Baseball Voices: Gary Cohen on his 2,000th Mets TV game and his broadcasting journey

SN Baseball Voices-Gary Cohen.jpg
(Courtesy SNY)

On Tuesday night in Atlanta, Gary Cohen will be behind the mic for his 2,000th game as the TV play-by-play voice for the New York Mets. 

It’s an amazing accomplishment — he’s been the lead play-caller for SNY since the network was founded in 2006 — but only scratches the surface of his connection to the Mets. Before landing the TV job with SNY, Cohen was the radio play-by-play man for the Mets’ radio broadcasts from 1989 to 2005. And going even deeper, Cohen was a kid growing up in Queens who listened to Mets broadcasts on the radio and dreamed of what might be ahead in his future. Safe to say, 6-year-old Gary would love how things turned out. 

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Tuesday night’s milestone game makes Cohen the perfect subject for this week’s Baseball Voices, SN’s series of in-depth conversations with the broadcasters who call the games we love on a daily basis.  

SPORTING NEWS: You’re about to hit your 2,000th game as the TV voice of the Mets, which is kind of incredible. What does that mean to you, the idea that you’ve been on TV broadcasting the Mets for 2,000 games now? 

COHEN: Well, it means I’ve been showing up for work every day for a long time (laughs). Honestly, I didn't even know that was the case. For me, and I've been very fortunate in this, it’s just a continuation of what I’ve been doing since I was 6 years old. I was a Met fan since 1964. I watched virtually every game when I was a kid and attended hundreds of games sitting in the upper deck at Shea Stadium. So what's turned into my life's work is really just a continuation of what began as a kid. 

SN: So when you were a kid, did you know you wanted to be a broadcaster? Did you call the games when you watched them? 

COHEN: No, initially I wanted to be a shortstop, but that didn't work out because I had no talent. I also had an aspiration to be a power forward in the NBA, but I didn't quite grow as much as I had hoped. So broadcasting was a nice fallback. I used to listen and watch a lot. I had an old-fashion radio in my room when I was 9 years old, and I found that you could find sports on that radio every night. I’d listen to Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson and Ralph Kiner doing the Mets, and Marv Albert doing the Knicks and the Rangers, and Al Albert doing the Nets. And you could find distance signals, find Chuck Thompson doing the Orioles and Ned Martin doing the Red Sox. I was fascinated by that. It never occurred to me that was something I could aspire to, but I very much was inspired by listening to all of those great announcers and finding that it was possible to hear games in my brain that I couldn't actually see, which was very intriguing to me. 

SN: The magic of radio. 

COHEN: Yes. 

SN: Who were some of your favorite players on those Mets teams from in your childhood? Who did you love? 

COHEN: Well, Bud Harrelson was my guy. The little guy who overperformed, probably, his natural ability. I loved them all, but he was definitely special. 

SN: That's cool. So at what point did broadcasting become an option? When you were in high school? College? When did you start to think “This is something I can do?”

COHEN: Well, I went to the University of Pennsylvania my freshman year, and during orientation in the student newspaper there was a little ad that said, “If you're interested in being the voice of the Quakers, come to this meeting.” And I showed up, and 64 people showed up at the same meeting. They said, “Well, if you want to do this, take a tape recorder, go to a game and, you know, and talk.” And I think only three people came to the next meeting. I took my little tape recorder and went to Penn versus Lafayette freshman football game and did my little screeching into the microphone. That was the first time I'd ever even thought about trying to make this happen. I still have that tape and it’s just so bloody awful. I keep it around to keep me humble. 

So I got to broadcast a little bit there at Penn, and then I transferred to Columbia my sophomore year and got to do a whole bunch of games, football and basketball and soccer and baseball. And, you know, I found that it was something that I enjoyed and something that I could see pursuing, even though I still had no idea that it was going to be possible to earn a living broadcasting games. But it was something that, hey, I found enjoyable. That was really the beginning of it. 

SN: I was going to ask you if you still had that tape, but you still do, obviously. Do you ever let anyone listen to it or is that just for you? 

COHEN: Oh, no. No, no, no. That could never happen. (Laughs)

SN: Were you as enthusiastic in that first tape as you are now when you call Mets games these days? 

COHEN: I was pretty confused. I had a pretty significant speech impediment, a pretty thick New York accent. It's pretty brutal. 

SN: So how did you overcome the speech impediment? 

COHEN: Well, the best thing that probably ever happened to me was during college, I took a job working at Sports Phone. In the pre-Internet and pre-ESPN days, that was the best way for people to get updated scores of games. It involves doing a 58-second tape of scores for up to 30 games, so you had to speak fast and clearly and accurately. And really, doing that, I think, was the best thing that happened to me in terms of cleaning up my speech. I also took a couple of a speech classes during college, which helped. But I think it was mostly just the more I did, the more I listened, the more I became conscious of the things that I needed to overcome. When young broadcaster are starting out, the best thing that they can do is be their own worst critic, and I think that's often the best way to improve. 

SN: I grew up in St. Louis and I still remember the phone number to the SportsLine, they called. It was 321-1111. I called it every 10 minutes, sometimes. So as someone who grew up relying on that, thank you for what you did. It meant a lot. 

COHEN: There are a lot of us I know in New York who came through Sports Phone at one time or another. Guys like Howie Rose and Al Trautwig, then Sam Rosen. A lot of folks who went on to broadcasting in careers in New York started out at Sports Phone at some point.

