The Voice of the New York Mets
By Daniel Fastenberg ’06
It was summer, and Gary Cohen ’81 was sitting in his bedroom at his parents’
home in the middle-class community of Parkway Village in central Queens.
It was 1967. Cohen was 9 years old. And he was transfixed by the sound that crackled
from his radio every day. It was the voice of Bob Murphy, broadcasting a New York
Mets baseball game. The Mets were awful that year, compiling a 61–101
record and finishing last in the National League.
But their losing ways didn’t matter — OK, not too much —
to young Gary. It was the games themselves that began his love affair not just
with the Mets and baseball, but with experiencing the game on the radio,
describing its action, telling its stories, illuminating its personalities.
In moving from radio to television, Cohen (left) has had
to learn to talk less, dress better and draw insights from
his announcing partners, including former Mets pitcher Ron Darling.
Photo: SPORTSNET NEW YORK
“My real aspiration growing up was to be the starting shortstop for
the Mets or starting power forward for the Knicks,” says Cohen, 48, with
a laugh as he recalls a childhood as a sports nut that revolved around playing
pick-up games with friends and reading The Sporting News cover-to-cover.
“But I didn’t have the talent for the former or the height for the latter.
“So, growing up, I knew I wanted to do something involving sports and I
thought being on the radio would be cool. At Columbia, those ideas converged,”
says Cohen, who realized while working for WKCR that he could be a part of sports by
calling games rather than playing them. “I wanted to see if I could make a name
Today, after more than 17 years in the broadcast booth at Shea Stadium — first
on the radio, and this season as the play-by-play man for SportsNet New York, the
Mets’ new cable television network — the name that Cohen has made for
himself, is, quite simply, the Voice of the New York Mets.
“I think he’s a terrific talent,” says Bob Raissman, longtime
sports media columnist for The New York Daily News. “He’s done
every game for the last 17 or 18 years [except when he was sidelined for two weeks in
June following an attack of appendicitis], and it shows. He knows the team.”
Cohen’s journey from Queens to Morningside Heights and back to Queens took a
detour through Philadelphia. He originally enrolled at Penn, but when he went home for
Thanksgiving his freshman year, he met a girl named Lynn, a student in New York. Smitten,
Cohen transferred to the College to be near his new love; he thrived on 116th Street,
even though his relationship with Lynn ended after a few years.
But, to use the aforementioned Bob Murphy’s signature phrase, here’s the
“happy recap,” according to Cohen: “We broke up then, but Lynn and
I met again many years down the road; she’s now my wife, and we have five kids
between us. So it all worked out.”
As for his time at Columbia, Cohen says, “I was a city kid and loved going to
school in the city. The education, obviously, was unrivaled. But I admit that I spent
most of my time WKCR.”
Cohen chats with Peter Schweitzer '60 at the
2001 dedication of WKCR's new studios in Lerner Hall.
Photo: Michael Dames
Cohen came to Columbia’s radio station with a year of experience under
his belt. During his first week at Penn, he attended a football game and made
his own tape while sitting in the stands, seemingly miles from the action. Cohen
describes that first demo tape as “the worst thing you’ve ever heard.
I still have it and keep it with me to stay humble.”
Undeterred, he dove into his on-air duties at Columbia, broadcasting games played
by virtually every team. “The great thing about KCR, and this is unlike
lots of other colleges, is that the students do the work,” he says. “They operate the station and learn by doing, which is the best way to learn radio.”
Cohen’s WKCR memories remain fresh. Two of his favorites are covering a
soccer game while sitting in a car during a driving rainstorm with a soccer analyst
named George Stephanopoulos ’82, and having to fill a half-hour of air time on
a moment’s notice when the start of a men’s basketball game was delayed by a power outage.
Not all of Cohen’s time, however, was spent in either a broadcast booth or a
booth at Tom’s Diner, which was conveniently located just steps from his
off-campus apartment on 112th Street. A political science major, Cohen delighted
in classes taught by Charles Hamilton and James Shenton ’49, though he freely
admits that he wasn’t the world’s greatest student.
“I learned a lot, don’t get me wrong, but let’s just say
that my time at the library was limited. Today, if I could do it again, I
think I’d be more dedicated to academics. But that just wasn’t my focus then.”
His focus was sports. During his junior year, Cohen took time off to work
at Sportsphone, an on-demand phone service that supplied sports scores in the
era before the internet or ESPN. His job was to read off 30 scores or more
in 60 seconds. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. And that was where
Cohen met another up-and-coming broadcaster named Howie Rose, who would
become his partner on WFAN, the Mets’ radio home.
Cohen, who entered the College with the Class of 1979 but graduated in
January 1981, says, “When I graduated, there were two routes”
to a career in professional sportscasting. “Stay in New York and take
an internship or producing job, or go out of town and get on the air. That
is what I decided to do — to get out and learn by doing.”
What followed was a tour of radio stations along the East Coast. Cohen’s
first stop was Lebanon, N.H., where he took a news broadcasting job (rather
than a sports position) just to get his foot in the door. Next up was Spartanburg,
S.C., followed by Norfolk, Va., where he hosted a fishing and boating report, among other things.
Catching trout aside, Cohen’s time in Virginia was fruitful: It was there
that he got his first taste of broadcasting something “recognizable,”
as he called Old Dominion’s Division I basketball games. And it was there
that Cohen first covered professional baseball.
The Durham Bulls, who were later immortalized by the movie Bull Durham
and now are the AAA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, hired Cohen in summer
1986 to broadcast all 140 of their games — by himself, with no analyst. “
For the first two or three weeks, the task was so daunting, I was questioning
whether I was doing the right thing,” he recalls. “But having grown
up a baseball fan, I knew about the day-to-day soap opera nature of the season,
and how these day-to-day stories lent themselves to radio. I loved it.”
