Learning to Love John Sterling

Some think fondness for radio announcer John Sterling is a Yankee fan's version of Stockholm Syndrome. But over the past few years, my appreciation has become sincere. (AP Photo)

Some think fondness for radio announcer John Sterling is a Yankee fan's version of Stockholm Syndrome. But over the past few years, my appreciation has become sincere. (AP Photo)

There are about 8,500 Google results for the phrase “John Sterling sucks,” and that actually seems kind of low to me. Perhaps that’s because of how intensely his haters disapprove of the way he calls a baseball game—the way he creates home-run catchphrases for each player on the Yankees, or the way he stretches out the word “the” in his call of “thuuuuuhhh Yankees win,” or the way he botches the occasional call, prompting mockery from well-known sports-talk radio hosts and anonymous YouTube commenters alike.

Indeed, the anti-Sterling chorus is a loud one. But I am not one of the haters. Here’s why.

* * *

There are a couple of different aspects to the John Sterling Experience. The one that gets the most attention is his shtick—the forced catchphrases and the extreme enthusiasm. I’ll get to that in a minute, because it’s the most polarizing thing about him.

But the other aspect is the way he calls the rest of the game — the parts where he’s not screaming or singing or stretching the word “the” into something with nine syllables.

Love him or hate him, Sterling has a great announcer’s voice — deep and authoritative, with attention paid to the proper enunciation of every word. Sterling’s a broadcaster because it’d be a waste for him to be doing anything else. He has his flaws, to be sure: He inexplicably insists on announcing plays before an umpire has signaled his call, and he’s been known to jump into his trademark home run call on balls that die at the warning track. For that I offer no defense, though it is sort of fun to goof on him when he botches these types of calls.

But again, the backlash against Sterling has nothing to do with his technical skills as an announcer, and all the screw-ups are just a part of it. It’s Sterling’s shtick that drives certain people mad. But I’ve learned to love it.

I consider myself something of a Sterlingologist. (It’s not bragging if the thing you declare yourself an expert in is this stupid, right?) I once rated noteworthy calls in a feature called “Deconstructing Sterling.” I assembled what I’m confident is the definitive categorization of his home-run catchphrases. And I’ve been known to express disappointment when he fails to live up to my standards, and applaud him when he does.

I’ve heard more than one person compare their grudging acceptance of Sterling to Stockholm Syndrome — that eventually, some Yankees fans have come to embrace the man who’s been torturing them with calls like “You’re on the mark, Teixeira” and “Curtis, you’re something sort of grandish” for decades.

Initially, I think my appreciation of Sterling was almost Pavlovian. I’m a Yankees fan, and so I associated his insane home run calls and “Yankees win” exclamations with happy feelings. I may have recognized his calls as objectively embarrassing, but I didn’t care. For some reason, I was drawn to them.

But over the past few years, my appreciation for Sterling has grown more sincere. I’ve written this before, but I’ll admit that I giggle at his silly catchphrases, even as I roll my eyes. I now look at Sterling the way I look at the New York Post ‘s front page: The more the headline makes your roll your eyes, the better it is. The Post is ridiculous, sure, but I’d hate for them to start using straightforward headlines on the front page, free of puns and sexual innuendo. Similarly, I’d miss Sterling if the Yankees replaced him with a professional, boring play-by-play man. I want him to introduce terrible, amazing home calls every season, forever. Too many Sterlings—like too many New York Posts—wouldn’t be a good thing. But there’s a place for silly, even in a profession with a long history of no-nonsense (or at least, little-nonsense) icons.

* * *

Once upon a time, I laughed at Sterling when he broke out his crazy home run calls. But now I think I’m both laughing at him and with him. He seems to be in on the joke—crafting increasingly complex, absurd home run calls, for the entertainment of people like me. And I eat them up. After all, if the main purpose of a baseball broadcast is to inform the listener (which Sterling does, at least when he’s not jumping the gun on an ump’s call or failing to properly follow the ball once it’s put into play), then there’s no reason the secondary purpose can’t be to entertain. It’s like a “Big Show”-era edition of SportsCenter, but with more Broadway references.

