Nov 26, 2015
Talking baseball with the voice of the Blue Jays
Broadcaster Jerry Howarth reflects on a magical season and a remarkable career behind the microphone
Next season will mark Jerry Howarth’s 35th year as the voice of the Toronto Blue Jays.
By J.P. Antonacci
As the radio voice of the Toronto Blue Jays, it’s Jerry Howarth’s job to describe the on-field action for the folks listening at home.
But there was one moment during the exciting 2015 season that left the veteran broadcaster speechless.
It happened during one of the most unbelievable innings in baseball history.
Game 5 of the American League Division Series. Jays and Rangers. Bottom of the seventh, the score tied 3-3 after a bizarre play in the top half of the inning that saw a Texas runner scamper home after a routine throw back to the pitcher by Jays catcher Russell Martin caromed off the knob end of Shin-Soo Choo’s bat.
The Jays got one back on a Josh Donaldson single after three Texas errors had loaded the bases in the bottom of the inning.
Up came Jose Bautista.
With one of the most emphatic calls of his career, Howarth described what happened next: “All eyes on the mound and the bearded Sam Dyson. Now he comes set. Kicks. The 1-1 pitch – fly ball, deep left field! Yes sir! There. She. Goes.”
Pandemonium ensued, with the roar of the delirious crowd pulsating through the radio. Howarth let the joyous screams of 50,000 fans tell the story, before coming back on the air 48 seconds later to update the score.
“I’d have to say that in August, September and October, those were the three most enjoyable months with the crowd that I have enjoyed up here in 34 years,” Howarth said during a recent interview with Norfolk News.
“‘92 and ‘93 were great. The Blue Jays won the World Series. It was an older crowd, it was a corporate crowd,” he continued.
“But this crowd was younger. They hadn’t experienced ‘92 and ‘93, for the most part. They were passionate. They were hungry. This was their team, from the first time the pitcher went out to warm up, standing and cheering right on through to the end of the game. I’d never experienced anything like that.”
As the Blue Jays made their run to the club’s first postseason appearance in more than two decades, the players talked about how, night after night, the raucous crowds gave them a boost.
Howarth said it was the same in the broadcast booth. He and analyst Joe Siddall could “sit back and let the crowd wash in over the microphone, and let the fans feel that they were right there. So that, across Canada, they could also feel that emotion, that excitement, that electricity. They were listening, they were cheering, and that’s what made it so much fun for me and for the fans, especially after 22 years.”
The longtime broadcaster rises to the occasion when describing dramatic moments like Bautista’s bat-flipping playoff heroics. But it’s the enthusiasm Howarth brings to each pitch of his more than 5,000 big-league games that has earned the San Francisco native a reputation as one of the best game-callers in the business.
“I’ve always taken great pride in my broadcasting work, but it’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about the broadcast, it’s about the team, it’s about the connection with the team, the connection with the audience.”
Howarth says he simply loves being at the ballpark, no matter who wins.
“I have not had a game, when I look back over my 34 years – plus five in the Coast League – when I didn’t want to do it, or I felt deflated or flat because the team wasn’t doing well.
“It’s just the opposite. Every game tells its own story. And that’s what I love about baseball – the passion and love for the game, and then whatever happens, happens.”
A PASSION FOR SPORTS
As a kid, Howarth would lie in bed listening to Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons bring the magic of Giants baseball into his bedroom. He tuned into Bill King’s broadcasts of Warriors basketball, while Simmons relayed the latest news about Howarth’s beloved San Francisco 49ers.
Upon graduating from Santa Clara University in 1968 with an economics degree, Howarth dreamed of writing features for Sports Illustrated. Instead, he joined the army, and after a stint as an officer in Germany returned to his alma mater to fund raise for the athletics department.
He tried to get on the school’s basketball and football broadcasts to heighten his profile as a fund raiser, but was rebuffed by a fellow SCU alumnus, who was calling the games and said he didn’t see a future for Howarth behind the microphone.
“I was blessed with the competitive gene, as I call it. And that was a challenge to me,” Howarth said.
So he went to as many games as he could, sitting on top of the press box and recording his own version of the play by play on a tape recorder the newlywed bought with wedding money.
“I would do a full broadcast on the tape recorder as though I were doing the games on radio. Then I would go back to my apartment, listen to the games completely, take notes. I was able to hear all the things I wanted to correct,” Howarth said.
After two years, he said, “I could hear the improvement. I could hear eliminating link words, or words that didn’t matter, and I could hear my insight getting better.”
Finally, Dan Fitzgerald from Santa Clara’s athletics department listened to some of Howarth’s tapes and deemed him ready to take a stab at a broadcasting career.
His first break came courtesy of Doug MacArthur, athletic director at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, who hired Howarth to call the school’s football and basketball games. That led to a gig with the triple-A Tacoma Twins, a minor league affiliate of the Seattle Mariners.
