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Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Yankees’ Radio Voice Retires, Ending an Era of Longevity

  • The longtime Yankees radio announcer was an industry outlier in many respects.
  • A unique and frank style, unrivaled consistency, and the team’s success were key factors.
The Record

Longtime Yankees radio play-by-play announcer John Sterling is retiring, and the circumstances that helped turn him into a team and sports broadcasting icon over three-plus decades are unlikely to be repeated. 

Sterling, 85, is leaving a broadcasting career of more than 60 years, and a legendary run with the Yankees that began in 1989. Over that time, he became as much a part of the Yankees’ brand as many of their star players, not unlike how fans have bonded deeply with other teams’ radio voices, like Vin Scully and the Dodgers, Marty Brennaman and the Reds, and Jon Miller and the Giants.

But Sterling in many ways was an outlier, even among his peers, and it’s now virtually impossible to envision another like him emerging. What made Sterling’s run unique:

  • Longevity. Putting even Cal Ripken Jr. to shame, Sterling called 5,060 consecutive games between 1989 and 2019. Such a lengthy, uninterrupted run is almost unfathomable now, given many teams’ use of scheduled talent breaks and announcer rotations during a season. That longevity and consistency allowed Sterling to call every single game in the Hall of Fame careers of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, which stretched for 20 and 19 seasons, respectively. 
  • Team success. Sterling was at the microphone for the entirety of the Yankees’ dominant 1990s run, in which they won four World Series in five seasons (and reached six World Series in eight seasons). In today’s MLB, marked by a heightened degree of competitive balance, such a dynasty happening again is much harder to envision, as seen by the league’s lack of a repeat champion since the 1998–2000 Yankees’ three-peat. Even the Dusty Baker-era Astros don’t quite compare, having reached four World Series (and winning two) between 2017 and ’22.
  • Colorfulness and frankness. Two key components of Sterling’s aura were his personalized home run calls (“It’s an A-bomb! From A-Rod!” or “All rise! Here comes the Judge!” to name a couple) and his willingness to point out subpar play by the Yankees when warranted. Both elements are now in shorter supply in the industry, when the trend elsewhere has gravitated toward more neutral broadcasting styles. Other teams have also been known to punish announcers upon making the slightest critical comment, with the Orioles and Kevin Brown last year serving as a recent example.
  • Able partnership. Sterling worked with six different main color commentators over his Yankees tenure, including current YES Network announcer Michael Kay and, most recently, Suzyn Waldman. Each of them has built noteworthy broadcasting careers of their own, in part through their work with Sterling. The chemistry he had with Waldman was a particular fixture.

The Yankees will recognize Sterling at a pregame ceremony on Saturday. In a lengthy statement, the team acknowledged the rare talent they had with Sterling, saying: “John Sterling used his seat in the broadcast booth to bring Yankees fans the heartbeat of the game, employing an orotund voice and colorful personality that were distinctly, unmistakably his own. John informed and entertained, and he exemplified what it means to be a New Yorker with an unapologetic and boisterous style.”

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