Back in 2009, I watched Sterling speak to a theater full of Yankees fans at the premiere of that season’s World Series film. Sterling spoke for a few moments, building his speech up to his most famous catchphrase, “Yankees win! Thuuuuuhhh Yankees win!” This was a man well aware of his shtick.

And maybe it’s that Pavlovian response I spoke of earlier, or maybe it’s because I find some of the wordplay legitimately clever, but I’m onboard with said shtick. Sometimes his calls are kind of lazy, and that’s no fun. But he’s at his best when he really goes for it. Again like a good tabloid headline, his Vernon Wells call — “The Bronx is Vernon”—is equal parts cringeworthy and brilliant. The complicated, Broadway-referencing call he used to use for Lance Berkman was insane, but inspired. I even enjoy trying to think of his next absurd catchphrase whenever the Yankees add a new player. (I’m still stunned, given his fondness for calls that reference weapons of mass destruction, that he didn’t use “An Adams bomb” for young infielder David Adams.)

* * *

The Yankees have been working on one-year radio deals for the past couple of seasons, which means Sterling isn’t locked up contractually for the long-term. There’s actually some question as to whether he and broadcast partner Suzyn Waldman — with whom he undeniably has great chemistry — will be in the Yankees’ booth beyond this season. That slight uncertainty has made me picture a world in which someone other than Sterling is calling games — a world without personalized homer calls and repeated use of the phrase “You can’t predict baseball.” But you know what? That world would be less fun. I’d miss goofing on his miscues, but I’d also miss obsessing over his ridiculous calls. Sterling can be loud and obnoxious and over-the-top, but that’s why he’s perfect for the job. He’s the announcer we Yankee fans deserve. Never change, John.

13 thoughts on “Learning to Love John Sterling

  1. Sterling and company resrict my Yankee experience to TV. NY must love the shtick but I’d rather not listen. You can. There some great announcers out there but the Yankees have the best team they can buy and if that’s what they want, then they can have it. Just can’t have me as a listener.

  2. I am that rare breed of baseball fan who neither loves nor hates the Yankees. I love baseball on the raido and subscribe to XM Satellite Radio so I can get as much of it as I can. I am an Atlanta Braves fan and I hated it when Sterling left their booth. As a former play-by-play announcer (local high school and college sports), I appreciate the quality of Sterling’s voice and the job he does keeping the listeners informed about what actually is taking place on the field; he is one of the best at that. I, too, roll my eyes at many of his expressions, but I’m listening for entertainment and Sterling provides it in spades. The one criticism I have of Sterling is that there have been times when I have listened to his broadcast of a particular play and then seen video of that same play on ESPN only to find that Sterling has been hyperbolic in his discription of some Yankee feat (this seems especially prevalent when describing anything Derek Jeter does.) All of this being said, don’t get me started on Suzyn Waldman.

  3. Sterling’s home-run calls are absurd and he often confuses a home-run for an out or a double for a foul ball, but, like you, although I initially cringe, somewhere deep down inside, I actually enjoy these calls. One of the biggest problems I have with Sterling is that he is lazy with his routine calls and you cannot be a good radio announcer if you don’t adequately describe what’s going on. Sterling often describes a play this way: “He swings and hits it to the right side….and it’s foul” or “He swings and hits it to the right side….and it’s in the gap and will go all the way to the wall.” Another great Sterling-ism is when he provides a statistic and then rhetorically asks Suzyn, “What does that really mean anyway?”

  4. I have lived with the sublime and the ridiculous … I grew up in Detroit, and got to hear the great Ernie Harwell, from the 1960s until his last game … and, I now live in the New York suburbs and am subjected to John Sterling.

    I used to travel around the country hoping to catch WJR (780) on a summer evening, so I could hear Harwell broadcast the Tigers’ game … he knew how one could tell more by saying less.

    Now, if I have to listen to a Yankees’ game, I will do so only on TV, as Art (above) does. Sterling has caused me to refuse to listen to a Yankees’ game that he broadcasts.

