Howie Rose photo by Kevin Ryan

Friday, January 7, 2011

Put It In The Books! Howie Rose: A Homer in Metsville

     Maybe you’re the type of baseball fan that likes things old school. Maybe getting to the ballpark early for batting practice, really stretching during the seventh inning stretch while belting out the verses to “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” or just keeping score is your notion of pagan ritual. Maybe you could do with a little more tinkling of the organ ivories and less conversation-stifling pre-recorded pop bombast pulsating from the PA on an otherwise pleasant August afternoon. Or maybe you pine for the days when teams wore but two unis—home whites and road grays. And maybe sitting on your stoop, in your backyard, on a park bench, or even stuck in traffic on the BQE listening to a ballgame through the fuzzy AM ether provides a balm as a midsummer sunset slowly gives way to a starry night.

     In an age of impatience and high anxiety, when the world outside the green pastures of Citi Field seems as crooked as the numbers put up on the scoreboard by the visiting team, there is still a lone voice crying out in the wilderness of Metsville. It is a voice from a time and place quickly fading from the collective memory of a great metropolis. It is a regional, edgy New York voice—a voice of egg creams and sauerkraut, of Spaldeens and Pensy Pinkies, of holiday doubleheaders and stickball, of fifteen-cent subway tokens and bleacher seats that go for a buck and change.

     Pick a night, any night, from April Fool’s Day to the Harvest Moon, turn your radio dial to 660 WFAN—the 24/7 all-sports, all doom and gloom all the time echo chamber of radio agita that has carried Met games since its inception in July 1987—and prick up your ears. Sit back in an easy chair with a glass of lemonade or even something a little more lethal and listen to a master baseball announcer ply his trade. But Howie Rose is something more than that—storyteller, artist, tongue dancer, word painter, Rose draws from a palette that includes every color of the rainbow but always with heavy shades of Met oranges and the blues.

     The voice might sound a bit abrasive at first, a little pushy even. With its high-strung, know-it-all chattiness and still-youthful zeal, the veteran broadcaster comes on strong—a mélange of Marv Albert, Ralph Kramden and Ed Koch. But give the guy a few innings and settle in as events between the white lines unfold. Check out that voice and the brain behind it. It is a voice of many things: the smart aleck, the eccentric cousin, the sage wise man, the wisenheimer, the nerd, the advocate, the prosecutor, the defense attorney, the kid in the candy shop, the vaunted historian, the curmudgeon, the beat reporter, the class clown, the griot.

     To be sure, New York has no shortage of local boys doing play-by-play for the home team. The Yankees, Giants, Jets, Knicks, and Rangers all boast home grown talent in the broadcast booth. In fact, the Mets have two of them—both Rose and Gary Cohen, the voice of reason on the team’s television feeds shooting the proverbial baseball breeze with Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling, are Queens natives who literally grew up with and rooting for the franchise they now cover. Most of these broadcasters betray at least a hint of regionalism in their voices but none wears it on his sleeve quite like Rose.

     At times a touch ornery, Rose exudes the rough-around-the-edges, sweat-stained-around-the-underarms exasperation of a season ticket holder jammed on overcrowded Number 7 train trapped on an el track somewhere in Jackson Heights as the game's first pitch looms.

     Hours later, when an opponent's forty-ounce hunk of tapered ash flails through the vapor of a humid night at the off-speed pellet settling with nary a thwap in the catcher's tired leather for the game’s final strike, Rose places his emphatic tagline signaling another digit in the W column for the Mets: "Put it in the books!"

     That's about as appropriate an exclamatory finale for a game as can be imagined. Baseball, after all, contains a natural literary resonance, more or less designed with a predetermined beginning, middle and end unless you're talking extra innings in which case all bets are off. Taken in its extreme, the sport has blossomed through space and time as if it were some epic poem reflecting the republic's history—from its British roots in the game of rounders, messy Reconstruction-era formalization and early 20th century legitimization through scandal, wars, uneasy racial embrace to yet more scandal, wars, and inevitable blind greed. Existing within this song of American songs are the individual seasons and their thousands of games—each representing a chapter of sorts. And, within these chapters are the innings or, if you like, corresponding pages of a book that continues to be writ. Every at-bat, every pitch become so many words or bits of punctuation that tell a story more or less condensed on the pencil scratches on the scorecards swept away by the stadium's maintenance crew in the early hours of the morning after.

