pitchers Justin Wayne and Jeremy Guthrie (Stanford), Kirk Saarloos (Cal State Fullerton) and the inimitable Barry Zito (USC). All the while, I had Bob Sheppard on my mind as the singular person to emulate for doing public address for baseball.

SHAMELESS BOOK PLUG ALERT: It’s probably worth noting that my entry in the Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories compilation is about a chance meeting with Sheppard.

On Dec. 2, I was awarded another break on the announcing front. I’ve been doing corporate voiceover work at my current job, which also provides a connection to the New York Islanders, perhaps my favorite team of all the teams for whom I hold an allegiance. I attended games for years as a kid while my uncle had season tickets in Section 310, Row O. I still have the ticket stub and promo giveaway from January 2, 1986, when Denis Potvin was honored for breaking Bobby Orr’s record for points by a defenseman. That night, Mike Bossy scored his 500th goal. I was there the night Bossy’s number 22 was retired. April 24, 2002, Game 4 versus the Maple Leafs, the night of the Shawn Bates game-winning penalty shot goal, was one of the first dates for my wife and I.

I auditioned for the backup public address gig earlier this year and am on standby for any of the 41 home games this season. My debut came this past Thursday against perhaps the team I hate the most as a fan on any level, in any sport: the New York Rangers.

I was nervous. I was excited. I was afraid I would unload a “The Rangers Suck” over an open microphone when the organist played “The Chicken Dance” and Islander fans at the arena invariably launch that chant during the break in the music. Sitting rinkside among the off-ice officials, being credentialed, I had to put my fandom away for an evening, as I had to do for so many years covering the Yankees.

Hockey is much different than baseball, and it has nothing to do with the differences in the playing surfaces. The pace of the game is much faster. The regular-season affair was way faster than the intrasquad scrimmage I worked 2 1/2 months ago for my audition. More than anything, though, the role itself is different. The PA Announcer doesn’t effect a hockey game like he does a baseball game. For example, player changes happen on the fly. It’s not as if the coach needs to wait for the PA Announcer to announce a player into the game in order to make a strategic move. The role is more of an MC, an in-arena host. You’re the voice of the arena, and as part of the Game Event staff, responsible for providing the atmosphere that shapes the fan’s experience at the venue.

With that said, there are similarities to the role between sports: There’s no margin for error with the reading. You can’t operate under the assumption that people can’t hear you or worse, aren’t listening. The timing has to be spot-on. There’s a game event rundown and an outline of what’s happening and when — all stuff within the flow of the game that doesn’t happen on the field or the ice — that requires precise execution. Communication between the Game Operations staff and the PA Announcer, which like a television production takes place via closed-circuit headset/intercom, has to be frequent, clear and concise. If you can’t compartmentalize, you’re doomed.

The stuff within the game, that’s actually the easiest part. There’s no time to think. It’s action-reaction. You have to pay attention at all times. In fact, the part I was least worried about heading into the Islander-Ranger whirlwind was the game itself: announcing goals, penalties, times of each, video replays, timeouts, etc. Having watched hockey since I was 5, I’m comfortable with the French-Canadian, Russian and European names that pervade NHL rosters.

There wasn’t room to create my own style for the first gig. Referring back to my baseball experience, I couldn’t draw on the subdued style of Sheppard. I couldn’t draw on John Condon from Madison Square Garden or John Mason, who has made “Deeeee-troit Baaaas-ket-ball” a household piece to the experience at the Palace of Auburn Hills. I drew mostly from the current PA Announcer, Roger Luce. He’s got a deeper, richer voice than me, but his delivery isn’t that much different from what he does every morning on WBAB here on Long Island. He’s just a solid pro. I wasn’t out to copy anyone, but to just be myself. I wanted to bring enthusiasm to the game, feeding off the energy that only a Rangers-Islanders game can provide.

The one thing that was said to me prior to the game — in a sarcastic tone, but dead serious — was “Don’t screw it up.” Did I make mistakes? Yes. But they weren’t glaring. After 25 years of training, I’m rarely uncomfortable behind a microphone. I validated myself, which above all else, was my goal. After watching a recording of the game, I know exactly where I need to improve if given the opportunity to do it again. I’ve already worked on some templates to standardize a few things to help my in-game performance.

The road probably wasn’t easy for Sheppard, Condon, Mason, or Luce, either. Sheppard was a linguistics teacher. Condon, in addition to his PA duties for the Knicks, was the boxing publicist at the Garden before becoming president of boxing at MSG in 1979. Mason and Luce are radio personalities, with distinctive and familiar voices to their fans. Like Condon, I’m fortunate to work in a place that provides a direct line into the organization. It’s a great diversion that keeps up my broadcasting chops, much like writing this column allows me a forum to maintain my writing chops. I can only thank the gentlemen mentioned in this column for giving me a canvas.

