John Sterling: The Adolescent Radio Announcer

Written by Alan Hirsch on Saturday October 15, 2011

The New York Times recently ran an enormous and mostly favorable article about the Yankees’ controversial radio announcer, John Sterling. The article quotes Sterling, who has a staggeringly high opinion of himself, as saying: “I never hear any criticism to my face.”

This wasn’t always the case, as I can attest from personal experience.

In the 1970s, when I was a teenager living in New York, Sterling hosted a call-in radio talk show on WMCA. Some of his colleagues hosted political talk shows that they spiced by abusing callers. Sterling shrewdly imported this model to sports. It wasn’t pretty, but it made for good ratings.

If you disagreed with Sterling about anything, particularly if you dared to offer even the mildest criticism of his sacred cows (such as Nets coach Kevin Loughery who, as Sterling made clear at every opportunity, was his buddy), he’d shriek like an idiot on steroids: “ZIP IT UP, CREEP! GIVE IT A REST!” Those were his favorite abusive formulations, though he also indulged a series of other equally creative and mature put-downs. He commonly “imitated” his interlocutor by pretending the person spoke like an imbecile: “Duh, Duh. Duh. Duh.”

It’s impossible to capture the obnoxiousness of all this in print, just as it’s impossible to capture the obnoxiousness of him as announcer of Nets and Islander games. He treated every goal by the Islanders as if the team had discovered a cure for cancer, bellowing, “GOAL, ISLANDER GOAL, ISLANDER GOAL!!!”

These days, Sterling gives a similar hyped treatment to every Yankees home run, but tailors the call to the player. Some of these (“An A-bomb for A-Rod”; “A text message from Mark Teixeira”) are clever enough, while others (“Robbie Cano, don’t you know”) strike me as lame. But the need to hype every home run with some personal touch exemplifies Sterling’s membership in the Howard Cosell “It’s about me” school of broadcasting.

Cosell perhaps deserves slack because he was the first of his kind, and an antidote to the somber presentation that traditionally characterized sports broadcasting. But as superior play-by-play men like Marv Albert have demonstrated over the years, you can be colorful without being buffoonish and self-aggrandizing.

To be sure, many Yankee diehards enjoy Sterling’s shtick. To each, his own. I’m not going to attack people simply because they disagree with me. But that’s exactly what Sterling did during his tenure as radio talk show host. A friend of mine, Z, felt obliged to retaliate on behalf of the legions of innocent folks who found themselves mocked or shouted at by this bully with a microphone.

Z mastered the art of the deceptive phone call, sucking Sterling in with sweet talk about the Nets or Islanders, then suddenly (catching Sterling off guard, before he could hit the mute button) launching into the kind of attack Sterling routinely leveled against others: “By the way, John, when you say ‘Islander goal’ in that obnoxious voice, it makes me puke. Why don’t you zip it up, ya bum.” Z would hang up before Sterling could respond, leaving Sterling to assail in absentia the “pimply-faced adolescent” who’d given him a taste of his own medicine. You couldn’t stop him from getting in the last lick, but he sounded a bit defeated when he did.

The tit-for-tat over the airwaves wasn’t enough for Z. Between periods at Islander games, he’d wander over to the booth where Sterling schmoozed with adoring fans. Z would ask for an autograph and then, when Sterling obliged, promptly rip it into a thousand pieces. He did this a few times before Sterling caught on. The last time, Sterling took the piece of paper Z handed him and he himself ripped it up. He then looked at Z with a shit-eating grin that screamed: “I outsmarted you, you pimply-faced adolescent!” Score that one for Sterling.

A few of their confrontations were nastier. Once, when Sterling pointedly turned his back on the nemesis whom he now recognized all too well, Z tapped his shoulder. Sterling turned sharply and, in a voice too self-serious to parody, said, “You can look, but you cannot touch.” To ensure no more touching, Sterling prevailed upon WMCA to hire a security guard (“my lovely security lady, Laura”) whose job description was straightforward if cost inefficient: to keep Z away from Sterling.

There’s no question that Z was sophomoric. He was a teenager. What was Sterling’s excuse? He’s now in his seventies (he wouldn’t tell the New York Times interviewer how old – “I don’t do age”) and still behaves like an adolescent. If you doubt that assessment, take a look at The Sterling Shake.

The New York Times article quotes media critic Phil Mushnick calling Sterling a “narcissistic, condescending blowhard.”  Of course, Mushnick would never say that to his face.

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