In 1987, Cohen moved to Rhode Island to call the games of the Pawtucket Red Sox,
the AAA farm team of the Boston Red Sox, and picked up side gigs calling college
games for Providence and Brown. His stay in the minors didn’t last long,
however. After two years in Pawtucket, Cohen was called up to the big leagues. To the Mets.
“I grew up with Bob Murphy, and now suddenly I’m his partner. I
grew up with the Mets, and now suddenly I’m calling the team’s
games. It was rather extraordinary,” Cohen says.
Cohen was hired to be the radio play-by-play man for the Mets, who three years
before had captured their second World Series title. To this day, he marvels
at his good fortune in getting to The Show at such a young age, and doing so
with the team he lived and died with in his youth.
“I think the beauty of that is I arrived in the big leagues with a frame
of reference. In another city, I would have started from scratch with the
team’s history or the attitude of the fan base. For instance, had I been in
San Diego, sure, I would have known that the Padres lost the 1984 World Series.
But I wouldn’t know the random guy who played three games in the outfield
for them that summer. And I wouldn’t know what made them tick.
“I arrived in the big leagues with a frame of reference. ”
“With the Mets, I already had all that minutiae in my brain. It’s all
stuck in random little pieces in my head. And sometimes, those pieces break off
and come out of my mouth,” says Cohen, who in recent years also has broadcast
games for St. John’s, Seton Hall, the New York Rangers and the U.S. Olympic hockey team.
“Gary is and has been for quite some time one of the finest announcers
in baseball,” says Dave Howard, e.v.p. of business operations for the
Mets. “He is the Voice of the Mets now, succeeding legendary announcers
like Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy and Ralph Kiner.”
Cohen’s transition to WFAN in 1989 was a smooth one, once he adjusted
for the increased crowd noise at the major league level (“55,000
fans make a lot more noise than 3,000,” he notes) and to having, for
the first time, a broadcast partner — and a legend at that.
“It was a situation where I had to pinch myself quite a bit in the
course of the 15 years we worked together,” says Cohen, fondly
remembering Murphy, who called Mets games from the team’s inception
in 1962 until a year before his death in 2004. “Murph had such an
incredible baseball sound to his voice.”
Unfortunately for Cohen, his arrival in Flushing coincided with nearly a
decade of Mets teams that entered seasons with tremendous potential only to
grossly underachieve. Clutch leaders such as Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter
faded away, superstar talents such as Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry
flamed out, and dozens of high-priced acquisitions — from Bobby Bonilla
and Vince Coleman to Mo Vaughn and Roberto Alomar — did little but disappoint
a fan base already living in the shadow of the crosstown Yankees.
Indeed, in Cohen’s 17 full seasons covering the Mets, the Amazin’s
have only made two playoff appearances: In 1999, they lost in the National League
Championship Series to their arch-rival Atlanta Braves, and in 2000, they were
defeated by the Yankees in the Subway World Series.
“I did a forum at the Museum of Television & Radio a few years ago with
John Sterling [the radio voice of the Yankees] and Joe Castiglione [the radio voice
of the Red Sox], and they were talking about their great moments in broadcasting,
the no-hitters, the World Series games. And I have, what, a Joe Orsulak home
run?” says Cohen, laughing, as he refers to an obscure Mets outfielder from the mid-1990s.
Though Cohen tags the 1999 season, the Mets’ first playoff appearance in 11 years,
as his favorite, he strongly believes that his career highlight is yet to come and
that this year’s team may be the one to deliver it. With established stars such
as Pedro Martinez, Carlos Delgado, Billy Wagner and Carlos Beltran, as well as homegrown
young talent such as David Wright and Jose Reyes, the 2006 Mets got off to a fast start
and are in the unfamiliar role of World Series contender.
“This is certainly a team built to win and they probably have greater expectations
on them than perhaps any other recent Mets team,” says Cohen. “They have
the foundation in place to be a successful franchise for years to come.”
His vantage point on the Mets changed this year when he began, for the first time,
doing television as the play-by-play man for SNY. “TV was something I resisted
for a long time,” Cohen says. “I considered myself a radio person. My
skills lent themselves very well to radio; I was good at bringing [the game] to life
in the listener’s brain. But this was a great opportunity; incredible people
are building a TV network from the ground up.”
Cohen’s transition to the small screen has been widely praised. Richard
Sandomir, sports media critic for The New York Times, dubbed him “
a superlative announcer with a penchant for bracing candor” and applauded
SNY for hiring a commanding voice unafraid to criticize the home team when such criticism is warranted.
Raissman, of The New York Daily News, agrees. “One thing he has
to watch is that the network is owned by the Mets and the perception is that the
Mets influence everything that’s said. He’s walked that line well so
far, though. No one’s going to be able to manipulate him. He won’t be told what to do.”
Curt Gowdy Jr., v.p. and executive producer of SNY, says Cohen has made “a
smooth and natural transition” to TV. “ Gary is an exceptional
broadcaster. His in-depth knowledge of the game and familiarity with the Mets has
provided viewers with an entertaining and informative broadcast.”
Cohen is happy to be doing what he loves. “The substance of what I’m
doing is the same,” says Cohen, who enjoyed a rare in-season off-day at his
Ridgefield, Conn., home while the Mets were traveling from Milwaukee to St. Louis.
“The mechanics are different — I have to dress better, talk less and
be more collaborative. I have to fill in the blanks that pictures can’t provide.
“It’s the same, but it’s different,” he says. “
And it’s still exciting.”
Jonathan Lemire ’01 is a frequent contributor to
Columbia College Today and a staff writer for The New York Daily News.