Thursday, Dec. 2 was a tremendous escape. More than anything, it was an opportunity to be a part of my favorite team. And it was a blast.

High and Mighty

I missed this when it was first posted  but it’s still worth noting–Roger Angell on Bob Sheppard:

Up in the pressbox, every night ends the same way. Herb Steier, a retired Times sports copy editor, comes to every game and sits motionless in the third row, his hands in front of him on the long table. He doesn’t keep score but watches the action intently, with bright, dark eyes. When the ninth inning comes, he gets up and stands by the railing behind the last row of writers, near the exit, and after the potential final batter of the game has been announced, Bob Sheppard, the ancient and elegant Hall of Fame announcer, comes out of his booth and stands next to him, with a book under his arm. (He reads novels or works of history between announcements.) Eddie Layton, the Stadium organist, is there, too, wearing a little skipper’s cap. Eddie has a private yacht—well, it’s a mini-tug, called Impulse—that he keeps on the Hudson, up near Tarrytown. He gets a limo ride to the Stadium most days from his apartment in Queens—it’s in his contract—and a nice lift home with Bob Sheppard and Herb Steier at night. Eddie and Bob Sheppard make a bet on every single Yankee game—the time of the game, the total number of base runners, number of pitches by bullpen pitchers, whatever—but won’t tell you which one of them is ahead. The stakes are steady: a penny a game.

Steier is Sheppard’s neighbor, out in Baldwin, Long Island, and he drives him to work every day and home again at its end; they’re old friends. Sheppard, a stylish fellow, is wearing an Argyle sweater and espadrilles tonight. This is his fiftieth year on the job at Yankee Stadium, and once in a while I ask him to enunciate a player’s name for me, just for the thrill of it. “ ‘Shi-ge-to-shi Ha-se-ga-wa,’ ” he’ll respond, ringing the vowels. It sounds like an airport.

The instant the last batter strikes out or pops up or grounds out Sheppard and Steier and Layton do an about-face and depart at a slow sprint. Out the door they go and turn right in the level corridor, still running. A few kids out there are already rocketing down the tilted runways. “Start spreadin’ the noooss…” comes blaring out from everywhere (the Yanks have won again), but Bob and Herb and Eddie have turned right again, into the quiet elevator lobby, where the nearer car awaits them, its door open. Down they go and out at street level, still at a careful run. Herb’s car, a beige 1995 Maxima, is in its regular slot in the team parking lot, just across the alley—the second car on the right. They’re in, they’re out, a left turn up the street, where they grab a right, jumping onto the Deegan, heading home. The cops there have the eastbound traffic stopped dead, waiting for Bob Sheppard: no one else in New York is allowed to make this turn. Two minutes, maybe two-twenty, after the game has ended and they’re gone, home free, the first of fifty thousand out of the building, every night.

I sat in the lobby of Yankee Stadium on the night of the final game back in September of 2008. Next to me was Herb Steier. I’d seen him before. He was always easy with a smile and a story. Sat through a game a year earlier talking to him, Richard Ben Cramer and Angell. When Rodriguez hit two home runs that day, Cramer was smiling and Steier had a twinkle in his eye (Cramer is writing a book about Alex Rodriguez).

Now, those eyes were sad. He was hunched over slightly as he told me how the Yankees were giving him a hard time about sitting in the pressbox now that Sheppard wasn’t working regularly anymore. I don’t know what he’s up to these days but Steier is good people. I hope he is well.

Yankee Panky: Midway Ramblings

What a weird turn the season has taken through the first 91 games, and specifically over the last two weeks. With the passings first of Bob Sheppard and then of George Steinbrenner and news of the fall that landed Yogi Berra in the hospital, a somber mood has befallen the Yankee Family, which includes us.

There’s a lot on my mind — nothing new there — and I wanted to get it as much of it down as I could, not only for my own cathartic reasons, but also for your reading enjoyment.

Here we go …

* The discussion regarding the fifth starter spot was rendered moot very quickly, Phil Hughes, with an improved cutter and curveball and most importantly, and an Eff-You attitude that he took from his eighth-inning role in ’09, took control in Spring Training and never let go. He won 10 of his first 11 decisions and earned an All-Star appearance. Now, with Andy Pettitte on the shelf and AJ Burnett looking like an extra in “Girl Interrupted” — more on this in a bit — Hughes is effectively the Yankees’ No. 3 starter, maybe even No. 2, depending on your opinion of Javier Vazquez. Yes, even though Hughes got roughed-up last night. 

The question with Hughes now becomes how the Brain Trust wants to handle the Phil Rules. He is supposedly on an innings limit (160 innings? 175? What’s the number?). But what will that do to his effectiveness? Skipping starts to curb innings is likely not the best move, as evidenced by the 10-day break between his home starts in June against the Mets and Mariners. The Yankees need him to be effective in September and October, yes, but they have to figure out a way to do this right.

