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Sterling Forever Linked To Yankees

Back in 1990, when the Bronx was still a zoo and long before anyone had heard of the Core Four, the struggling New York Yankees were headed for just the fourth last-place finish in franchise history. They were getting ripped in the press and on the local sports-talk airwaves, with fans directing much of their ire at owner George Steinbrenner. While broadcasting a Yankees game on the final day of a homestand that June, radio play-by-play man John Sterling, then in his second year with the club, suggested to his listeners that they lay off Steinbrenner and general manager Harding “Pete” Peterson, and instead focus their frustration at the players themselves.

Steinbrenner must have been listening, and he must have appreciated someone coming to his defense when it was unpopular to do so. A few days later, during a rain delay of a Yankees-Brewers game at Milwaukee County Stadium, Sterling ran into the Boss, who had traveled with the team to see his friend, then-Brewers owner Bud Selig: “He said to me, ‘John, I want to tell you something. You’ll always do the Yankee games, and if they ever try to replace you, I’ll veto it.’”

That July, Steinbrenner was temporarily banned by Major League Baseball (he paid a known gambler, Howie Spira, to dig up dirt on former Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield; Steinbrenner was reinstated by MLB in 1993). And in August, Peterson was fired. But 25 years later, Sterling remains at the microphone, having not missed a single game since arriving in the Bronx. He’s the longtime play-by-play voice of the league’s most popular team, in the country’s biggest market. But he’s also become one of the most polarizing figures in sports media for his catchphrase-heavy shtick and occasional on-air blunders.

Sterling knows what people say about him. And he says it doesn’t bother him. In fact, he’d rather people say it to his face.

Born in 1938 and raised on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Sterling began his radio career at a small station in upstate New York. He eventually landed a gig as a rock DJ in Providence, and later hosted a general talk show in Baltimore. He’d sometimes talk about sports on air, which led to work calling games of the NFL’s Colts and NBA’s Bullets, back when both teams were still located in the city.

In 1971, Sterling returned to his hometown, and the following year he began hosting a sports-talk show on WMCA. In 1975, he started calling games for the Islanders and the Nets, both of whom then played on Long Island, but he spent much of the 1980s in Atlanta as the play-by-man for the Braves and the Hawks. It was there that he displayed the forerunners to the unique calls that would become his signature. When describing a particularly spectacular play by Hawks star Dominique Wilkins, he’d exclaim “Dominique is magnifique!” or “Dominique is terifique!”

In 1989, Sterling landed the Yankees radio job without an audition, thanks to someone at WABC (then the team’s radio home) who’d remembered his work in New York from the 1970s and had heard him more recently on Atlanta-based TBS. The hire apparently delighted Steinbrenner, who later told Sterling that he’d always wanted him to call Yankees games.

By the mid 1990s, New York was improving thanks to the homegrown players who would form the foundation of a new dynasty; 1995 alone saw the major league debuts of four players—Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera,Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada—who would come to be known as the Core Four for helping the Yankees win five World Series titles. Sterling’s calls of those famed teams would help bring him to the attention of fans nationwide.

It was around that time that Sterling began to develop a trademark style. It began with the way he punctuated New York’s victories. After one game during Buck Showalter’s tenure as manager, which ran from 1992-95, rather than simply saying “Yankees win!” Sterling tacked on a few words in his deep, booming voice: “Yankees win! The Yankees win!”

“I did it very straight,” Sterling recalls.

But by changing the delivery, it would soon become one of his signature calls. “One day, for whatever reason, I put a little rock-and-roll into it,” he says: “Yankees win, thuuuuuhhh Yankees win.

“I started hearing it come back,” recalled Sterling on a May afternoon from his broadcast booth at Yankee Stadium. People would yell the phrase back at him from across the street, or tell him that Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo were discussing it on their influential WFAN radio show. “It became a thing, so I kept it,” he says.

Sterling learned early in his career how catchphrases could enter the lexicon: He remembers hearing lines from the TV program Get Smart when he was still a young radio DJ, and even though he himself worked nights and never watched the show, he knew the significance of sayings like “Sorry about that, Chief” and “Missed it by that much.”

Consider his personalized home-run calls for each player on the Yankees, which draw on everything from Broadway lyrics to groan-worthy wordplay, and have gotten increasingly stylistic ever since he innocently debuted his first ones, for Bernie Williams, the Yankees’ longtime centerfielder. (One of Sterling’s Williams calls, “Bern, baby, Bern,” was meant as a reference to the civil rights rallying cry, not the song “Disco Inferno.”)

Almost all of his home run calls begin with the lines “It is high, it is far, it is gone.” The personalization follows: When former Yankee Curtis Granderson went deep, Sterling’s call was “Oh Curtis, you’re something sort of Grandish,” a reference to the musical Finian’s Rainbow. Lance Berkman hit just one home run for the Yankees but he still got a personalized call, one owing to the musicalCamelot: “Sir Lancelot rides to the rescue! C’est lui! C’est lui!” Melky Cabrera’s homers were announced as “the Melkman delivers.” Alex Rodriguez’s dingers are “A-bombs from A-Rod.” Tino Martinez was the “Bam-tino”; Jason Giambi, the “Giambino.” Once upon a time, only select players got individualized calls, but now that it’s part of his established shtick, there’s demand for more.

“The home run thing has become a cottage industry,” says Sterling. “Now I have to do it for everyone.”

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