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Put It In The Book: An interview with Howie Rose, Part 2

The Mets' radio voice talks about when he knew he wanted to be a broadcaster, balancing his job with his Mets fandom, and his most famous call ever.

Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

At the end of last season I travelled out to Citi Field to interview Howie Rose. We turned part of our conversation into a radio show, which you can access here, but we covered a lot of other topics as well. Eric Simon of Amazin’ Avenue is being kind enough to let me share the rest of the interview here.

You can read Part 1 here.

Peter Thomas Fornatale: Talk to me a little bit about how you balance your clear passion for the Mets with your objective, journalistic streak. Different announcers come from different schools about this. There’s sort of a Chicago "homer" style, versus maybe the Los Angeles journalistic school of thought. I’m just curious how, to me, you manage to do both, and have both work. You don’t give up your fandom, but you don’t lapse into what I would call "homerdom."

Howie Rose: Well I appreciate that, and I hope they do both work. I think, as you perfectly stated, there’s a regional aspect to that. Chicago is a different market when it comes to what their fans seem to want. Hawk Harrelson has been there forever. One might describe him as as big a homer as there is in the game, and I don’t say that the least bit disparagingly. I say it because that’s who he is; he’s grasped onto that, he’s cultivated his play-by-play persona around that, sort of as Harry Caray did in the Midwest, not only in Chicago, but in St. Louis as well. Their fans embrace that.

You couldn’t get away with that in New York. I wouldn’t think of it. I wasn’t raised professionally that way. As you no doubt gleaned from the book, my role model in this business was, is, and always will be Marv Albert. And I probably am more over-the-top at this stage of my career in terms of, say, provincialism, than Marv was at a similar age, but what drew me to Marv as a kid was very much the fandom that he exhibited for the Knicks and the Rangers. He wrote a book after their first NBA Championship called Crazy About The Knicks. I think Marv might be a little uncomfortable acknowledging that today, because he’s become so well known for his objectivity, as well as his brilliance at his craft.

Marv Albert (Keith Torrie/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

But, on the other hand, we are who we are, and I frankly feel less inclined to edit my fandom now than I ever did. I know my audience. I know the fans. I know our constituents, for lack of a better word. And I think and hope I’ve built enough trust between us over the years that they understand that I’m being honest with them, but I want the Mets to win. I don’t think that’s any great revelation. And I think my tone, and descriptions and reaction to what happens on the field reflect that.

PTF: There’s a wonderful bit in the book I wanted to ask you about, about what I’m imagining was a bit of a transformative moment for you. It must have been some time in the mid-sixties at Shea Stadium, watching Ron Swoboda hit a home run. Do you know the part of the book I’m talking about?

HR: Oh, my goodness, do I ever. I was twelve years old, it was the summer of 1966, and The Mets were playing the Giants on a weekday afternoon in August—it was August the 4th, and by that time, at age 12, living in Bayside, which was a bus ride and either a one-subway-stop trip or a quick walk across the Roosevelt Avenue Bridge, it was permissible for my friends and me to go to games at that point without adult supervision. So we got to plenty of those summertime weekday afternoon games, however many there might have been.

This one was not only between the Mets and the Giants, it featured Juan Marichal pitching for the Giants, the great Hall-of-Famer, who had never lost to the Mets at that point. That was only the Mets’ fifth year in the league, but you know the Mets and Giants played, what was it in those days, eighteen times a year so he was probably 10–0 against the Mets in his career. He was pitching that afternoon against a guy most people probably wouldn’t remember, by the name of Dennis Ribant, who had one good year with the Mets and that was it, 1966.

Well anyway, Marichal and Ribant are hooked up and, in the bottom of the sixth inning the Giants are leading four to nothing, and Marichal has a perfect game going, and with two out in the sixth inning, so he’s one out away from taking that perfect game into the seventh inning. For whatever reason, Mets manager Wes Westrum allowed Ribant to hit. My friend and I were looking at each other going "WHAT!? We haven’t had a baserunner yet, never mind a hit, and he’s letting Ribant hit and—wouldn’t you know it—Dennis hits this little thirty-eight-hop ground ball through the middle for the first hit.

Well, eventually the Mets come back. Marichal was out of the game by the time it went to the ninth inning. The Giants eventually had increased their lead to 5–0, but in the ninth inning the Mets rallied, with a couple of men on base. I forget, frankly, if there were any out, one out, or two out, but Ron Swoboda hit a pinch-hit, game-winning home run—nowadays they call it a "walk-off" but believe me nobody was walking off that field, they were floating off.

PTF: And how did that moment change your life?

HR: After Swoboda crossed home plate I just looked at my friend and said "This is the greatest game we have ever seen and probably we ever will see." And that whole way home on the bus I kept thinking about two things. I stamped the date in mind, August 4th, 1966, greatest baseball game ever played; I’ll never forget it. And I’ve always remembered that date because of that.

"This is the greatest game we have ever seen and probably we ever will see." —Howie Rose

But I also went home curious about how it sounded on radio and television. How did Murph sound? How did Lindsey sound? How excited were they? Did their voices crack from the enthusiasm? Those are the kind of things I think most broadcasters share. Not necessarily that specific memory, but the idea that I knew I was never going to be the guy that hit the game-winning home run, even though I certainly would’ve loved to have been good enough to do that, but my dreams, really even from that early on, were centered around being the guy who described it.