     And Rose is a singer of that song of songs, a troubadour of the airwaves who can make a baseball game sound like it is the single most important event transpiring on Planet Earth.

     Rose's approach to calling a ballgame might place him in a new school of reportage but his journey to the broadcast booth began in the world's oldest school—the one with all the hard knocks and a past only slightly betrayed by a certain hardness he brings to the mic. The son of a Yankee-loving, Joe Dimaggio-worshipping hardware salesman with more than an ounce of Willy Loman-heavy baggage, Rose exudes the grit of one who passed through the city's public school system during the late 1950s and '60s. He learned his baseball basics from his dad on outings to Yankee Stadium when the great, green cathedral was host to the era's last, triumphant dynasty and the names Ruth, Gehrig and Joe D were spoken in hushed, reverential tones. And it was under the turquoise-tinted baroque copper facade encircling the old stadium's upper deck that Rose embraced his first baseball hero: Roger Maris.

     If there is a stop-the-presses moment lurking in these pages, you just encountered it. Yes, Met fans, read it and weep, Howie Rose grew up bleeding some Yankee blue. Never even became a Yankee hater truth be told.

     "I loved the Yankees and I loved the Mets," Rose confesses. "I couldn't understand as a kid what threat one was to the other. Gary [Mets TV broadcaster Cohen] and I have had this conversation and he's incredulous that anybody who was a Mets fan could ever have liked the Yankees. When I got into the business—that's when the Yankees were the Steinbrenner Yankees of '77—covering the World Series, I couldn't root hard enough for them."

     Granted, Maris' storied 1961 eclipse of Babe Ruth's record of 60 homers in a single season transpired as Rose was turning the impressionable age of seven—a good half year before the Mets first spring training game—so some slack is probably due to be given. There was no marvelous early franchise mayhem yet to woo the kid. But come Opening Day 1962, Rose was primed.

     "I became a Met fan on Day One," Rose proclaims with vehemence of a true believer. "I have one abstract memory of that game. It was a night game. I was in second grade and I hadda go to school the next day. I might have listened to some of it on radio but I knew I couldn't stay up for the whole thing. Marched right into my parents room first thing the next morning. My dad was still home, hadn't left for work yet. I said, 'How'd the Mets do?' He said, 'They lost.' I was disappointed. And so it goes."

     Like Beatlemania and at a remove of nearly a half century, it is a little hard to explain or fathom the love affair between the city's dormant National League fans (bereft of a franchise after the Dodgers and Giants packed up and headed for points West) and the Amazins. Playing their home games at the dilapidated, horseshoe-shaped Polo Grounds, the original Mets in all their fumblin' and bumblin' inglory, became the city's lovable losers, comic relief and perfect antidote to all the even then corporate polish and achievement epitomized by those wearing Yankee pinstripes playing just a hardball's throw across the Harlem River. Led by Casey Stengel—their non sequitur-speaking, Holy Zen Fool crustacean of a manager and staffed with a gumbo of over-the-hill all-stars and inept rejects, the '62 Mets live on as the single worst team in big league history, ending their inaugural season with but 40 wins against a record, count 'em, 120 losses—a badge Met fans wear with a degree of protective pride. If rooting for the Yanks was like rooting for U.S. Steel as the saying went, then rooting for the Mets was like rooting for Spider-Man.

     Rose was among the first crop young people upon whom that Met pixie dust was sprinkled by these tangle-footed pied-pipers of baseball tomfoolery with names that still echo in the halls of lame: Choo Choo Coleman, Galen Cisco, Hobie Landrith, and, natch, "Marvelous" Marv Throneberry.

