Gary Cohen, the anti-Michael Kay, also broadcasts during his time off
Disclaimer: I am a Mets fan, which means that during the spring and summer, I probably listen to the voice of Gary Cohen, the Mets play-by-play announcer, more than that of any other person.
I’m also a Gary Cohen fan. He’s a Mets fan too, like me, but he pulls it off on the broadcast without veering into homerism. He’s a version of how Mets fans like to see themselves within the New York baseball ecosystem: Let the Yankees have Cohen’s counterpart, Michael Kay, the big-headed, barrel-chested, Bronx-bred purveyor of Yankee mythology. We’ll take Cohen, a slight, balding, baseball intellectual from Queens.
All of this goes toward explaining the double-take I did when I heard that voice--ultra-clear and composed, a bit nasal, with a touch of broadcaster sing-song--in the men’s room of the Prudential Center some three months ago, while attending a very meaningless Seton Hall basketball game.
I had known Cohen did side work, but could it be? Does Cohen, a man practically at the top of his profession, whose baseball telecasts were seen by an average of 167,000 people last year despite the Mets’ continued struggles, really moonlight as the Seton Hall announcer? That’s one of the more obscure gigs in the Tri-State area--I had assumed it was done by a college kid.
A check of the game program confirmed: Yes.
“Since I started at SNY, it has enabled me to keep my hand in radio,” Cohen told me during a recent phone interview.
Cohen doesn’t want to keep his hand in radio to keep his resume current. Rather, it’s because radio is the purest form of the broadcasting craft, and Cohen’s a proud, reverent craftsman.
“I grew up doing radio. I’m a radio guy. I’m a radio guy who does TV. Television is a second language to me. When I do TV, I think in radio and translate that to TV,” he said.
As an example, he cited his climactic call of Johan Santana’s no-hitter, which was the first in Mets history: “Ninety percent of what went through my brain and would have come out on radio didn’t come out on TV.”
So there’s Cohen, announcing a team that is currently second-to-last with a 2-12 record within the Big East and which last made the NCAA tournament in 2006. It takes Cohen one hour and 15 minutes to get from his home in Connecticut to Newark’s Prudential Center, but Cohen says he’ll continue to do Seton Hall games “as long as they’ll have me. I can’t imagine sitting around all winter doing nothing. That wouldn’t be much fun.”
This isn’t just a side-job that Cohen pops into and out of to stay fresh. He will only miss one Seton Hall game this year, for the Mets’ first Spring Training game this Saturday. Much of his March will be spent on airplanes shuttling between Port St. Lucie and Newark.
If broadcasting basketball games on the radio takes Cohen back to the essence of his craft, it also takes him back to his roots. The first game he broadcasted, as a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, was a Penn-Lafayette freshman football game.
“I still have the tape, somewhere,” Cohen told me. “It definitely keeps me humble. It was awful.”
Cohen transferred to Columbia after his freshman year, where he broadcast soccer games alongside fellow political science major George Stephanopoulos. From that point forward, Cohen knew what he wanted to do with his life. After college, he set out on the itinerant broadcaster’s life in earnest, beginning with college basketball jobs at South Carolina at Spartanburg and then at Old Dominion.
Many minor league baseball stops followed, including one in 1986 with the Durham Bulls, two years before the release of the movie Bull Durham. (To believe it from the movie, he was replaced in the booth with a down-home type who simulated the bat-crack sound by thwacking two sticks together.)
Finally, in 1989, he got his big break on WFAN, calling games on the radio for the team he grew up rooting for. In 2006, with the launch of SNY, Cohen was promoted from the radio booth to the television booth, where he continues to “channel my fandom through my calls,” as he has put it.
Had it not worked out, Cohen told me he probably would have gone to law school. This makes a lot of sense as an alternate use of Cohen’s talents: On air, his greatest skill is his ability to elucidate points clearly while thinking on his feet.
Still, his success never kept him from hustling for radio gigs whenever they came up. He was the radio voice of St. John’s basketball before Seton Hall. He does NCAA tournament games, and has done mens and womens Olympic hockey.
“In television, you’re a spoke in a very big wheel. In radio, you’re the wheel. It’s an entirely different experience,” he said.
“With radio, there’s a certain descriptive element that plays to my strength.”
