Jerry Howarth has called his last Toronto Blue Jays game.
So what will summer sound like now?
This morning, the man whose dulcet tones have informed and thrilled and soothed fans of the franchise since his debut back in 1981 announced that his pipes are no longer up to the rigours of a 162-game season. He’ll still be a presence on Sportsnet, but part-time play-by-play isn’t in his vocabulary. If a job’s to be done, it’s to be done right.
The rigour with which he approaches his profession is one of the things that even Jays fans who have spent most — or all — of their lives listening to him on the radio might not know about Howarth. He isn’t one to tout his own insider knowledge, or to thrust himself, ever, in front of what’s happening on the diamond. But the hours he puts in during spring training and before every game — the many, many quiet conversations in the clubhouse and on the field during batting practice — allowed him to understand the teams that he broadcast as well as any reporter.
The 71-year-old Howarth has known the players, the managers, the personalities, the clubhouse intrigues. His opinions, always delivered with subtlety and balance and with a smile, are informed and incisive.
But that’s not the primary role of a baseball play-by-play voice.
It is no slight to the great broadcasters who bring football or hockey or basketball to life over the airwaves to suggest that calling baseball on radio — a kind of double anachronism, a 19th-century sport on an early 20th-century medium — is the profession’s highest calling.
It’s a matter of time and space. Baseball seasons begin their long meander even before Opening Day, with a month and a half of preparation in the warm Florida or Arizona sun. Then it’s a full half-year of games and in the best years a month-long post-season, unbound to time, unattached to a clock. In theory, each game could go on forever. Even in those that wrap up in a brisk couple of hours, it’s in the space between plays, like the space between notes in music, where you find the art.
A signature home run call is one thing: “And there… she… goes!” (Who doesn’t do at least a half-baked Jerry impression?)
But where the genius lies is in the pauses — before pitches, before at-bats, before and after those brief flurries of activity — when stories are told, personalities are revealed, and a relationship is built with listeners over the years. No one’s in a hurry. The season might be scintillating or dreadful or everything in between, but the edge-of-the-seat moments are mere punctuation in a continuous conversation, even though only one side is heard.
It made sense that Howarth began every game with the greeting, “Hello, friends….” That’s how his audience came to think of him. As a steady, warm, familiar voice who was there way back when and who was there now, the continuity reassuring. A great game or a bad game, a game that meant something or seemed to mean nothing at all — doesn’t matter. There’s another one tomorrow.
Sometimes, those who know Howarth only as a voice on the radio get the chance to meet him in person. Watching him handle those situations, one is struck by his everyday kindness, his determination to remember names and personal details, to actually listen and engage rather than offer vague platitudes. Someone would come up to him and begin the conversation with, “You probably don’t remember me, but…,” and invariably, Howarth did, pulling out a name or a circumstance from his vast memory bank, an act of old-fashioned courtesy.
Howarth grew up in the Bay Area in California, and came to Toronto after breaking into calling professional baseball game in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in Tacoma and Salt Lake City. By the time he arrived, Tom Cheek was already established in the No. 1 chair as the Jays’ play-by-play voice since that snowy first game in 1977. Cheek’s original colour man was Hall of Famer Early Wynn. When it came time to make a change, instead of opting for the more standard pairing of play-by-play man and a former player, the Jays went with two professional broadcasters, with Howarth moving over to call a couple of innings in each game.
In what was Howarth’s first full season, 1982, the Jays showed signs of the contender to come. Bobby Cox was hired as manager that year, and the players who would become the stars of the first playoff run in 1985 were largely in place. Through the rest of that decade, Toronto became a baseball-crazy town — during the baseball season, if you climbed into a cab, or were sitting on the dock at the cottage, or were visiting your parents on the weekend, the game would invariably be playing in the background.
By the two World Series seasons, Cheek and Howarth’s voices had become synonymous with the Jays, the soundtrack of a magical time.
Following Cheek’s death in 2005, Howarth assumed the No. 1 role, working with a series of colour men, most recently Joe Siddall. If the first golden age of Blue Jays baseball will forever be associated with Cheek and his most famous call, “Touch ’em all, Joe,” the second golden age — with its franchise-altering trades, the stirring return to the post-season in 2015, the bat-flip game, Edwin Encarnacion’s wild card–winning homer and all the rest —will be remembered in Howarth’s voice.
It has been a remarkable run. Of course Vin Scully is off the charts when it comes to longevity, but consider this: The legendary Ernie Harwell called 42 seasons with the Detroit Tigers, the team with which he will forever be associated. Howarth signs off having called 36-plus seasons with the Jays. That’s very good company.
Tomorrow, pitchers and catchers report in Dunedin. Opening Day comes early — March 29 — with Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and the rest of the mighty Yankees kicking off the season at Rogers Centre. Following a disappointing, injury-plagued 2017, there are a host of questions surrounding this Blue Jays team, including the make-up of the final roster. The coming year could tip towards hope or despair, could culminate in a return to the playoffs or the turning of a page.
There’s sure to be a story there. But for the first time in a very long time, it will be someone else’s to tell.
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