     At first blush, describing what Rose brings to the mic some hundred sixty games a ye
ar as "post-modern" might come off as a little snooty—especially for a blue collar mensch like him. But approach a game called by Rose with a literary or musical ear and a different, rather coded landscape presents itself. Nary a half-inning passes without some reference cut-and-pasted almost dada-like into the tapestry of his commentary. It might be a lyric to a '70s pop tune, a B-horror flick, White Castle hamburgers, The Honeymooners, or some other long forgotten TV show, or, more than likely, The Three Stooges complete with a half-decent quickie "nyuk nyuk nyuk" imitation of just about everyone's favorite Stooge, Curly Howard. Those native New Yorkers of a particular vintage will catch even more veiled Stooges references in Rose's fluid, extemporaneous riffs. Whenever Philadelphia Phillies' starter Joe Blanton takes the mound, Rose invariably refers to him as "Officer" Joe Blanton, a clear but never explicated nod to Officer Joe Bolton, the jovial, police uniform-attired, billy club-twirling host of the weekday afternoon Stooges show that ran on local New York television from the late 1950s until 1970.

     The craft of calling baseball on the radio has changed little since 1921 when the first game was broadcast from Pittsburgh's long gone Forbes Field. And a decent primer of its evolution can be gleaned with a little web hunting and pecking. A listen to any one of the offerings retrieved compare quite favorably with just about anything you might pull in on your little Radio Shack transistor after the sun crests the horizon. But it also reveals how pathetically static baseball play-by-play still too often tends to be. Between the swings and misses, commercial plugs, rote statistic recitation, clichés, homilies, and paint-by-numbers reportage, there's enough dead air to fill one of the few remaining domes under which the major league game is still occasionally played.

     In fairness, Rose is an adherent to the broad brushstrokes of this venerable legacy. For all its sometimes archaic presentation, baseball should sound a certain way when heard on the radio and Rose makes certain that it does. An i needs its dot and the t its cross, but it's what is accomplished with the balance of the alphabet that separates James Joyce from a chimp.

     But while the tradition of play-by-play broadcasting is rooted in a specific cultural milieu, there is a deeper, ancient linage afoot too—one that might be characterized as Homeric. The oral tradition of the bard sharing the news of the day, celebrating the heroes (or, when appropriate, condemning the heels) of yore is as old or older than the paintings on the cave walls of our earliest ancestors. In a very tangible sense, the baseball play-by-play broadcaster has assumed a folkloric role and function for a certain portion of American society.

     Much as the blind poet of ancient Greece chanted the epic verses of the Iliad and Odyssey to the populace under the shadows of Mount Ida, baseball on the radio has become a vessel of the community's shared and evolving history. Just as Homer spread his lyrical vision describing the trials and travels of the wily Odysseus, Achilles' hubris or Hector's fall, so too do Rose and his broadcasting brethren carry the collective experience and memory of baseball's pantheon and concordant mythology. Through the voices of the game everything old becomes new again. Be it Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World"; Ventura's "Grand Slam Single"; the catches of Mays, Agee, Swoboda, and Chavez; the saintliness of Robinson, Clemente and Hodges; the branding of those who strayed (Pete Rose and former Met chairman M. Donald Grant are high on Howie's shit list); or the hair-splitting parsing of strategy as an individual game unfurls pitch-by-pitch, Rose acts as a tour guide through the concentric circles of the Divine Tragic Comedy that baseball can often, joyously, be.

     Rose's seemingly photographic memory and encyclopedic knowledge of many things (one can sometimes get the very strong impression that he has a memory of every Met game ever played!) springs into action when called upon to describe his Met baptism: "I went to one game at the Polo Grounds which turned out to be kind of an historic game. It was in July of '62 and Rod Kanehl hit the Mets first grand slam in that game. And Gil Hodges hit a home run to pass Ralph Kiner on the all-time list."

     If Rose comes off at times as a bit over-opinionated, there is only one axe to grind in his woodshed. "I'll push Gil Hodges for the Hall of Fame forever," he often proselytizes. "Sadly I don't think he'll ever get in. When he passed Kiner, he became the then all-time right-handed National League home run hitter. That's significant. If that doesn't get you into to the Hall of Fame by itself, something's wrong."

