"Your attention please, ladies and gentlemen..."
The new Yankee Stadium had its informal unveiling this weekend with a pair of Yankees-Cubs exhibition games. As I watched the proceedings on TV, It wasn't the Bronx Bombers' new digs that had me feeling so out of place, but rather the 7th inning stretch, when over the PA came the now-traditional request to rise for the playing of "God Bless America."
The voice wasn't that of longtime "Voice Of The Yankees" Bob Sheppard, or his hand-picked substitute, Sheppard sound-alike Jim Hall. It was Paul Olden, a broadcast vet who's been tapped to work the mic at least through Opening Day, and most likely beyond.
Olden was apparently told to do his best Sheppard impersonation, especially when announcing the lineups. But in the 7th inning on Friday night, he sounded less like the "Voice Of God," as Sheppard has been called, than the voice of ... well, every announcer in every other ballpark. My sense of displacement was total.
Sheppard has manned the mic at Yankee Stadium since Joe DiMaggio was the starting center fielder; 60-year-olds who grew up with the Yanks don't remember any other voice over the PA. When I went to my first Yankee game in '77, Sheppard was already in his 27th year with the Pinstripers. And his career wasn't even halfway done.
Until last season, which he missed due to a severe bronchial infection from which he's still recovering, he'd been at the PA announcing everyone from Mickey Mantle to Melky Cabrera. And whether he's saying "Mickey Klutts" or "Frank Catalanotto" (my favorite name to hear him say; his own favorite is Shigetoshi Hasegawa), his voice is distinct, unique and instantly recognizable. Sheppard was a speech professor at St. John's University (from which he graduated, class of 1932), and his elegant diction -- think New York by way of Oxford -- sounds like it.
There are few more recognizable voices in professional sports. More than one major leaguer has said he knew he'd made the big time when he heard Sheppard announce his name. No less a luminary than Derek Jeter has stipulated that a recording of Sheppard intoning, "Now batting for the Yankees, numbah 2, Derek Jee-tah" be played for every one of his home at-bats until he retires. And over more than half a century, that familiar cadence booming out of the Stadium speakers has become inextricably linked with the team.
The pain of Sheppard's absence during 2008 was mitigated by the presence of his longtime, hand-picked backup, Jim Hall, who sounds so much like his mentor that he's essentially methadone to Sheppard's heroin. When Sheppard recorded the lineups for the final home game from his home in Baldwin, NY, he sounded as crisp as ever, giving the faithful new hope that he'd be back to christen the new place come springtime. Even though he is, to put it mildly, getting on in years -- he'll be celebrating his 99th birthday in October.
Then came the news that he wouldn't be working the exhibition games this weekend, or Opening Day. And the report, apparently erroneous, that he'd announced his last game. But despite the rumors, the near-centenarian has refused to say he's retiring. He insists that he's waiting for his doctors to give him the OK to return, and that his future plans are "in God's hands."
Well, if he's looking for a sign to come back, he got one on Saturday afternoon, when the new Stadium's PA system crapped out halfway through the game, leaving fans with blessed silence rather than a run-of-the-mill announcer.
I am willing to get used to the sparkling new House That Ruth Didn't Build, with its $2,625 luxury seats, its Hard Rock Café, its obstructed view bleacher seats. But that voice? I'm not ready to say goodbye. Not yet. Now, more than ever, Yankees fans need Bob Sheppard's golden voice to make us feel at home in our new home.
Ten days until the first official home game at the new Yankee Stadium. Your mic is waiting, Mr. Sheppard.