Given this, it’s not surprising that what most Met fans would pinpoint as his signature call occurred on the radio. It was during the 2006 National League Championship Series. The national FOX broadcast had bumped Cohen back to the radio booth, giving him the opportunity to apply his powers of description to Endy Chavez’s seemingly season-saving catch against the Cardinals in Game Seven.
The call was Cohen at his best: His palpable enthusiasm for the Mets, his awareness that what had just transpired was an all-time moment, his inflections perfectly tracked with the game action, building to a high-pitched exultation:
Perez deals. Fastball hit in the air to left field, that’s deep.
Back goes Chavez, back near the wall, leaping … and …
HE MADE THE CATCH!
HE TOOK A HOME RUN AWAY FROM ROLEN!
TRYING TO GET BACK TO FIRST, EDMONDS.
HE’S DOUBLED OFF
AND THE INNING IS OVER!
A moment later, the masterstroke:
Endy Chavez saved the day!
He reached high up over the left field wall,
right in front of the Mets-–visitor’s bullpen,
and pulled back a two-run homer!
He went to the apex of his leap,
and caught it in the webbing of his glove,
with his elbow up above the fence.
A miraculous play by Endy Chavez!
The play of the year,
the play, maybe, of the franchise history.
ANOTHER REASON COHEN LIKES CALLING basketball games: “It’s the one game in my youth I could play competently.”
“I was terrible at baseball. Baseball I flamed out at 14,” he told me.
Basketball was slightly better. He was a marginal player for the United Nations International School varsity squad that went 2-22 his senior year.
He grew up in Parkway Village, Queens, a co-op community in Kew Gardens Hills originally built to house U.N. members, to a market-researcher mother and a father he described simply as “a businessman.”
Young Gary’s vocation was intense fandom, or the Mets, Knicks, and Jets (he has been a Jets season-ticket holder for 35 years, but he now hates the NBA).
Cohen’s origins tale in broadcasting isn’t the archetypal Marv Albert one of turning off the sound and broadcasting the games himself. No, Gary Cohen, as a young fanatic, simply listened to a ton of games.
“I got an AM radio when I was nine years old, and every night it was Marv Albert, to Lindsay [Nelson], Ralph [Kiner] and Bob [Murphy],” he said. “But I never got behind a mic until college.”
At the heart of Cohen’s appeal to Mets fans is his everyman-fan persona. Parachute broadcasting this is not: Cohen is as long-suffering as we all are, which means a lot to us.
His demeanor on air is genial but professionally distant. He peppers with questions his co-analysts, ex-Mets Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling, but he never reveals much about himself.
This quality allows viewers to project onto Cohen what they want to, a key attribute for anyone who joins 167,000 people in their living rooms every night for several months out of the year. Case in point: As a statistics-minded fan myself, I had always harbored the belief that Cohen secretly sympathized with the “Stat Guys” in the Insider vs. Outsider, Scouts vs. Stats fault lines that have defined the sport’s discourse for the past decade-plus.
Not so, I found out. I asked Cohen about this, and, to use one of his favorite words, I was disabused.
“People who write from a remove have a different perspective. Either it’s a lyrical perspective, which is nice, or a statistical perspective, which is also useful. But when you’re actually up close and understand the human beings who play the game, it gives you a better perspective,” he said.
I asked him if he had plans to increase the focus of statistics in the telecasts, the better to appeal to what I assume would be a more stats-savvy viewership going forward.
“Statistics have their place: Advanced statistics can tell a sometimes better story than standard statistics. But that’s never been the focus of my broadcasts and it’s never going to be,” he told me.
“That’s not what people want to hear. There’s a small percentage of people who want me to talk about xFIP or WAR. But 99 percent of them do not. Most of them want to hear about the players, and the stories surrounding the players. Because numbers don’t play the game. Players do.”
Since he’s been paired with Darling and Hernandez, he has taken on the role of the straight man to Hernandez’s eccentric comic relief. Hernandez and Darling have both won Emmy awards, while Cohen has not. But insofar as it’s the play-by-play man’s role to set up the analysts, and insofar as it’s the straight-man’s role to lay out the framework in which the colorful characters, or color guys, operate, Cohen deserves a fair share of credit for these.
The SNY broadcast itself has won multiple Emmys, and is generally critically acclaimed by New York's sports media intelligentsia. I asked Cohen about the success of their partnership.
Sounding a little like he was trying not to jinx a no-hitter, he said, “Our relationship in the booth, I can’t even describe it. It’s extraordinary. It works better than anyone could’ve expected it to. And we try not to question it.”