     Fittingly, Hodges' blast that day in July nearly a half century ago would be the aging first baseman's last.

     And if you're thinking about broaching the subject of interdivisional or wild cards with Rose, don't bother. If it was up to him there would be but two leagues, a winner-take-all pennant, afternoon World Series games, and regular season Met-Yankee games where the only thing at stake were bragging rights and the long-gone Mayor's Trophy.

     Part of the charm of those early Mets was their triumvirate of quirky broadcasters: the ever effervescent and gnomish Bob Murphy, the plaid-clad Lindsey Nelson and the aforementioned Kiner, reigning king of the malapropism. The trio would share both the television and radio duties in those days and Rose grew up like so many of us—snuggled under the covers with a transistor radio turned down low and pressed to the ear as the innings passed into the nether reaches of the night.

     Their style and brand of baseball narrative was not lost on the kid. Listen close to Rose and notice how he pays an offbeat homage to Murphy when he wraps his yap around a name like pitcher Kiki Calero as only Murph could or his similar tip of the Mets cap to Nelson when he uses phrasings like "and the Mets are leading by a score of four to three" with the same diction as the original Mets 'caster. Think Charlie Parker wedging a Gershwin riff into an elongated bebop solo and an idea of Rose's connection to and celebration of his earliest baseball experiences can be gleaned. While neither Murphy or Nelson are, to paraphrase Casey Stengel, alive at the present time, Kiner does make the odd appearance in the television broadcast booth during a precious few spring training and regular season games and is as entertaining and sometimes sharper than ever even at the age of eighty-seven.

     When the Mets moved to Shea Stadium near the ass end of Willets Point in 1964, Rose and his running buddies from nearby Bayside became the earliest habitués of the new ballpark that looked like an orphan pavilion from the World's Fair in nearby Flushing Meadows Park. The team was still terrible, perennial cellar dwellers. But, with the acquisition of young players like Tom Seaver, Ron Swoboda, Jerry Grote and Bud Harrelson, the seeds of a miracle were being sown.

     "There's this one game—August 4th, 1966—I told myself on the way home that day that I just saw the greatest baseball game I'd ever see,” Rose recalls a bit dewy-eyed. “I was twelve years old. Mets playing the Giants, Juan Marichal is pitching, it's an afternoon game, and they're losing—at worst it was five to nothing. In the bottom of the sixth—I think it was four nothing at the time—Marichal is working on a perfect game. Five and two-thirds he's perfect. Dennis Ribant was the Mets pitcher that day and for some reason I never understood, Mets manager Wes Westrum let him hit. You're down four nothing and you haven't had a base runner all game but he's letting his starting pitcher bat. I don't remember now what the circumstances were—maybe the pitching staff was shot and they needed him to go another inning or two. But, wouldn't you know it, Dennis Ribant hits a little thirty-eight hopper through the middle of the infield for the Mets first hit. And they chip away and in the bottom of the ninth inning, Ron Swoboda hits a pinch hit, two run homer off Bill Henry, a lefty, and the Mets won the game eight to six. And the whole way home I said to myself I have to remember this date forever because this is the greatest baseball game of all-time and I've always thought back on that. August 4th, 1966. But I also really wondered how it sounded in the booth. Did Lindsey go crazy on TV? Did Bob go wild on radio? How would I have called it? I was already thinking about it along those lines even then."

     Aware of it or not, Rose was not only bearing witness to the team's history but priming himself as a kind of Boswell to their Johnson—not merely the wins and losses, the coming and goings of players—but to the very culture of the ballclub. And when the once raggle-taggle collection of misfits emerged as legit contenders in '69, Rose can pinpoint the moment when the whole Met gestalt did a one-eighty: Tom Seaver's flirtation with a perfect game against the Cubs on July 19, 1969 at Shea. When Jimmy Qualls (or Jimmy “Fuckin’” Qualls as he is better known in certain Met quarters) broke up Seaver’s perfecto with a soft liner to left-center, the crowd of 50,000-plus—after a moment of mourning—rewarded the franchise’s greatest star with a loving standing O.

