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At the old Yankee Stadium a gentleman often boarded the elevator before games holding a book tight to an angular frame that, together with his long, thin nose, gave him the appearance of a calligraphy pen. The look fit a man meticulous and graceful with his words, one who cherished the beauty they conveyed to the mind and the ear. Bob Sheppard spoke soothingly, with the blessing of commas, letting sentences breathe and words loop, even in the tight quarters of an elevator. "Good afternoon, everyone," he would say, letting the greeting crest with the same eloquence he intoned as the Yankees' public-address announcer. For more than 50 years Sheppard turned a lineup card into a poetry reading, the longtime speech teacher in the New York City school system (and later at St. John's University) leaning into a microphone to tell spectators, "Now batting for the New York Yankees [pause] number two [pause] DEH-rek JEE-tuh [pause] number two."
His slow cadence caused echoes to echo. The Voice of God, as Sheppard was called, died at age 99 on July 11, two days before the Boss's heart gave out at 80. Sheppard's measured style provided a calming counterpoint to George Steinbrenner's fits of word rage—decrying pitcher Hideki Irabu as a "fat pussy toad" or outfielder Dave Winfield as "Mister May." If there was a devil on Steinbrenner's left shoulder, Sheppard was the angel on his right. He was one Stadium employee who was never fired by the Boss (ensuring that Steinbrenner maintains at least guest-pass privileges to heaven). Sheppard understood his role from his perch behind the bunting at Yankee Stadium. In 1982 he told The New York Times, with arch alliteration, "A public-address announcer should be clear, concise, correct. He should not be colorful, cute or comic."
This quaint notion was pre-Twitter. B 4 Chris Paul was called CP3 by P.A. announcers. B 4 LeBron James was truncated to LBJ and Dwyane Wade was cut to D-Wade. B 4 the YMCA announced last week that it would be known simply as the Y in a rebranding move that leaves the Village People two consonants and a vowel short of a song. ("Deeply dismayed," said the publicist for the construction worker, biker, cop and Indian in an official release. "We still can't help but wonder Y.") And what's to become of the Yankee Stadium grounds crew members who groom to the '70s tune, delighting the crowd between innings by stopping mid-sweep to form Y-M-C-A with their arms? Are they left hanging? Is no scene sacred?
It feels as if the parlance of sports has been deprived of purpose and meaning. In the age of Tweet-sized acronyms and abbreviations, the romance language of the game has all but passed on along with a generation of storytellers behind the microphones. The power of description—"Easy as a bank of fog," as Red Barber said of fluid fielders, or "He stood there like the house by the side of the road," as Ernie Harwell razzed about batters called out on strikes—has nearly vanished in the endless loops of highlights available with one mouse click.
Who needs verbs when everyone can see the moment for himself? Thoughtful description is old school, preserved in a time capsule with a Smith-Corona, a Magic 8 ball and a tape of Mel Allen. Brevity is new school in a skew-young, iConsumed media landscape. What's an on-air talent to do in a 24/7 cycle? Carry a big shtick. Use pop-culture catchphrases as filler while walking like an auto-show model to different floor marks in the studio. This new reality is reflected on ESPN's Bristol, Conn., campus, where middle-aged guys feel compelled to anchor, host or analyze in the snarky lingo of boarding school teens or the jargon of hip urbanites. There is no question the sportscasters can be entertaining. But the go-to stagecraft can also feel forced (an NBA star is not "buttah on a roll" when he ends the night 4 for 20) if the speaker is trying way too hard to be young. Cougars, it appears, can be male too.
Sheppard said he always spoke the same way, whether in a classroom or a saloon. Does Stuart Scott say "boo-yaa" into the drive-through speaker? Would Rece Davis say, "See the three, be the three," to a three-year-old? The linguistic gimmickry leaves no room for the newsmakers and playmakers. What the sportscasters don't realize is that when the story becomes more hype than substance (for example, the nervous first-date, I-like-you, do-you-like-me? small talk between LeBron James and Jim Gray) the games and players can seem boring.
There are still preservationists gamely practicing their craft in the booths and in the studios, from Joe Buck, with his narrative touch, to Bob Costas and his attention to detail. And, thankfully, Vin Scully lives on to share his archive of tales. "How good was Stan Musial?" Scully once asked. "He was good enough to take your breath away." The best ones behind the mike still transport us even when the information is faster on the Internet, able to inform us without 140-character shortcuts.
Nostalgia isn't playing taps just yet. At Yankee Stadium, the Voice of God still carries. For as long as Jeter is a Yankee, he will insist that a tape of Sheppard announcing his name be played when he is introduced at the Stadium. In that moment, he is not Jeets or DJ. He is "DEH-rek JEE-tuh." What's in a name? The same beauty still found in a game: poetry.
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