Yesterday, the radio voice of the Toronto Blue Jays, Jerry Howarth, announced his retirement after 36 seasons with the team. Health issues that have affected his voice in recent years, lead to his decision. Spring Training begins today, without him.
This post is inspired by Jerry Howarth.
I once had a conversation with my mom while I was in high school. I told her that if I ever end up working at a sports radio station, “or something like that”, then I’d be thrilled.
Truthfully, I didn’t know what I wanted to do there. I didn’t want to be on the air. I didn’t want to be behind the scenes. I didn’t actually want to do any work.
I just wanted to be there. I wanted to be the phantom of the opera for sports radio, but in a “Don’t mind me, I’m just observing” sort of way. Does that make sense?
Basically, I wanted to be a fly on the wall or a shadow on the floor.
I never pursued it. Perhaps it was a self-fulfilling prophecy at the time since just a few years prior, I listed “Sports Reporter” as my future career in my elementary school yearbook.
Also, at the time, I was really hooked on just about every sports radio show on The FAN 590.
The Chuck Swirsky Show in the afternoon from 1-4 got me through an entire summer. I sat at my computer and played video games while listening to him on the radio. A cool breeze came in my window.
Nothing could beat that.
Ever since I was a kid, I’d fall asleep listening to sports talk radio at night. It would always be the end of a game, or the post-game show.
There was Andy Frost handling Leafs Talk. It was always a joy when “Mike in Buffalo” called in. He was almost a mythical creature. Hearing those long-time callers phone in each night, made the whole experience feel familiar.
On the baseball side of things, there was, and still is, Mike Wilner. He handles callers better than anyone else because the people who call him are delusional and he’s not.
The best nights were the ones when he’d say, “We’re going to extendo the Jays talk.” The best, I tell you.
When 11PM rolled around, Stormin’ Norm Rumack – The Late Night Vampire – would take over. If I’m not mistaken, his show ran all the way to 5AM. I thought it was ridiculous and incredible, all at the same time.
I thought, how in the world does this guy stay awake that long? When does he sleep?
About a decade later, I had become him. I was the guy staying up until 5AM with ease. I was the one people asked, “When do you sleep?”. I understood.
I haven’t even mentioned the radio voices that actually provided the play-by-play.
There was Eric Smith and Paul Jones calling Toronto Raptors Basketball. Eric Smith would always say, “The Raptors are going right to left in your mind’s eye.” I thought that was the smartest thing he could say.
Because when you listen to a game on the radio, the broadcaster is doing their best to paint a picture in your mind.
I recall a game a few years ago where Smith filled in on TV to call a game. He was describing every little detail and not letting the game breathe. This was how he always called a Raptors game, but for a TV audience, it was too much paint on the canvas.
I’d imagine going from radio to television, or vice versa, is extremely difficult, especially when you’re so accustomed to just one. Of course, there were people complaining on Twitter about his abundance of details because they didn’t know any better.
On the television side, some of my favourite broadcasters come from the hockey world.
Bob Cole is the soundtrack of my childhood. There are millions of other people who can say the same thing.
Nothing beat a Saturday night with the Toronto Maple Leafs on the ice and Bob Cole in the broadcast booth with colour analyst, Harry Neale. Absolutely nothing.
The way Bob Cole used his voice to build anticipation and guide the viewer through a rollercoaster of emotions, was like nothing I’ve ever felt before. There was a warmth to it, too.
Bob Cole is 84-years-old and still going. However, he doesn’t call Leaf games anymore, outside of the rare one, here or there. That saddens me, greatly. Nothing against Jim Hughson – I like Jim Hughson – but no one is Bob Cole.
Sticking with the Leafs – there’s Joe Bowen. The voice of the Leafs.
He would provide the play-by-play for television and radio games when I was growing up. And then a few years ago, he was moved to the radio permanently. No more Joe Bowen on TV.
That is a crime, in my books. (Insert story about Rogers owning the broadcast rights to the NHL in Canada).
Joe Bowen is boisterous. He’s enthusiastic. He’s loud. He’s the most excited person in the building. But most of all, he’s one of us. He’s a fan. And they took that away from us on the TV side.