On WFAN Saturday, Steve Phillips, commenting on the Cardinals’ management of prospective NL Rookie of the Year Jaime Garcia, said Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan are not taking chances with Garcia; they’re not allowing him to start the seventh inning when he has a big lead. The Yankees can learn from that with Hughes. Skipping starts, especially as the pennant race heats up, could be devastating to both the Yankees’ chances and to Hughes’s development. Look what happened to the Tigers and Rick Porcello last year. Porcello was skipped several times over August and September as a means of preservation for the stretch run. He pitched well in the one-game playoff against Minnesota, but then this year had a miserable start and was optioned to Toledo in mid-June. He’s back with the team now amid rumors he’ll be packaged in a trade? Do the Yankees want to take that chance with Phil Hughes? Probably not.


Mostly the Voice…

Heaven Reclaims its Voice, Part 2

By Ed Alstrom

Thanks to you Banterites who responded so nicely to my post! I read all of you every day, and have the utmost respect for all of you. Hell, even the jazz talk is right on point.

I wanted to give you one more Shep nugget to chew on. I mentioned in the post a handwritten poem he had showed me (on his own Yankee stationery), that he had penned after an infamous incident. He showed it to me on the sly, and his real fear about it getting around was that it would ‘get him fired’, so seeing as that’s not an issue now, I’ll take the liberty of issuing this as a ‘Banter Exclusive’.

I don’t think it will get him fired, or me in any trouble (I hope not, anyway), and you all deserve to hear it, Plus, it’s brilliant, concise, and pretty damn funny:

“O, Kevin Brown let his team down
When he fractured his hand on the wall.
Better instead he had fractured his head,
Then it wouldn’t have mattered at all!”

I, too, wish there could be a book of these published. He said he had ‘hundreds’ of them!

Editor’s Note: Bill Madden has a tribute to Sheppard today that includes another poem…Don’t miss it.

Ed Alstrom plays the organ on the weekends at Yankee Stadium.

[Drawing by Larry Roibal]

Lord and Master

The must-read of the day comes from the incredibly dope site, Whose Voice is That? 

Bob Sheppard: Voice of God; Scholar of Speech.

‘Nuff said.

Observations From Cooperstown–Competition, Mr. Sheppard, and Herman Franks

There are those who believe that spring training performance is too misleading to be useful in determining who should win spots on an Opening Day roster. I would tend to agree with that theory, at least in the case of established veteran players, but the Grapefruit and Cactus League seasons can be helpful in sorting out the best and worst among younger players.

The 2009 Yankees provide a classic case in point. Last Sunday, Joe Girardi announced that Brett Gardner had won the center field battle, with Melky Cabrera relegated to backup duties. Gardner hit a leadoff home run in the Yankees’ first Grapefruit League game—and continued to hit all spring, even showing surprising power. Cabrera, after a slow start, rebounded to lift his average near the .350 range, which is terrific, but still short of Gardner’s exhibition season level.

In my mind, Girardi has made a perfectly reasonable and rational decision in choosing Gardner. Both players have their strengths, Gardner his speed and range, and Cabrera his throwing arm, but neither has a huge edge in talent over the other. Both are younger players still trying to establish their levels of value in the major leaguers. Neither player hit well in 2008, leaving question marks about their staying power as regular center fielders. If Girardi can’t use spring training as a major factor in this decision, then what else can he rely on? A call to Joe Torre? Tarot cards?

I believe that the pressure of spring training performance can also tell us something about a player. If a player knows he has to hit well in the spring in order to win a job, and then he goes out and does exactly that, it may be an indication that he can handle the pressure that comes with the major leagues. Similarly, I believe that competition should bring out the best in good players. And based on the way that both Gardner and Cabrera have responded to this spring’s competition (and the way that Austin Jackson, slated for Triple-A, also hit in Grapefruit League play), the Yankees may find center field to be in far more capable hands than they originally planned…

No one seems to know for sure whether Bob Sheppard is fully retired, or might make a cameo appearance at the new Yankee Stadium this year, but what I do know is this: This incredible man has introduced Yankee players for nearly 60 years, dating back to the 1951 season. So we thought we’d compile an “all-Bob Sheppard team,” consisting of some of the best and most unusual Yankee names in history. (The more syllables, the better.) Some of the monikers are lyrical, others are clunky, but all have been delivered with a grace and precision unlike any other public address announcer in baseball history.

