By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
The drama was building that October night in Georgia.
The Toronto Blue Jays had scored twice in the top of the 11th to break the 2-2 tie in Game 6 of the 1992 World Series.
I was seated in the Fulton-County Stadium press box alongside my pal Bill Lankhof. Little did we know three booths down the hall in the visiting radio booth Jerry Howarth was telling his audience:
“And a ground ball hit over third ... a base hit down the line ... White scores ... it’s picked up and bobbled by Gant ... he dropped the ball in the corner ... Alomar scores on a Dave Winfield two-base hit.”
After Candy Maldonado popped up, now, it was three outs to go for the Jays to bring the first Series title north of the border.
Jays broadcasts were scheduled so that Cheek worked five innings — the first and second, fifth and sixth, plus the ninth — while Howarth called four — the third and fourth, seventh and eighth. If extras arose they would alternate, with Cheek working the 10th.
Jimmy Key was on the mound for his second inning of work, yet the real drama was taking place in the visiting radio booth. Now, the 11th inning was Howarth’s, just as it was back in 1980 or 1990. But in 1992 with three outs remaining, Howarth pulled a fast one ... straight from the heart. As commercials in Toronto ended the light went on inside the booth in Atlanta, Howarth said:
“Now, here’s my partner Tom Cheek to take you the rest of the way.”
Cheek had been there on that snowy day in 1977 when Doug Ault had become the Blue Jays first hero, he had been there through the three-100 loss seasons, the near miss seasons when the Toronto franchise earned the nickname “The Blow Jays.” Why should not Cheek broadcast tell the listeners of the final three outs.
It wasn’t without drama as Key allowed a lead-off single to Jeff Blauser, Damon Berryhill reached on an error by Alfredo Griffin and the runners were bunted over. Brian Hunter grounded out to make it a one-run game with pinch runner John Smoltz moving to third. Manager Cito Gaston headed to the mound with Otis Nixon coming up. Key said, “I haven’t had much luck with this guy.” Gaston went to Mike Timlin, who fielded Nixon’s bunt attempt, and threw to Joe Carter for the final out. It was Timlin’s first save of the season and the first October we saw Carter jump for joy.
But looking back all these years later at the time of THE moment, the biggest moment in Blue Jays history at the time Howarth said to his long-time partner “you call it.” I imagine it is a moment that a play-by-play broadcaster lives for: calling the final out.
A broadcast booth can contain two of three egos -- sometimes the door has to be left open -- has never been known for going by seniority.
Howarth left Cheek alone at the mike with engineer Bruce Brenner and his call:
“Throw to Carter and the Blue Jays win it ... The Blue Jays win it ... The Blue Jays are World Series champions ... They come pouring out of the dugout and they are mobbing Carter ... And they go down in one big collective heap by the first base bag here a big pile up ... Somebody on the bottom might be hurt in all of that.
“The Blue Jays have won the World Series ... So Canada let it all out ... It’s party time ... It was a long time coming but it’s here ... A ground ball, a bunted ball picked up by Timlin, he throws it to Joe Carter for the final out of this ball game and the Blue Jays are the champions of baseball in their 16th season with all of those disappointments back through the years ... The monkey on their back from ‘85, ‘87 and ‘91 ... They do it here in Atlanta in a hard-fought victory.”
Thee Jays had their first title, made possible by the Winfield bouncer down the line.
And Cheek called it, thanks to Howarth.
* * *
Eric Nadel called the other day.
“What’s up with Jerry, is he OK?” asked Nadel, the veteran Texas Rangers broadcaster, inquired about his friend Jerry Howarth.
Howarth, the Blue Jays broadcaster, stepped down from 36 years of broadcasting this week.
How good was Jerry amongst major-league broadcasters?
“Well, he might have been the best ‘describer’ I have ever listened to,” said Nadel, a Ford C. Frick Award winner for broadcasting excellence in 2014. Nadel was a regular listener to Joe Siddall, Mike Wilner and Howarth on Saturday afternoons when the Jays were at home while the Rangers played at night. And also listening on XM radio.