     "This was profound,” Rose declares. “And I remember that ovation because we were standing and yelling—thinking during that ovation that it's almost like being Bar Mitzvah'd. That's the night they became men. That's the night the Mets grew up. That's the night I went home for the first time thinking, 'Wow! We can win the World Series!' But that ovation was all about the realization that we had our heroes. My dad had Dimaggio, others had Maris and Mantle—all those other great figures of baseball in New York belonged to somebody else from some other time. We had one now. This was our guy. And we're gonna talk about Tom Seaver for years to come in the same reverential tones that my dad did about Dimaggio and others did Mays and Snider and Robinson and all the way back. It was so exhilarating to be part of it not just for the moment but for the future. And it was encapsulated in that ovation because those were thoughts that were in the forefront of my mind and I'm sure for a lot of others."

     By then Rose knew exactly what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. There is the family legend of a four-year-old Howie "interviewing" family members but the real epiphany came in 1966 when Rose happened upon the voice that would clinch the deal. It was Marv Albert, then the very young voice of the Rangers and Knicks.

     "In one of the very first hockey games I ever listened to, Dallas Smith, a defenseman for the Bruins, had a penalty shot against Ranger goaltender Eddie Giacoman. And I'm telling ya, Marv made it sound like the most incredible event ever in a hockey game. A penalty shot! It was a great the rarity then. He built the drama and I think Giacoman stopped him. Just the intensity of his enthusiasm knocked me over."

     Shortly thereafter and as a bit of a goof, Rose and a couple of friends founded the Marv Albert Fan Club going so far as to write and mimeograph a newsletter that he sent to Albert. Marv, predictably surprised and flattered, offered to have the next edition typed and produced professionally. Thus began perhaps the most important relationship in Rose's life—a prolonged mentorship bordering on the paternal.

     The union came at a particularly key juncture in Rose’s early adolescence. Over the next decade the Rose family would be rocked by the father's painful and erratic decline in what was eventually diagnosed as Alzheimer's disease. The younger Rose persevered through this devastating stretch, never straying from his goal of landing in the broadcast booth. And always Albert was there offering advice, steering him to college, critiquing audition tapes Rose had made on a little cassette recorder he had brought to games and, eventually, recommending the apprentice for his first gigs as a sportswriter at WHN (then the Mets flagship radio station) and as a voice on Sportsphone.

     In the days before the web or even sports talk radio updated the out-of-town scoreboard in nanosecond blips, Sportsphone provided New Yorkers with regularly recorded local and national scores and Rose was among the small stable of phonecasters breaking the news, hearts and probably a few bank accounts of the eager callers.

     Deciding that his chances for a prolonged career fared better as a radio reporter than reading copy for a telephone tape loop, Rose committed himself to WHN. When the Mets' fortunes began to rise in 1985, the station instituted "Mets Extra," an extended pre- and postgame segment to feed the growing frenzy of Met diehards, Rose was tapped to take the helm. A couple of seasons later WHN morphed into WFAN and Rose's program was a keeper. This was the first time most Met fans had a chance to hear someone very much like themselves, someone who not only knew the trivia but had lived it—a guy with his hand on the pulse of the team and not afraid to ask the tough questions be it to players, coaches, managers or even the franchise’s top brass. This brashness did have its dicey moments and rumors still float that Davey Johnson, (Mets manager during the mid-1980s glory days) pulled strings in an unsuccessful attempt to give Rose the hook.

     But if the influence of Marv Albert can be heard in Rose’s approach, so, too, can Albert’s tutor, the late Marty Glickman whose ubiquity on New York sports airwaves from the 1940s through the early 1990s is the legend of stuff. While maybe not quite Socrates taking Plato under his wing and so on down through Aristotle and Alexander the Great, a torch passing of a shared New York Jewish style is in evidence. If a garlic bagel with lox and a schmear could talk, it might very well sound like Glickman, Albert or Rose calling a game.

    True to his working-class roots and example set by Albert and Glickman who were virtually year-round play-by-play voices, Rose keeps his nose to the grindstone and can be found behind the mic for most of the New York Islanders' eighty regular ice hockey season games during baseball’s off-season. Before the Mets and Islanders gigs, Rose's career had seemingly already come full circle when he was tapped as Albert's co-anchor for the New York Rangers. In the annals of famous sports calls, Rose's way over the top celebratory declaration of "Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!" after left-winger Stephane Matteau's sudden death goal in double overtime sunk the New Jersey Devils and launched the Rangers into the 1994 Stanley Cup Final is an evergreen.

     And just like Sandy Koufax, Rose never spent a day in the minor leagues. He went straight from "Mets Extra" to a seat as one of the club's cable TV broadcasters in a run that lasted from 1995 through 2003 when he joined Cohen in the radio booth after Murphy's retirement. Before Cohen's migration to the TV booth, these were the recent halcyon days of Mets radio when the two fed off each other's knowledge and enthusiasm with a joy that was palpably infectious.

     To cast Rose as a "homer"—one who crassly roots roots roots for the home team—is a misguided accusation. In truth, all home team broadcasters covering a local squad can be similarly charged. Some tip their hand with the palpable disappointment in their voices when a clutch enemy blast clears the fence or those who go so far as to use words like "us," "we" or "them" in drawing a line in the sand. Rose is rarely, if ever, so obvious in his bias. His tone always reflects the drama of the moment.

     "There's a responsibility that you have as a broadcaster for that team not to be waving the pom-poms in the air,” Rose muses on his sense of journalistic responsibility. “Even though you're especially excited to see them do well, you still have a job to do."

     The one catch to living the dream conjured as a twelve-year-old all those many goose eggs ago is the reality that such a peripatetic life might sometimes leave a family wanting. Rose has been married for twenty-plus years and has raised two nearly fully grown daughters in a comfortable Nassau County community. Missed school plays, parent-teacher conferences and family dinners are on the short list of sacrifices clans of travelin' men must endure. And Rose is quick to praise his wife Barbara, an in-demand interior designer, as the glue that keeps the family tight and quicker to castigate himself for the difficulties of being a well-compensated baseball nomad: "Part of the price you pay is your own guilt."

     Some more of the dues includes the grind of the long seasons and way too much time spent on planes and busses, in airport terminals, checking into friendless hotels at three-thirty in the morning, or stuck in towns like Saskatoon in February with a long afternoon to kill.

     On a recent blustery late April afternoon that made Flushing feel more like a day better suited for ice fishing than for baseball and some hours before the first pitch of a doubleheader against the Dodgers, Rose could be found wearing his reporter's cap scouring the catacombs of Citi Field collecting tidbits, dishing a little gossip, trying to make sense of a translation offered by Japanese southpaw Hisanori Takahashi's so-called interpreter, and canvassing for some inside dope on the dip in velocity exhibited by Johan Santana's recent fastballs.

     A little later, ensconced in the broadcast booth, Rose is deep into his primary pre-game ritual: diligently constructing his scorecard with the zeal of a young rabbinical student. After a bite to eat and a few moments of meditative, preparatory quiet time, Rose and his partner Wayne Hagin are primed as the curtain lifts on another day at the ballpark.

     Hagin, a handsome, jovial journeyman of the trade, plays something of a laid-back straight man or country rube in what often turns into the "Howie Show." And Hagin, a son of the Midwest, can be the butt of some good-natured ribbing for his spotty knowledge base concerning certain nuanced aspects of New York City culture such as the time last year when he drew a blank after Rose conferred a "mazel tov" on David Wright after a clutch hit or complete ignorance of the mere existence of some exotic potion known as an egg cream. Hagin gets his occasional comeuppance, casting a mock evil eye at his partner every time Rose mistakenly refers to the Mets’ new digs as Shea Stadium. A flub by either one is punished by a dollar fine that is put into a kitty for an end of season party. At their current rate, that shindig promises to be rather skimpy on the trimmings indeed.

     Rose, though, is hardly a mic hog and the pair give each other wide berth alternating chunks of the game as Rose bookends the production, riding point for the first and last few frames with a healthy dose of Hagin twixt.

