You know that sinking feeling you get when you realize that the game is on Fox or ESPN? Today, you feel, the Mets will happen in a kind of flatland, where nothing is particularly interesting, funny, or surprising. You have the feeling that you’re not in New York anymore. Maybe you’re in Kansas.
If you’re a Mets fan and you want to watch a game on television, you have to have Gary, Keith, and Ron. You want them because they are so good. Have you ever spoken to anyone who thought they weren’t? Do you know how rare it is for a broadcasting team to be this popular, this admired by a fan base? And not just any fan base. I’m talking about us. We’re critical. We’re desperately loyal but impossibly whiny. Mets fans expect something more than a couple of bland guys trading stories about whatever. We expect something more than bias and cheerleading.
And we get it. Almost every day. Gary, Keith, and Ron are part of a great tradition of Mets broadcasters (Nelson, Murphy, Kiner, Rose) who are deeply knowledgeable, who are not shills, who are funny, relaxed, ironic, and generous, and who stay with us for a very long time, becoming part of our lives. The high quality of Mets broadcasting is as much a part of the personality of the team as the over-the-top silliness of life at Shea. We’re kids because we respond to Mr. Met, the Apple, Cow Bell Man, and the Curly Shuffle. But we’re grown-ups because we expect a “word picture” with life, character, and dimension.
For example. I was listening to Gary and Ron the other day, broadcasting a game from Los Angeles. They started to talk about Sandy Koufax and instead of talking, as generic broadcasters would, in obvious ways about the pitching accomplishments everyone knows about, and about what a nice guy he is and how nice his wife is and how nice his kids are, Ron wanted to talk about the kind of aura Koufax has for pitchers, and how meeting him is like what it would be like for a deeply spiritual person to meet the Dalai Lama. He then went on to pointedly praise Koufax for his important role standing up for all players, and not just for himself, by insisting on labor justice for ballplayers more than a decade before that became a movement. Gary, in the meantime, explained what would strike modern fans as the peculiar fact that Koufax was on the World Championship 1955 Dodgers but didn’t really come into his own as a pitcher until the early sixties. You learned about the rules that governed bonus signings, how Koufax, by signing for a bonus, had to be on the major league roster for a designated period of time.
This is what I’m talking about. Have you listened to other announcers? Do you think you would have learned any of this? Do you think these other announcers would know how to use the Dalai Lama in a sentence? We Mets fans are a privileged group. We know and understand more about baseball because we get to listen to this kind of commentary.
One thing I love about Gary, Keith, and Ron is that they’re all knowledgeable, but they know different things because of the different perspectives from which they’ve experienced the game. Ron, of course, can give you a seminar on pitching, just as Keith can on hitting. But I get a great vicarious pleasure out of how Gary can answer Ron and Keith’s questions about things like when Jon Matlack joined the team, or which minor player broke up which almost Mets no-hitter. Only a lifelong Mets fan like Gary would know these things. You see how these former Mets need us, to teach them about the Mets. It is in the memories of the fans that the Mets exist.
This, fundamentally, is why Gary, Keith, and Ron are so important. They shape the experience we are now having of the New York Mets. What they are showing us is what will become our memories. Can you imagine what your memories would be like if they had not been shaped by the likes of Ralph, Murph, Gary, and Howie?
Just as the announcing is great, the dynamic of this team is very entertaining. Representing the Mets fan, Gary is charmingly nerdy. He has arched eyebrows and a crooked mouth and he makes little jerks of his head, at the very top of which is just a little tuft of hair. He doesn’t actually look like George Clooney, as you might have expected from listening to his magnificent voice. He’s the responsible one, who keeps things moving, who keeps things solid, even though he can also be moved to lyricism. If Nelson Figueroa starts an April game, Gary will tell us that “as a fog descends, a spectre from the past takes the mound at Shea.” Gary has a relaxed, respectful rapport with Ron Darling, who is, as he’s always been, impossibly cool, but in a refreshingly accessible way. Darling shows you that jocks can be as wonky as fans, but even more sophisticated than newscasters. I’ve never seen a player in the booth as good as Darling. No one ever has. It’s as if Christy Mathewson had gone into broadcasting. He probably doesn’t like the awe he inspires in people, with his looks, his name, and his talents. And this is probably why he’s so self-effacing. It’s as if he’s saying, hey, this is just what I am. I’m relaxed, so you relax.
In this trio, Keith’s role is to be a little bit of the class clown, who can shrug and make fun of himself, who throws Tootsie Rolls out of the booth, who will complain about a long promo being like a novella, who will let the Mets have a day to honor his moustache, who is willing to serve as the spokesman of a company that sells the hair dye he uses. He’s a middle-aged version of the guy you see on the Seinfeld episode. He has this way of asking funny questions. He doesn’t seem to pick up on everything right away. Whoever made those wonderful cartoon ads for Gary, Keith, and Ron got this dynamic perfectly. Keith would ask Ron Darling if pitching was all in the arm. And Ron would play around with him in answering, with a little bit of mockery, but with a lot of respect and affection.
The spirit of these three is perfectly evident in the way they look when you suddenly see them all together on Post-Game Live. Are they looking great in their suits or is it goofy matching t-shirt day? They look as if they’re going to be serious but they also look as if they think there’s something very funny about it being Post-Game Live again. And there is, especially if they have to squeeze together for the camera in the t-shirts, with Gary between the sky blue or black or white matching guts of the athletes. As Gary offers his overview of the game, Ron nods as if he agrees and as if he’s waiting to say something really important. Keith nods too, but with a little smile, as if he’s trying to keep it under control. Gary turns it over to Ron, who offers his sage perspective. Ron gives it back to Gary, who moves things forward to the next game detail so that Keith can talk about it. Keith offers his insight, usually talking to the little screen on which the replay prompt is playing instead of talking to the camera as he’s probably supposed to. Keith often says really insightful things, but he rarely if ever says them with the authority Darling musters so easily. Although he’s older, Keith almost seems like a little brother in relation to Ron. This impression is reinforced by the fact that Darling looks and sounds a little like Wally Cleaver. Keith, you realize, is the Beaver. He means well, but he has a tendency to get into trouble. And with his paternal voice and his bemused curiosity about what’s going on up there in the boys’ room, Gary Cohen is like Ward Cleaver.
That’s what they feel like to me. They’re like a family you’ve known a long time. Gary, Keith, and Ron feel like brothers who are a lot of fun and from whom you’ve learned so much. You want to be with them, as much as you can, as long as you can. What you hear most often, when Mets fans talk about this TV team, is the hope that they’ll be with us for many years, as Murph and Kiner were. You yearn for this kind of stability, through decade after decade, just as you’d like to have it in your life and family. These guys give us something that we don’t want to live without. They give us a sense of being at home with the Mets. They give us comfort, knowledge, and enthusiasm. They give us a sense that rooting for the Mets is something that an intelligent adult would want to do.
Gary, Keith, and Ron keep alive the smart, funky flame of Mets fandom, something that came into being in the crazy sixties and promises to continue into the next century. I am at home in the place they’ve made for me. I would really rather not have to watch a Mets game anywhere else. Ever.
[Gary, Keith, and Ron have a great new project. Watch for an announcement about it soon.]