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.