PTF: Am I correct in saying that there’s also something special about baseball on the radio?

HR: I’ve had enough people share that opinion to the point where I would be silly if I didn’t acknowledge it. I’m so wrapped up and enveloped in it that it’s sometimes hard for me to step away, but I do remember being that kid listening on the radio. And to give you a comparison, when it was wintertime, and I was listening to, say, a Ranger game on the radio, I was completely fixed on that game. I actually had a bit of a routine. I’d lay down on the bed in my room and I’d have the big radio that my dad had resting on my stomach, and I would listen to every pass that Marv Albert described in a Ranger game.

The beauty of baseball is—among many things—that, for one, it lends itself to outdoors life, so that you can be doing other things and pay peripheral attention to the game. Now we’d love everybody to be fixated on every word we said, and maybe they do in retrospect, when they’re hearing the calls made after-the-fact, say of Santana’s no-hitter, or a game-winning hit or something like that. But because baseball’s a summer game, and because people are listening on the beach, in the back yard, while they’re playing stickball, as we did, you listen somewhat differently, depending on where you are. You could listen just as intently as I did to a hockey game, or you could listen in a more matter-of-fact way while you’re doing something else.

But it’s also daily companionship in a way that other sports aren’t. Baseball essentially is every day for six months. And because of that you do create a particularly intimate relationship with your audience, to where they do come to almost feel that you’re a part of the family, because you’re with them daily. And that is something I try never to take lightly or for granted; it’s a tremendous, tremendous responsibility … and honor, more than anything.

PTF: I can’t let you get out of here without asking you about Stephane Matteau. I just love the story that you relate in the book, that in the moments after this call that became your signature, you regretted it. I hope you’re not too sick of talking about it.

HR: Hey, it’s my life’s work and it was quite a thrill. I’ll back you up to the waning moments of regulation time, Game Seven, Eastern Conference Final, winner goes to play for the Stanley Cup against the Vancouver Canucks. And The Rangers were leading one to nothing, as we get into the final minute. I would not be presumptuous enough to script something to say at the end of a game that by its very nature is so spontaneous, because if you try to squeeze something scripted into something of spontaneity, it’s going to be like running around with two left feet and tripping yourself up.

I would not be presumptuous enough to script something to say at the end of a game that by its very nature is so spontaneous

So, I did want to create one quick, sort-of, either image or statement, and then take a couple of seconds to let the crowd carry it because you can’t do that for very long on radio. So all I planned to do as the final seconds of regulation time wore down—assuming the Rangers were going to hold the one-to-nothing lead—was get it right to the final buzzer, punctuate that with "And now there’s one more hill to climb." BOOM, and leave it at that, let the crowd take it for a couple of seconds and then go back to work.

Well, when Valeri Zelepukin scored that goal for the Devils with 7.7 seconds remaining, that threw anything like that out the window and, frankly, I don’t think I was ever as hurt, angry, stunned, or in utter disbelief at a goal scored against the Rangers as I was with that. Because, to me, that constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The Rangers had lost a lot of very difficult games over the year, but that was going above and beyond cruel; that was ridiculous.

And so, going into the overtime, I just assumed ‘Well, they just found another way to lose.’ And so, as we got through that first overtime period, now that both teams had regained their equilibrium, all of those feelings were over with. Now it was just the unmatched tension, the nervousness of the events on the ice, and trying to stay true to it in the booth, because the powers of concentration in games like that are so acute, that you almost feel like you’ve played when the game’s over, because it’s so exhausting a process, even though most people would think "Well, you’re just talking"—well, no, it’s a little bit more than that, especially in a game like that.

So anyway, Matteau finally scores the goal and I’m hysterical, as you’ve probably heard, and as I was in the early stages of making the call that "one more hill to climb" thing popped into my head, and I tied it in with this Mount Vancouver, and finally we throw the brake and then go to the post-game show and when I heard that call replayed for the first time on the post-game show my heart kind of sank a little, sunk a little bit, because I’d never heard myself that over-the-top and out-of-control and I thought I’d overdone it.

Stephane Matteau (Linda Cataffo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

And so I wasn’t feeling very good about the call when I left the Garden, however long afterwards. When I left through the 33rd Street employees’ entrance, there was a car parked right on the curb with a fan who must have been waiting for someone, and he recognized me as I walked out and he yelled "HOWIE, GREAT CALL! GREAT CALL!!" and I frankly thought we was just so happy with the win he was being nice, enthusiastic, and I said "Thanks" and that was that. And then I got into the car and I’m driving home, and I’m listening to Steve Somers taking calls on the air, and it seemed like the callers wanted to talk as much about the call as they did the goal and Steve, God bless him, kept replaying and replaying it and replaying it.

And then the next day when I was driving back to Shea Stadium for the Met game, Russ Salzberg was on the air, and all he was talking about was "the call" apart from the win. So, by that next day I knew that it had taken on a bit more of a life than I anticipated, and I’m just overwhelmed and astonished with how it’s endured almost two decades later.

Peter Thomas Fornatale is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn. He tried to name his daughter Agbayani but his wife wouldn’t let him. You can follow him on twitter via @loomsboldly.