Catcher: Thurman Munson (the only big leaguer with the given name of Thurman)
First Base: Duke Carmel (true identity: Leon James Carmel)
Second Base: Robinson Cano (the only current Yankee to make the squad)
Shortstop: Paul Zuvella (Rizzuto loved this name)
Third Base: Celerino Sanchez (makes me think of celery stalks)
Outfield: Ross Moschitto (hit like a mosquito, too)
Outfield: Roger Repoz (if only he had played so lyrically)
Outfield: Claudell Washington (the first and only Claudell, and a personal favorite)
Pinch-Hitter: Oscar Azocar (not much of a hitter, but what a name!)
SP: Ed Figueroa (Mr. Sheppard would never call him “Figgy”)
SP: John Montefusco (did Bob ever call him “The Count?”)
SP: Eli Grba (still not sure what happened to all of the vowels)
SP: Hideki Irabu (never referred to as “The Toad”)
RP: Hipolito Pena (an obscure left-hander, but a memorable moniker)
RP: Cecilio Guante (translates to “Cecilio Glove”)
RP: Ron Klimkowski (went from pitching to selling Cadillacs)
RP: Dooley Womack (one of the stars of Ball Four)
Opponent: Jose Valdivielso (Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins)…

One of the most underrated managers in the history of the expansion era died this week. Herman Franks, the major leagues’ oldest living ex-manager, passed away on Monday at the age of 95. At first glance, Franks’ managerial record with the Giants and the Cubs might look pedestrian. In seven seasons, he failed to take any of his teams to the postseason. Without a measure of postseason glory, his record pales in comparison with that of contemporaries like Walter Alston, Dick Williams, Gil Hodges, and even Ralph Houk. That’s the cursory look, and as usual, it tells us little about the man’s true accomplishments. So let’s look deeper. In those seven seasons, Franks’ teams never finished worse than four games below .500. And his teams always contended, never concluding a season worse than five games behind the division or league leader.

In the late 1960s, Franks guided the Giants to three second-place finishes. Unfortunately, the National League was stacked at the time, with powerhouse clubs in place in Los Angeles and St. Louis, and the Pirates posing a threat as intermittent contenders. If only the league had been split into two divisions prior to 1969, Franks likely would have pushed one or more of his Giants teams into postseason play.

Franks, however, did his most impressive work a decade later with the Cubs, where he lacked the talent of the Mays-McCovey-Marichal Giants. In 1977, Franks led Chicago to a record of 81-81, remarkable for a club that featured four of five starting pitchers with ERAs of over 4.00. The Cubs’ lineup also had its share of holes, with Jose Cardenal missing a ton of games in the outfield, and mediocrities like George Mitterwald and the “original” Steve Ontiveros claiming regular playing time at catcher and third base, respectively. Two years later, Franks did similar wonders with a band of misfits, coaxing a career year out of Dave Kingman and using an innovative approach with fireman Bruce Sutter. Realizing that the Hall of Famer’s right arm had come up lame the previous two summers, Franks began to use Sutter almost exclusively in games in which the Cubs held the lead. It’s a practice that has become the norm in today’s game (to the point of being overdone), but Franks was the first to realize the benefit of reserving his relief ace for late-game leads.

For his troubles, the Cubs unfairly fired Franks with seven games remaining in the season. The following season, the Cubs finished 64-98, nearly 30 games out of first place. They should have kept Franks.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com.

“The Voice of God” steps aside

Bob Sheppard

Bob Sheppard

According to this Jack Curry article in today’s Times, the man behind the mic at Yankee Stadium for nearly 60 years is retiring.

The new Yankee Stadium will sound much different than the old one. Bob Sheppard, the public-address announcer for the Yankees since 1951, has retired.

Paul Doherty, a friend and agent who has represented Sheppard, said Sheppard’s son, Paul, told him about Sheppard’s plans on Wednesday morning.

“I think Bob just wants to take it easy and no longer have the pressure of, ‘Can he? Will he? Or won’t he?’” Doherty said in an e-mail message. “And, at 98, who can blame him?”

Doherty added that Sheppard remained active.

“I’m happy to say that Bob is still doing well enough to drive a car,” Doherty said. “He picked his son up at the train this past weekend.”

It is truly a shame that Mr. Sheppard won’t be able to provide his dulcet tones towards the line-ups at the opening of the new Stadium on the 16th.  But he was a constant for over 57 years with the Yankees . . . rarely missing a game . . . with an instantly-identifiable voice and timbre.

How many of us have mimicked Mr. Sheppard’s intonations over the years when we stepped to the plate in our softball/baseball games?  How many of us still take joy in hearing “Number 2 . . . Derek Jeter . . . Number 2 . . . ” when the Captain comes to bat?

We wish you well Mr. Sheppard, and thank you for adding so much to our experiences at the Stadium.

UPDATE as of 4:18PM : The Yankees have officially refuted the story.

The Yankees denied the report, stating that Sheppard continues to be their official public-address announcer.

“We have spoken to Paul Sheppard, and he was very clear to us that the report made is categorically untrue,” said Yankees director of public relations Jason Zillo. “Paul Sheppard has not said anything remotely like that.”

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver