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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Gary Cohen, Ron Darling, and Keith Hernandez / Photograph by Marc Levine / SNY

But the real rapture came in 1973. Cohen was fifteen and could go to games on his own. “That year the Mets were in last place in late August and made this incredible run. The division was terrible: they finished 82–79 and still won it. But September was unbelievable. I was there for a lot of those games.” The Mets lost the World Series to the Oakland A’s, but Cohen was aflame with the orange and blue.

The affair continued through college. It was the late 1970s: Yankees time. The high-paid, high-powered, world-beating Bronx Bombers. But Cohen lived in an alternate baseball universe. From Morningside Heights he would take the subway out to Big Shea. Big, empty Shea. “The Mets were terrible. Four thousand people in the ballpark” — Shea held fifty-seven thousand — “but it was great,” Cohen says. “Give the usher two bucks and sit in the best seat in the house. I felt like I had the team to myself: Bruce Boisclair, Joel Youngblood . . .” Cohen would stretch out in the desolate stands, the swampy Flushing air trembling with flight-path thunder from LaGuardia, while above him, in the mezzanine, Bob Murphy sat in his booth, at the microphone, creating word pictures on the air.

 

At Columbia, Cohen majored in political science, but the center of his college world was WKCR. There, he landed a gig in the sports department doing radio play-by-play, not just for baseball but also for football, basketball, and soccer. “I got to broadcast many, many Columbia losses,” Cohen says. “But I also got to call some great basketball — the team of ’78–’79 was fabulous. Alton Byrd ’79CC and Ricky Free ’79CC and Shane Cotner ’79CC and Juan Mitchell ’79CC. They won seventeen games that year. They were tremendous. And Columbia had terrific soccer teams — John Rennie was the coach, and you had a great player, Shahin Shayan ’80CC, ’84BUS, ’85SEAS. And baseball: Mike Wilhite ’78CC, ’07GSAPP, Rolando Acosta ’79CC, ’82LAW.” Cohen can go on.

It was in Columbia’s booths that Cohen worked on his vocal technique, learning how to use his diaphragm like a singer. In fact, he looked more like a rock singer than a sportscaster. (A 1980 college photo of Cohen with Woodstock-caliber tresses became an object of lengthy scrutiny on a recent telecast.) Whether at Baker Field or courtside in Dodge gym, Cohen logged hours at the microphone, building the muscles to think and talk at breakneck speeds, to enunciate, to get the names and numbers right while describing rat-a-tat bang-bang action.

Then he graduated, got a haircut, and went out to find a job.

 

You send out tapes and hope somebody likes you. Cohen got some bites. He spent his first few years in professional radio covering local sports in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Then he went to Norfolk, Virginia, where he did the news, a tax show, and fishing and boating reports; he even went up, with unhappy digestive results, in the traffic copter. He also got to do NCAA Division I basketball for the first time, at Old Dominion.

In 1986, while the rowdy, Dionysian Mets lit up New York on and off the field, Cohen was quietly sojourning in Durham, North Carolina, calling games for the Durham Bulls: his first minor-league job. The next year he moved up to the Triple-A Red Sox in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. And then, in the summer of 1988, he got a call: the Mets — his Mets — needed someone to fill in for a game, alongside Bob Murphy.

Cohen jumped at the chance. He went to Shea Stadium, and waiting there in the booth was Murphy. Cohen had to pull himself together. “It was incredibly nerve-racking. Murph did a great job of calming me down.” Cohen was told it wasn’t an audition, but shortly afterward, a job opened up. That fall, Cohen interviewed for three big-league radio jobs: the Montreal Expos, the San Diego Padres, and the New York Mets.

The Padres called and needed an answer immediately. Cohen was torn. He did love hot weather. Certainly there would be nothing wrong with living in San Diego.

But he wanted the Mets job. He wanted it more than anything.

So he kept the Padres on hold and waited desperately to hear from the Mets. Finally he could wait no longer. On the Friday before Christmas, Cohen went to Worcester, Massachusetts, to announce a Providence College–Holy Cross basketball game. The moment he got to the arena he went to a pay phone in the lobby and called his Mets contact. “He gave me the answer,” Cohen says. “And that was —” Cohen shakes his head. No words for it.

He had gotten his dream job.

Cohen started in 1989, teaming with Murphy, the voice of his childhood. They were on-air partners for fifteen years.

“I had to pinch myself every day,” Cohen says.

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