Silver-tongued Sterling is voice of Yankees

Oct 8, 2009 - 5:47 PM By DAVE SKRETTA AP Sports Writer

NEW YORK(AP) -- Nick Swisher remembers when he first learned he was joining the New York Yankees. It wasn't the idea of donning the pinstripes, or even the 26 championships that he thought about.

No, Swisher wanted to know what radio broadcaster John Sterling would say when he hit his first home run.

It turned out the dinger was "Swishilicious!" in Sterling-speak - the groaner-gems that could only come from a man who's as much a part of New York summers as Coney Island.

"He's a Yankee legend," Swisher said. "He comes up with all the home run calls, this and that, which is funny to hear because I was excited to hear what mine would be."

Sterling has been the distinctive voice of the Yankees for 21 seasons, the heir to one of the most coveted and influential seats in sports radio, though he's hardly another Mel Allen or Red Barber.

The 61-year-old Sterling is either kitschy or clever, depending on who you ask, and everyone has an opinion. They both may be right.

Yet even for the detractors, who complain that his play-by-play calls on WCBS are sometimes inaccurate and irritating, the thing about Sterling is he grows on you. Rival radio stations sometimes air his voice.

"Exuberant's a good word," said Dodgers manager Joe Torre, who got to know Sterling when he was managing the Atlanta Braves. Sterling had just taken over the broadcast duties in Atlanta, and Torre couldn't seem to shake him when both joined the Yankees.

"He's very outgoing, and in some areas - what's the word? - oblivious," Torre said, laughing. "He's oblivious to a lot of things, too."

For instance, Sterling's signature home run call is "It is high, it is far, it is gone!" - although more than once, it wasn't actually gone.

The player Sterling calls "El Capitan!" - Derek Jeter - might flub a pop up, but the broadcaster is quick to point out that the sun got in the All-Star shortstop's eyes, even if the Yankees are playing in a dome.

What Sterling lacks in subtly, he makes up for in drama.

Sterling doesn't just say "Here's the pitch" when the ball is hurled toward the plate. It's "theeeeeee pitch," the word drawing out until the listener can only conclude the ball has not only been delivered, it probably has been hit somewhere.

Or perhaps it was "cut on and missed," or more likely, "cuuuuuuuuuut on-and-missed."

Then there are those Sterlingisms, the curious calls that often follow a home run and are tailored to individual players. Not even Sterling remembers how they began, although he suspects it happened when he cried out "Bern, baby, Bern!" after Bernie Williams went deep.

Regardless, they've become ingrained in players and fans alike.

"An A-Bomb for A-Rod!"

"You're on the Mark, Teixeira!"

"The Melkman delivers! That's the Melky way!"

"A thrilla! By Godzilla!"

And if all goes well, Sterling will proclaim "Ball game over! Yankees win. Theeeee Yankees! Win!" - a refrain that's become so popular that some folks have it as their cell phone ring tone. It's gotten to the point that writers are sending Sterling ideas, such as "Hinske with his best shot!" for slugger Eric Hinske, and fans shout ideas during games at his booth positioned in the new Yankees Stadium, just a few feet above the stands.

"I would characterize it as very unique, but unique for Yankee listeners," said John Gordon, who's called Minnesota Twins games for 23 years and was once a Yankee broadcaster himself.

"I'm not too sure that it's one that flies with others cities because I think each city in itself adopts their voice of their team, and certainly Yankee fans have adopted John."

Sterling realizes he takes an unorthodox approach to covering one of the most staid franchises in professional sports. He readily admits that he's often characterized as a clown, but he laughs off the criticism with the kind of good-natured guffaw that one might expect from him.

"You have to be yourself, you have to be who you are," Sterling said. "And for every home run call, there's hours of pure, straight play-by-play. It's an art form, and any art form - singing, dancing, writing, sculpting - some people like it and some people don't."

Sterling actually got the job in New York because the new general manager of WABC, which at the time had rights to Yankees games, didn't like the previous broadcast team.

Sterling was doing Braves games and the NBA's Atlanta Hawks when he received the phone call, an offer to be the radio announcer for his boyhood team. He'd grown up listening to Allen, and Scully and Ernie Harwell, too, and knew from a very early age that he wanted to be on the radio.

Baseball was his first love, but broadcasting was his unequivocal passion.

"Even though I'm a Yankees fan, I wanted to see all the players, from all the teams, not just my team," Sterling said. "Even though I listened to Mel Allen, I listened to everyone, and I gleaned a little bit from everyone. And then you go on the air and you do it your way."

Sterling has been doing it his way ever since. He may not be Harry Kalas, the beloved Philadelphia Phillies voice who died earlier this year, or even the affable Bob Uecker - although that may be closer to target. Sterling is entirely his own character, one that Yankees fans have grown to appreciate.

"He's very entertaining, and for a guy like me, I really dig that. To each his own," Swisher said, breaking into a laugh when asked for his favorite Sterlingism.

"Robbie Cano, don't you know!"

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