     Also squeezed into the booth is the broadcast's secret hero, the "Immortal" Chris Majkowski, their producer/engineer and  wise-cracking swirl of constant motion who seems to simultaneously feed the duo stats, trivia, ad spots—all elegantly if cantankerously executed with a cell phone in one hand while hoisting a Diet Pepsi with the other. Maj, as he is affectionately called by his co-workers, brings something of the sensibility of a hip-hop DJ to the Mets mix. When Rose was recalling the old TV show Car 54, Where Are You? a season or two back, Maj went to the well, streaming the program's memorable theme song off the web between pitches of the ensuing inning as Rose happily sang along. Majkowski was at it again earlier this season when Rose’s passing references to El Paso and San Jose elicited a similar sound bite sample of Marty Robbins and Dionne Warwick singing their titular odes to those celebrated burgs. It's antics just like these which separate the crew from the rest of the herd.

     Rose and Hagin assume their roles just as you might expect and want them to: two bleacher bums kibitzing while duly noting the strikes, balls, flies, grounders, liners, and Texas Leaguers with just the right emphasis and lively flourishes. "Fastball on the outside corner strike three called!" never sounded so good.

     What may strike a new listener is not merely the facile, wide-ranging and precise vocabulary employed but the sheer volume and vivid detail of information the two impart. A foul ball doesn’t just merely drift into the stands but is snared in the webbing of a mitt brought to the game by a white-haired gent in his sixties who blushes like a school girl at her first prom. The wind blowing out to left carries with it a vortex of hot dog wrappers. The Washington Nationals’ rookie reliever warming up in the bullpen is given a back story worthy of an A-list screenwriter at a Hollywood pitch meeting. And the managerial choice of a pinch hitter is considered with the scrutiny a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff might give a Central Asian military conundrum.

     In the hands of Rose, a given half inning serves up a mini-concerto in baseball arcana and anality. After setting the scene and bringing the audience up to speed on the game thus far, Rose might share his assessment of the pitcher’s mechanics or chronicle a team’s missed chances before launching into an improvisatory flight of free form fancy and associative reportage, analysis, reminiscence, and shtick. Between the balls and strikes, hits, base runners and outs, the subject moves to the improving fortunes of the Cincinnati Reds, their lagging attendance despite a solid early season performance and the wise moves made by their GM Walt Jockety. The monologue might go on to include a description of Cincinnati’s old Crosley Field with its weird left field incline, a critique of 1970s baseball stadia and uniforms, recollections of the Mets-Reds ’73 playoff series, but the rap can easily veer off into strange, uncharted territory too. Should Jose Reyes pull up lame after a hard slide into second base, Rose is on it with the diagnostic and anatomic precision worthy of a Beth Israel intern. A mid-game assessment of Johan Santana's performance is critiqued alongside a narrative of what Rose describes as "his body of work." And if a Met pitcher loses a no-hit bid after the third inning or so, Howie is almost sure to chime in with the reminder that the franchise has endured seven thousand six hundred and eighty-five contests (and counting) without a no-hitter to its credit—a baffling and ironic stat that appears to haunt his dreams.

     And so the games and seasons flow on in a sublime reverie of agonies and ecstasies marked less by the wins and losses that wind up on the final ledger than by the bangs and whimpers contributing to the result. The walk-off dinger stands alongside the muffed double play in the game’s great equation. Remembered and cherished for a lifetime or best soon forgotten, all that transpires on and around the diamond is put into the “books” whether the Mets win or not.

     Oh yeah, Rose’s catchphrase. Never one to hold back, the broadcaster is predictably down to earth in describing its humble origin. "'Put it in the books' is really a street phrase," he waxes nostalgically. "In the schoolyard after a stickball game or a punchball game, every once in a while one of us would say 'it's in the books' or some variation of that theme. I tried it out on the air when I started doing play-by-play and it seemed to fit without sounding forced or contrived, so I stayed with it.”

1 comment:

  1. You capture the culture and personality so beautifully. Put it in the books.