Monday night I did something I’m certain I hadn’t done since the twilight of Fran Healy. I turned down the sound on a Mets-generated telecast so I could listen to the game on radio. GKR heresy, I know, but I gave Gary, Keith & Ron part of the exhibition season opener off so I could get a taste of Josh Lewin’s debut.
WFAN became a revelation for those innings, though not for the reason one might intuit. It’s not that I fell in love with Lewin all at once on his own merits, though he certainly did nothing to make me want to tune him out (which is a victory unto itself given what’s transpired in that booth since Gary Cohen vacated it). It was that I fell in love all over again with Howie Rose because of how he meshed with Josh Lewin. I’d go as far to say I might fall in love all over again with the Mets on the radio again given the simpatico these two seemed to have right off the bat.
At some point between pitches, Josh invoked the 2002 Mets as an example of when things don’t go very well in Flushing. A little later, he brought up the 1984 Mets as evidence that sometimes things go better than expected. Howie warmed to both subjects instantly. Of course he did. He’s Howie Rose. He’s every Mets fan’s rabbi, disseminating our Old Testament — the Book of Stengel, the Book of Hodges, the Book of Frank Howard even — when not tending to balls and strikes.
Think Wayne Hagin ever played to Howie’s strengths? Oh good lord, Wayne Hagin…I so wanted to not detest him if only to push against the popular tide of anti-Haginism that developed as soon as he opened his mouth in these parts in 2008. In four seasons, I never met a single Mets fan who told me, “Y’know who I like? Wayne Hagin.” The nicest thing I ever heard anybody say about Wayne was when I would hear myself say, “At least he’s better than Tom McCarthy.” The second-nicest thing was my characterization of Hagin as someone who knew his baseball and brought a useful outsider’s perspective to this thing of ours. We already know what Howie knows because Howie has been knowing it since 1962 and has been telling it to us in various capacities since 1987. Howie knows what we all know, but at a depth the rest of us could never hope to attain in this lifetime. So, I reasoned at the outset of Hagin’s tenure, let’s hear what somebody who knows other stuff has to say.
It was occasionally enlightening, but mostly it was slow. I’m pretty sure there are galaxies that Hagin’s description of a double play ball from 2010 is just now reaching. And as for that dandy outsider’s perspective, after a while hearing stories about what Dante Bichette or Jim Edmonds would do in this situation lost its charm. By last year, I was as awash in the popular anti-Hagin tide as anybody: get Hagin out of here, I insisted to my radio.
What I disliked most about him was he sapped the sparkle out of Howie’s voice. Half the time, it seemed Howie was explaining the Met way to Wayne, reminiscent of Ralph Kiner drawing Lorn Brown a verbal diagram of Banner Day because Lorn had never heard of perhaps our most beloved tradition (which wouldn’t have disqualified the late Mr. Brown from working in the Mets marketing department over the past decade, I’m guessing). The other half of the time, Howie edged into kvetchiness. Not uncalled for kvetchiness — to the contrary, it was often righteous kvetching (the black uniforms, the Sunday night start times). But it was taking a toll. Between McCarthy for two seasons reminding me he was no Gary Cohen and Hagin disturbing Howie Rose’s chemistry, I grew to consider my hours away from SNY as some kind of Radio Nowhere purgatory.
Which bummed me out no end. Put aside the sublime GKR trinity and how you’d never want to skip their nightly baseball buffet if you didn’t have to (it was so cute listening to them catch up with each other Monday night like they were eighth-graders returning for the first day of school). Mets games on the radio were a cherished way of life for me from the moment I discovered they existed. I almost never felt like I was missing anything if I couldn’t be by a TV, not in the Original Three days, not when Bob Murphy became exclusively audio in the company of Steve Lamar and then Gary Thorne, certainly not in the long and amazing heyday of Murph and Cohen. When Murph retired and Howie Rose was named his successor, and we were granted 162 audiences with Howie and Gary…honestly, I’m not sure why I kept paying my cable bill.
Then our world changed, all for the better where television was concerned, generally for the worst on WFAN. McCarthy was not a worthy partner to Howie. Hagin was not a worthy partner to Howie. It had gotten so bad that I almost didn’t mind Ed Coleman subbing…and every time Ed Coleman says “cut on and missed,” an angel tears out his wings.
Monday night, though, I was living in a double-dream world. There were five announcers on two media (along with amiable roving reporter Kevin Burkhardt) who totally got the Mets thing. Gary and Howie are lifelong Mets fans. Keith and Ron are all-time Mets idols. Josh, we’ve learned, grew up a Mets fan way the hell upstate, choosing Willie Montañez as his favorite hitter, Nino Espinosa as his favorite pitcher and Nino’s afro as his favorite hairstyle. If we didn’t know that about Lewin before Monday night, it was there to pick up on throughout that maiden broadcast.
It was only a few innings of a spring game, so nothing was at stake, but geez he and Howie sounded at ease, and when you get right down to it, that’s what I want. I want two guys with whom I relish spending an evening; the business of home run calls and hit-and-run analysis tends to take care of itself. Howie was the Howie who spent those five-hour shifts edifying and entertaining me when the FAN was new and sports talk could be intelligent. He was the Howie who thrived in 2004 and 2005, when he and Gary broadcast on a special high-pitched frequency only true Mets fans could really hear. He was Howie Rose in full revival, a little like Bob Murphy was when Gary Thorne (and the 1985-1988 Mets) showed up to nudge him back to total Murphness, a state of being every Mets fan intrinsically understands as transcendent.
Part of me still feels a bit bad that we couldn’t hack it with Hagin. It almost seems the easy way out, hiring a Mets fan who sprinkles just the right amount of Metnip in Howie’s vicinity. So many who didn’t have to sit through Hagin’s labored play-by-play or his alien intonations swore he was a sweetheart. I have no reason to doubt it. For all I know, Howie loved him. But I didn’t and we didn’t. Yet I wonder if we as Mets fans have gotten to the point where we have to be spoonfed with blue and orange flatware. Everybody who announces to us comes at us with a Met pedigree. Is that what it takes to satisfy us? If young Bob Murphy arrived here from Oklahoma on a flight with Tennessee’s Lindsey Nelson and Pittsburgh Pirate great Ralph Kiner in tow, would we snarl because we’d assume they don’t get us?
I don’t think it’s geography. Ted Robinson and Tom McCarthy had grown up as Mets fans, and it didn’t buy them much goodwill. Maybe their mistake was shoving that part of their identity deep within their souls in the name of some bland, nebulous quality labeled professionalism. We want professionalism, of course, but we want people, too. Rose and Cohen are people — Met people, as it happens. Murph was people. Tim McCarver, with no Met connection whatsoever prior to joining us in 1983, was more people than younger viewers could probably fathom now. I suppose there are matters of taste and perception involved with cottoning to announcers. But we the consumers deserve to cotton to whom our ears and our brains are attracted. I probably won’t be turning down the sound on SNY this season as I once did routinely with MSG and the defunct Fox Sports Net New York (Healy…there’s another all-time mystery), but I will no longer be cringing when left to my Mets radio devices.
Nothing sounds better to me than that.