    And, I have lived in the New York area over 35 years!

  5. When I was a kid (late 70s/early 80s), I used to tape record radio broadcasts as I was falling asleep so I could listen to the ends of the games when I woke up the next morning. I still have some of those tapes in storage somewhere. I found one a few months ago of a Phillies game with the late Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn. Those were two guys I really enjoyed listening to as a kid. As I listened to the broadcast, and after I got over the initial nostalgia, I discovered something: it was mind-numbingly boring. So much dead air! I could barely believe it.

    Now I’m not going to say that Sterling is superior to either of those announcers, but I will say this. I find him entertaining, mostly because he’s into doing what he does in a way that I find eminently “listenable.” Yeah, there are times I roll my eyes at the home run calls, but in the same way the author states, I do find myself laughing at them as well. And the missed calls? Funny how when Phil Rizzuto did it, it was charming and folksy, but when Sterling does it, it’s an abomination. (Who should have a better perspective of a home run or medium fly ball? A broadcaster or a professional baseball player?) So that stuff never really bothered me, no matter who was misreading the call. In general, I tend to tune out discussions of how this announcer sucks and that announcer sucks. In the end, if I find a certain broadcaster (or broadcasting team) annoying, I either turn the sound off in the case of TV, or not listen in the case of radio and follow the game online or some other way. Problem solved. With some folks, though, it seems they will always tune in to the announcers they dislike just so they can relish in complaining about them. Such is life these days.

    I realize Sterling is a polarizing figure to Yankee fans, but this Yankee fan gets a kick out of Sterling. And I find it extremely amusing when my friends go on and on about how much they hate the guy, criticizing him left and right and pining for the day when he gets replaced. But when the game ends with a Yankee victory, they’re the first people to stand up and scream, “The Yankees win, thheeeeeeeeeeee Yankees WINNN!!!!!”

  6. Sterling is a bit of a joke to be sure. But like the author says he is in on the joke. How the poor people in Chicago(White Sox Version) tolerate that broadcast team is beyond me. Homerism has always had a place in baseball broadcasting but “Hawk” and whatever ex-player they set beside him are unlistenable to the point that Sterling seems to belong in the same sentence as Vin Scully.

  7. As bad as you think he is, you have never experienced just plain awful until you have been subjected to Jim Price ruining Detroit Tigers’ broadcasts. Absolutely horrific.

  8. John Sterling is everything of which he has been accused. However, he has a great set of pipes and appears for all 162 games. On the television side, Michael Kay seldom travels.
    He calls about 100 games a year. That makes Sterling the “voice” of the Yankees.
    Sterling and Suzyn Waldman are like comfort food for the true Yankees fans. You know what you are getting, and they are always there. I watch virtually every game on TV unless I am at the game. However, I always access my MLB.com for the radio call.
    I want them calling the games for me until they keel over dead, hopefully in the press box. They are Yankees baseball.

  9. Good article and your perspective is appreciated. I respect John Sterling and his decades of hard work and dedication. I simply can’t endure the tandem of John and Suzyn any longer. For the last couple of seasons I’ve been lowering the volume of my car radio in between pitches and then I try to time it for when live action may resume. My breaking point was the incessant speculation and strategizing by Mr. Sterling on how the Yankees have to “build runs”, “make productive outs”, “build the bridge to Mariano”, and on and on. I’d much rather listen to the game naturally transpire. I thoroughly enjoy listening to satellite MLB radio broadcasts that simply announce play by play (Howie Rose, Dave Sims, Gary Thorne, etc). There’s so much to be said for being able to hear the sounds of the ballpark in the background (see Vin Scully). At the very least, please bring in a professional play by play voice, not a daily news home town homer, to do a few innings by themself, similar to Met broadcasts where the announcers alternate.
    I choose not to discuss S. Waldman here.
    Thanks again for the stimulating article.
    Brendan S. (Nassau County)

  10. I love John Sterling & I’m a Red Sox fan? I have to admit that I listen to him when the two teams play against each other. That’s pretty weird but so is life…
    Go Sox!!!