Veteran Pacific Coast League broadcaster Don Hill gave Howarth feedback and suggestions for improvement after each Twins broadcast, an offer of mentorship the young play-by-play man eagerly accepted.
“That’s part of being a broadcaster, too – you have to take everything in and choose what you think is best,” said Howarth. “Even to this day, I try to make that broadcast better than the day before, and I’ve been doing this 39 years.”
Howarth’s good work in Tacoma brought him to the AAA Salt Lake City Gulls, where he called games while also serving as the club’s assistant general manager for three seasons.
After a spell calling minor league basketball games and working in sales for the NBA’s Utah Jazz, Howarth found himself hosting a sports talk show in Salt Lake City when Len Bramson of the Hewpex Sports Network invited him to fill in for Blue Jays broadcaster Early Wynn for a weekend series in Detroit.
The man who had made a point of treating every broadcast as though he were calling a major league game made his big league debut beside future partner Tom Cheek in 1980.
He sat in for 30 Jays games the next year, and joined the crew for good in 1982.
Since then, Howarth has become part of the sound track of summer.
His cheerful voice provides company on long drives and is the backdrop to backyard games of catch and afternoons spent digging in the garden or relaxing on the patio.
Thanks to satellite radio and the internet, Howarth helps baseball fans around the world keep tabs on Canada’s team.
“It feels great,” he said. “And now the broadcasts are everywhere. I enjoy broadcasting for the Blue Jays here in Ontario, across Canada, across the United States and around the globe. It’s just, you do your job, you do it well … and we’re doing it for everybody, wherever they happen to be. I like that.”
Howarth’s love of his job is evident from the first moments of the broadcast: “Hello, friends,” he says. “Delighted to have you with us.” It’s a congenial welcome that immediately invites fans to, as he puts it before each game, “settle in and enjoy Blue Jays baseball.”
“I’ve always considered myself a friendly person. I didn’t want to be just another ‘Hello, everyone,’” he said, imitating a low, flat voice.
“That’s not ‘everyone’ out there – those are my friends, wherever they happen to be. So that was very natural. It’s, ‘Hey, this is a baseball game. Let’s enjoy this.’”
And enjoy it he has, largely because of the men who’ve been in the booth with him. Among the broadcasters Howarth has worked with are Alan Ashby, Jack Morris and Mike Wilner, but the partner with whom he will forever be associated is Hall of Famer Tom Cheek.
“Tom was the sophisticated Blue Jays fan,” Howarth said.
“He was every fan’s ideal and dream; if that fan could be a broadcaster, that fan would like to be Tom. Because Tom was so happy when the Blue Jays won, but there were other times, when the Blue Jays weren’t doing too well, that he showed his frustration. He was truly a Blue Jays broadcaster.”
The voluble veteran and amiable newcomer were christened “Tom and Jerry” at their introductory press conference, a moniker Howarth enjoyed from the start.
“Tom was a big cat, I was a little mouse, and I kinda liked that because I grew up watching Tom and Jerry,” he chuckled.
“Sometimes the best teams are the most opposite, and I think Tom and I were opposites on the mike (and) off the mike.
“But together we had one goal, and that was to make it the most professional broadcast two play-by-play men could do. And we did that.”
Howarth seems to have found a kindred spirit in his current broadcast partner, Joe Siddall, a former big-league catcher who Howarth says picks up on “the nuances and subtleties of the games we’re seeing each day. For me, that made it so much fun. I just got out of the way of the crowd and of Joe, and that’s what makes for a great team.”
The duo have a rapport on and off the air. “Joe over the last couple of years has become one of my best friends,” Howarth said. “He truly is one of the nicest people I have ever met. And he loves baseball like I do.”
Just as players use spring training to practice a new pitch or work on batting fundamentals, Howarth is famous for spending his time in Dunedin cramming a notebook full of stats and stories he will use on the air throughout the season.
A midsummer bout of laryngitis this season proved he’s not invincible, but Howarth’s voice has remained strong and clear as he looks ahead to his 70th birthday next spring, a feat he credits to good nutrition, drinking plenty of water, getting enough rest and turning to speech therapists for advice on how to care for his vocal chords.
He sought that advice when, 33 games into his tenure in Toronto, a vocal ailment forced him off the air. “People ask me about streaks. Tom Cheek’s streak was 4,306 games. Mine was 33 before I got my first case of laryngitis,” Howarth chuckled.
As an interviewer, Howarth has a knack for getting players and coaches to move beyond sports clichés and sound like they’re actually being themselves. He says his approach to interviewing is to ask concise questions and “listen intently,” so that each exchange is more of a conversation rather than a scripted Q and A.