We sat through many bad years, but Bowen was always there to guide us through them. He made sure we were still fans. A few years ago, when he was no longer on TV, and the team was horrendous, I didn’t watch a single game from start to finish. I couldn’t do it.
If you haven’t understood what I’ve been getting at in this entire post, it’s that sports are elevated to a new level when the broadcasters lend their voice to the action in front of them.
They are the soundtrack to their sport.
Some are better than others at capturing the emotion in the building, or stadium, and sending it through a television screen, or radio.
That’s why when Bob Cole does call the rare Leaf game, I text people about it. I’ll even tweet about it. Everyone has to get by their television and listen to Bob Cole until further notice, so help us God.
As a sports fan, I like a familiar voice, especially if it’s one I grew up listening to. Sports are the greatest thing in the world when you’re a kid. You’re innocent to all the drama, trade talks, and general discourse surrounding the team.
When you become an adult, you know too much. You might still love it, but the innocence is gone. You start to notice things you never did before.
Back to familiarity, though.
I grew up listening to Dan Shulman and Buck Martinez calling Blue Jays games on television. The music would hit, the camera would pan across the stadium, and then Dan and Buck would appear on my TV.
Every night, it was like seeing a couple of old friends and inviting them over.
And then in 2001, Shulman left.
In 2002, Martinez became the Manager of the team.
Everything was changing. I don’t like when broadcasters change. You don’t just let strangers into your home. You have to get to know them, first.
So when it was announced that Dan Shulman would be returning to the Blue Jays broadcast booth in 2016 for 30 games, I was overjoyed. Buck Martinez had already come back, and now Shulman was too.
I’m a sucker for nostalgia, if you can’t tell.
Ever been to a sporting event? There’s no commentary. Sure, you get the thrill of sitting next to someone who steals your arm rest, but the whole time – or maybe just me – you’re fully aware that something is missing from your experience.
I miss that voice that tells me what I’m seeing. I miss being led up a mountain of excitement, only to slowly come back down. I miss watching the game with that friend I’ve never met, but who’s voice is always in my house.
Here are some other broadcasters, who I’ve been a fan of for as long as I could remember.
Brian Williams – To the Americans reading this, I’m not talking about your Brian Williams. I’m talking about the Canadian Brian Williams. His Olympic coverage was incredible. No one weaved in and out of a story better than him.
Ron MacLean – The host of Hockey Night in Canada. He was replaced for two years and I think I speak for the entire country when I say that Saturday nights felt foreign to us without him. Again, we like familiarity. Fortunately, he was brought back last year. He is the soul of this country and you’re wrong if you think otherwise.
Steve Armitage – When the CBC was showing CFL games in the late 90s – early 2000s, he’d call the games. That’s when I first became aware of him, at least. He just has one of those voices that must be heard. Long track speed skating at the Olympics is a must-see event because he’s on the call.
Elliotte Friedman – He’s turned into one of the top hockey insiders in Canada, if not the world. I’ve been a fan of his since his days at The Score and the CBC, when he covered the CFL in the summer and NHL in the winter. My “50 Thoughts” segment on this blog was inspired by his “30 Thoughts” column, which has now turned into “31 Thoughts”.
There are many more. Bob McKenzie. Gord Miller. Stephen Brunt. I could go on forever.
I’d like to end this by going back to Jerry Howarth, though.
His long-time partner in the booth was Tom Cheek, who had been with the Blue Jays from Day 1 until his passing in 2005. Cheek was in the booth for 4306 consecutive games (think about that) and will always be the soundtrack behind Joe Carter’s walk-off home run to win the World Series in 1993.
“Touch ’em all Joe! You’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life.”
I’m lucky enough to have grown up listening to Cheek and Howarth. They don’t make broadcaster likes that anymore.
Jerry Howarth started each radio broadcast with, “Hello friends”. Fitting, considering he carved out a friendship with millions of fans. We’re forever grateful for the one-sided conversation. All we had to do was listen.
Sitting in the car, or laying in bed listening to the Blue Jays will never be the same. It’s not because whoever fills his seat isn’t qualified.
It’s because whoever fills his seat won’t be Jerry Howarth.
“Yes sir, there she goes.”