“Jerry was grossly underrated, I have taken more phrases from his broadcasts than anyone else other than Vin Scully,” Nadel said.
Scully was presented with the Frick Award in 1982 as was Jays broadcaster Tom Cheek in 2013.
“Jerry is a Frick award winner who may not win because Tom won so recently, Jerry has had that length of service. He was that good.”
What kind of detail would Howarth provide that other broadcasters did not?
Nadel recalled a routine pop up: “Say it was Jose Bautista for example, ‘Robinson Cano goes back makes the play, Bautista curls behind the mound, headed for the Jays third base dugout, carrying his bat in his right hand.’ You don’t often get that kind of detail. A lot of guys would be giving you instant analytic and analysis.”
Howarth was always paying it forward, according to Nadel, saying “Jerry has been more helpful to young announcers than anyone I know.”
“He makes tremendous suggestions and is always encouraging,” Nadel said. “When a guy sends me a tape, I always send it to Jerry too. Jerry always has more constructive ideas than I do. And he joyfully does it for these guys. He is a super pleasant guy.”
I met Howarth in 1985, travelled on team charters with him (1987-89), teased him, was teased by him, saw him interact with fans, with players and never once did I ever see him angry or have a bad day. He would correct me (“It was obstruction, you wrote interference,”) and I would correct him once in a while (“You said he pitched 6 2/3 shutout innings, a shutout is a complete game.”). Heck I even went to see him coach one of his high school games and noticed a lack of behind-the-back passes. The only time we ever strongly disagreed when I suggested maybe he should go easier on knocking a scorekeeper making $150 a game.
We all have faults. You hear coaches talk about a player’s need for composure ... Howarth had it from the time he walked into Exhibition Stadium or the Rogers Centre until the time he said “Hellllo friends,” and until we saw him catch the elevator home.
“Jerry has that friendly manner and also a personal warm as a broadcaster,” said Nadel, who grew up in Brooklyn listening to Mel Allen, Red Barber, Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy. He once asked his father if the New York Yankee broadcaster actually paid Allen.
“For a kid it seemed like a good question, he was getting to watch the games for free, eating Nathan's hot dogs, drinking Ballantine beer, plus smoking Winston’s (cigarettes) and White Owls (cigars).”
In the day broadcasters would not only read an ad for the client but display it as well.
Howarth and New York Yankees broadcaster John Sterling were the last men working 162-game seasons, according to Nadel.
“Vin Scully told Marty Brennaman to cut back years ago IF he wanted to do this longer,” Nadel said. “And Marty has preached it to other announcers.”
* * *
I had heard about Howarth's retirement and was sitting at the eye doctor, when my phone beeped.
I opened the text message. It was from a local coach in his 30s, a Blue Jays fan and a Howarth fan. It read:
"I have been crying all morning."
* * *
Yankees broadcaster John Sterling is used to sitting in the next booth to Howarth and the Blue Jays broadcasting crew.
“I know Jerry very well and I like him very much,” Sterling said. “Jerry would always come into our booth and smooze with Suzyn Waldman and I. I can understand why Toronto fans are feeling a void right now.
“As a broadcaster he was dead on. He told the truth. I’m very sorry that he won’t be working the 2018 season.”
Sterling stands out for the reason he did not miss a game last year and because he “Hasn’t missed a game since I began with the 1981 Atlanta Hawks,” Sterling said. His time in Atlanta spanned five seasons as he broadcast the NBA team as well as the Atlanta Braves ... “roughly 220 games a year.”
Eventually Sterling hit the wall in Atlanta, doing play-by play for the Hawks. for the Braves., plus hosting a talk show. Sterling had to have surgery to remove a vocal nodule. In 1989 he joined the Yankees booth.
Sterling explained how he was currently reading Ned Colletti’s excellent his book -- “The Big Chair: The Smooth Hops and Bad Bounces from the Inside World of the Acclaimed Los Angeles Dodgers” -- by the former Dodgers general manager.
