FEATURE

Outta Here!

How Mets announcer Gary Cohen ’81CC went from the kid in the stands to the man at the mic.

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2017
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Photograph by Marc Levine/SNY

Gary Cohen ’81CC sits at his laptop in the booth behind home plate at Citi Field. The mezzanine-level view takes in the groomed dirt of the diamond, the crosscut outfield grass, the empty dark-green stands, the center-field video board, and the cotton-candy-blue sky over Flushing, Queens. Cohen’s broadcast partners of twelve seasons, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez, who both played on the fabled 1986 Mets championship team, have yet to arrive. A cameraman is futzing with a wire. It’s three hours before game time, and Cohen is doing his homework.

“On the air, I have to be ready to address whatever comes up, and you never know what that will be,” says Cohen, checking the latest stats and storylines for the opposing Miami Marlins. “It could be about a player in today’s game or something that happened yesterday or last week or two years ago or fifty years ago.” Cohen types some notes. “I spend most waking hours during baseball season just trying to be ready.”

Cohen has a clear, strong, middle-lower-register voice that can rise as fast and high as a smacked fly ball. On the air with Darling and Hernandez, it’s a voice of unassuming command — deliberate, quick-witted, diagnostic, inflected with the subtle wryness of a consummate straight man. “I’m kind of like the traffic cop” is how Cohen puts it. “So much depends on personality. Ronnie’s professorial, Keith’s a little more quirky” — any incidental echo of the Rolling Stones is not off-base, given the wattage of the ’86 Mets — “so sometimes it’s my job to rein in the silly stuff when it’s time to focus down there” — Cohen nods to the field — “or to instigate the silly stuff when the game stinks.”

Cohen, who is widely known as the smartest, best-prepared play-by-play announcer in baseball, does about 150 games a year out of 162 for SportsNet New York (SNY). Each broadcast is its own extended improvisation, its own performance, unfolding with the rhythm of the action.

“Most of what happens up here in the booth,” says Cohen, “depends on what happens out there.” He gestures again to the field. “Something happens in a game that calls to mind something else, which leads to a conversation on another topic, and that leads to a full-blown discussion of an issue we never had any intention of talking about. Ronnie calls it freeform jazz. I think that’s really the best way to describe it.”

Like the best jazz trios, Cohen and company work as an intuitive unit. They don’t step on each other’s lines, and they know when to use the power of silence. “It’s a remarkably low-ego environment,” Cohen says. “None of us needs to be the guy who talks the most. None of us needs to be the alpha dog or the guy who makes the point: we’re just as happy to be the guy who leads the other guy into making the point. In a lot of booths, it doesn’t always work that way.”

“It’s a remarkably low-ego environment . . . None of us needs to be the alpha dog or the guy who makes the point.”

Cohen was born in 1958 and grew up in Kew Gardens, Queens, a few miles down the Grand Central Parkway from Shea Stadium. The Mets were born in 1962, and for their first two years they played — badly — at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan. Even after they moved to Shea they were the sorriest bunch of butterfingers the game had ever seen. Cohen fell in love with them — not for their Keystone Kops blundering but because the kid-oriented, family-picnic feeling of Shea was more appealing than the seriousness and grandiosity of Yankee Stadium.

For his ninth birthday, Cohen received a life-changing gift: a desk-model AM radio, the kind with tubes. Cohen listened to every sports broadcast he could find. Night after night, he drifted through the mists and warbles of the AM dial until he came to a clearing at WJRZ 970, and was carried off by the artful evocations of Bob Murphy, the voice of the Mets.

That was also the year Marv Albert became the voice of the New York Knicks. Cohen was crazy for basketball, and Albert was a revelation. “Marv Albert was the one who inspired all of us New York guys — Michael Kay, Ian Eagle, Howie Rose — to become sports broadcasters,” Cohen says. “His cadence, personality, sense of humor, description: Marv was the whole package. When I was a kid, he did the Knicks and Rangers [hockey], and I’d live for those nights just to hear him describe the games.”

Then, in 1969, after seven years of futility, a young, hungry Mets team — no one in the starting lineup was older than twenty-six — rolled to the National League title and beat the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. The Miracle Mets! Cohen was in heaven. He had gone to the pennant clincher against the Atlanta Braves back when fans, in celebration, would climb over the rails and mob the field. “I went onto the field and got my little piece of turf,” Cohen says. “Unbelievable that people used to do that. Now you’d get Tasered.”

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