“When I first started at Santa Clara, I had a list of questions, and some of them were written out. And then someone said to me, why don’t you just have the first question prepared, and listen to what they have to say?” he said.
“What you’re doing as an interviewer is you’re trying to find out what kind of personality is at the other end. I tell people, it’s not about expectations. Who’s that real person?”
FAITH AND FAMILY
It’s hard to be humble when you are the recipient of the Jack Graney award, given out by the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame to members of the media who make a significant contribution to the game of baseball in Canada.
But Howarth, who does charity work for Special Olympics and is in demand as a host for events like the annual Etobicoke Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner, stays grounded in his family and his Christian faith.
He calls his relationship with God “front and centre in my life. It’s first and foremost, and everything else follows.”
That includes his high-profile job.
“You’re only broadcasting because you want to love, praise and serve the Lord with that broadcast,” he said. “And every day before I go on (the air), I say, ‘Lord, thank you for letting me broadcast this game. May it be informative and entertaining for the audience to listen to. I appreciate the opportunity to do it. Let this be the best broadcast it can be, and thank you for letting me do it.”
Howarth says his wife Mary and sons Ben and Joe are the most important people in his life. He and Mary met at law school. He left after a year to follow his passion for broadcasting, while she still practices law.
“You have to marry someone who’s a loving baseball wife, as we call it, and Mary has been that,” Howarth said of his partner of 43 years. “And you have to have someone who has her own life that you then share, because you’re on the road so often. I’m very blessed to have met someone who fits into all of those areas and complements me and what I do.”
Baseball’s offseason rumor mill is in full swing, but these days Howarth is keeping a closer watch on the hard court at Etobicoke Collegiate Institute, where he has coached basketball since 1991.
Soon, however, it will be time for the voice of the Blue Jays to head to spring training, notebook in hand, and see if the team that excited a nation can duplicate last year’s success – a challenge Howarth says starts in the clubhouse.
“This was one of the best clubhouses that the Blue Jays have had since 1993. And that was borne out both in the clubhouse in the beginning, and then the additions on July 29 of Tulowitzki et al,” he said. “And that’s how you win. You win with defence and with character players who are there to do one thing – prepare and work hard to win games at the professional level.
“It’s that desire, that will to be better. Not everybody’s in that category, but those are the ones who stand out, and then they set a standard for everybody else.
One of the hardest workers in Howarth’s eyes is the man who was just voted the most valuable player in the American League.
“Josh Donaldson quickly comes to mind with this year’s team, but there are so many, too, over the years.”
Whether the Jays win or lose, Howarth will continue to love every day of his job, taking things as he always does – one pitch at a time.
“Enjoy the moment, you’re not promised tomorrow,” he said. “I’ve been blessed by God to do all these things and stay healthy, enjoy my wife, my family, my two kids. Lucky me.”
THE BLUE JAYS ARE IN FLIGHT
“My dad (Jerry Sr.) came up here in ’83, my second year in, and he said, ‘Jerry, what you might do is, when the Blue Jays score their first run, say the Blue Jays are in flight.’ I said, ‘Dad, I’m doing that for you the rest of my career.’”
AND THERE SHE GOES!
“It was at Exhibition Stadium, a sunny day, about the fourth inning, and somebody hit a home run to left field. I said, ‘And there it goes!’ And I said to myself, ‘Okay, that’s something I might consider down the road.’ Well, about an inning later, another Blue Jay hit a home run to left field, and I said, ‘And there she goes!’” And I said, ‘That’s it.’ The ‘yes sir’ comes in on occasion, but it’s got to be spontaneous.”
“That was from my wife Mary, who said to make sure the audience knows it’s a Blue Jay who scores, you could really emphasize that.”
CALL IT TWO, A DOUBLE PLAY
“I just enjoyed it. That was one of the rare ones of my own.”
My Greatest Day in Baseball
“It would be Game 6 in Atlanta, 11th inning, and my pleasure to call Dave Winfield’s two-out, two-run double down the left-field line for a four to two lead.
“Then in the commercial break, unbeknownst to Tom (Cheek, who had been with the team since Day One), saying to myself, ‘It’s only right that Tom call the bottom of the 11th inning, and call the first-ever world championship for the Blue Jays.’
“And coming back and saying that on the air: ‘Now here’s my partner Tom Cheek to take you the rest of the way.’
“That’s probably the most memorable moment I’ve had, which led afterwards to my wife and two sons being in the clubhouse, (and) a great father-son moment as I congratulated every Blue Jay on winning a world championship with Ben on my right shoulder and Joe on my left.”
Fundamentals of a good broadcast
• Be prepared, but don’t overdo your prepared material
• Be fundamentally sound
• Incorporate the crowd and public address announcer
• Let the analyst do their job and highlight the game
• Don’t plan the analysis; be spontaneous
• Less is more; simplicity is the beauty of a broadcast