“Ned wrote about growing up in Chicago, listening on the radio and how baseball was meant for radio,” said Sterling, whose grew up his ear turned to Pittsburgh Pirates’ Bob Prince on KDKA. “I would much prefer to do radio than TV.”
In Colletti’s must-read book, he explains listening to Vince Lloyd, Lou Boudreau and a young broadcaster named Jack Quinlan who died in a car crash at a young age. Then Colletti worked with Harry Caray with the Chicago Cubs and Vin Scully with the Dodgers.
“Jerry connected with his audience,” Sterling said. “You are there all 162 games for pregame, postgame, for four hours ... you are part of the family. You talk to the individual, rather than talking over his head.
“I hope that whatever it is affecting his voice can be fixed, I wish nothing but the best for Jerry Howarth.”
* * *
An excellent choice to replace Jerry Howarth would be Elliott Price (no relation). Price is an experienced voice already at The Fan working the morning show. He has 15 years experience in the Expos booth (four as the lead announcer, nine taking over on radio when Dave Van Horne did TV and two as pregame and postgame host).
Price worked with Ken Singleton, current Yankees broadcaster, Bobby Winkles, Bill Lee, Roberto Clemente Jr., Joe Block, the Pittsburgh Pirates play-by-play man and Richard Griffin to name a few.
* * *
Tom Hamilton grew up in Waterloo, Wisc. He worked triple-A games for the Columbus Clippers for three years. And in 1990 was hired to work with Herb Score as a Cleveland Indians broadcaster.
“That first year was such a blur, I tried to pick every one’s mind,” Hamilton said. “And Jerry Howarth and Tom Cheek were two of the kindest broadcasters I met. In 1990 Toronto’s building was packed. It was a team with a special allure. I could only imagine calling big moments like that.”
The Jays finished two games behind two games behind the Boston Red Sox drawing 3.8 million or an average of 41,688 fans.
Hamilton asked questions about how do you stay under control in exciting situations, the best way to do research, what do you say when a pitcher has a no-hit bid and how do you maintain enthusiasm if your team has a losing record.
“I can remember Jerry saying ‘Just do what you’ve been doing,’” Hamilton said. “Jerry was so open with advice. Your first year you worry about keeping your job, he was always very easy going, telling me ‘You’ll be fine don’t worry.’
“It’s a shame he won’t be working this season. I think we all want to go out on our own terms. The good Lord blessed him for a long time.”
Hamilton planned on stopping in Houston en route to the Indians’ spring home in Arizona as he readies himself for another year covering The Tribe. No, he was not going to see where the Houston Astros World Series parade was. He had much more important goal than that. The Kent State Golden Flashes are playing the Sam Houston State Bearkats, where Ryan Tepera went to school. The broadcaster’s son, Brad Hamilton, is a senior catcher with Kent State. Last year Hamilton hit .239 with three doubles, four homers, 12 RBIs and a .783 OPS in 27 games.
“Think how fortunate Toronto fans have been to have had two giants, Tom and Jerry, that doesn’t happen very often,” Hamilton said. “They were two of the game’s broadcasting giants. And before that fans could watch Tony Kubek on TV.”
Hamilton, now one of the game’s best, tried to listen to as many as Jays games as possible to hear Cheek and Howarth and listens to coast games on the drive home. The man who starts each home game with his ‘And we’re underway at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario!’ opening, appreciates Cheek as well. Especially Cheek’s call on Joe Carter’s walk-off drive to win the 1993 World Series: “Touch ‘em all, Joe, you’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life!”
“To this day I will go to my grave believing that there will never be a better call in a baseball call than ‘Touch ‘em all Joe.’ I could never be that good.”
Hamilton said it won’t be the same coming to Toronto this season.
“The only negative about Jerry,” said Hamilton pausing to put his tongue firmly in cheek, “was that he tells some of the worst jokes I have ever heard.”
The funny thing is ... lefty Mike Flanagan told Howarth the exact same thing on a Dallas-New York Blue Jays charter in 1988.
Farewell old friend, enjoy the grand kids. Someone told me they are life’s dessert.