SN: That would be a great story, too. After Sports Phone, was Spartanburg your first professional job out of Columbia? 

COHEN: No. My first job out of college was as a news person at WTSL in Hanover, New Hampshire. I was the No. 2 person in a two-person news department that covered Hanover, Lebanon, New Hampshire and White River Junction, Vermont. Went to a lot of planning board and zoning board meetings. It was a chance to be on the radio regularly, but it was not exactly what I wanted. While I was there — we covered three towns but we only had one sports guy — when the teams got to the playoffs, I got to do a couple of playoff hockey games, which only started to whet my appetite. So I went from there to a sports job at WORD in Spartanburg, which was a rather amazing place. 

This guy named Bob Brown bought the station and decided to make this little 5,000-watt radio station, Spartanburg, South Carolina, into powerhouse. So he hired these huge numbers of people to do 24-hour-a-day news and sports. It was pretty remarkable. I worked with a lot of really good people there and got to do innumerable high school football and basketball and baseball games. So that at least kept my hand in it. And we did, I don't know, maybe a couple dozen minor-league baseball games for the Spartanburg Spinners, who were in the South Atlantic League. Mike Maddox and Lance McCullers Sr., are probably the most notable guys on that team. But I also got to see Cecil Fielder playing for the Florence Blue Jays, long before anybody knew who Cecil was. 

So that was my first taste of doing baseball and I found it extraordinarily difficult. At the time, I probably aspired more to be a basketball broadcaster because it was just more of an action sport, and I had always loved doing basketball in college. From Spartanburg, I moved to Norfolk, Virginia worked for WTAR in Norfolk, doing all sorts of radio tasks. But I also got to do some Division I basketball for the first time, filling in for Old Dominion. So that gave me a taste of that. And while I was in Norfolk, I got my first real full-time baseball job, in Durham in 1986. I took that job feeling very daunted by the idea of doing 1,200 innings solo. But I found after a few weeks in that job that baseball was really what I wanted to do, just the everyday nature of it, the soap-opera quality of connecting yesterday with today, last week with last year. And I found that all the baseball that I had watched and studied and read about over the years really served me well in that job. And so that became what I really wanted to pursue. 

SN: That's awesome. Let's skip ahead to your Mets life. What have you learned most from working with guys like Keith and Ron on regular basis? What do you get from your conversations with them? 

COHEN: I would go back further than that. My first 17 years with the Mets I worked on the radio.

SN: Sure, sure. 

COHEN: The first 15 of those were with Bob Murphy. Murph was a classic, wonderful broadcaster. I learned from him about emphasizing the big moments. Baseball games can drag across hours, and you're filling it with stories and details and things that might be extraneous to what's actually happening in front of you. But when a big moment arrives, it has to be front and center. Murph taught me that more than anything else. Then my last two years on the radio I got to work with Howie Rose, who's like my brother from another mother. That was very, very cool. We both grew up in Queens. We both grew up as Mets fans. We share a lot of the same sensibilities, and those two years where were extraordinarily fun. Then I moved to SNY when the network began in 2006, and that's when Keith (Hernandez) and Ron (Darling) and I started. It was very different for me, because I never worked with former players before. When you do radio, you're the show. You're the producer, the director, the color man, the play-by-play man. It’s kind of every job rolled into one, and on TV, it's very different. You fill a small piece, a small spoke in a very large wheel, and it was not a given that the three of us were going to click the way we did. 

But I think the fact that we all arrived there not quite sure of ourselves really worked in our favor. I'd never really done TV before. Keith had only done a smattering of games. Ronnie had done one year in Washington when he was really just thrown into that at the last moment. So we were all kind of neophytes in our own way, and I think we all leaned on each other and I think what really has created the brotherhood and the partnership and the chemistry that ultimately has come to the surface. 

SN: I love the way you guys play off each other. It feels like a conversation I'll have with friends. Do you guys hang out a lot outside of the booth too? 

COHEN: Sometimes, but I think our partnership is rooted in the ways that we come at things differently, while at the same time all having the same goal of entertaining and educating and enlightening and providing the captions for the games. I think the most important thing — and this is pretty incredible when you consider that we have a borderline Hall of Famer in Keith and a great, great pitcher in Ron — is that there are no egos in our booth. Nobody has to be the star of the show. Often when I listen, particularly three-men booths in other places, that sometimes it feels like there's a struggle going on for who's going to be the lead dog. And we just don't have a lead dog. We have three guys who are all offering what they've got, all for the better good. And I think that works in our favor. 

SN: That's cool. OK, now I’m going to give you four moments that you've been behind the mic for, and I want you to tell me what you remember most about those moments. The first one is the Endy Chavez catch in the NLCS. What sticks out to you all these years later? 

COHEN: Well, first of all, it was incredible that I was actually calling that moment because that was my first year doing TV in 2006. WFAN was kind enough to invite me to do an inning per game of the postseason that year, and that just happened to be the one inning I was behind the microphone. 

SN: Oh, wow. I didn't realize that.

COHEN: Yeah. What I remember is that I thought it was a home run. I remember Endy going up about as far as a human being could elevate in front of the fence, and how much of his arm — and he’s not a tall guy — was above the fence when he caught the ball, and that the force of the ball hitting the absolute tip of his glove almost took the glove right off his hand and flipped it into the bullpen. But somehow he caught that ball. I was as stunned as I've ever been calling a play because it just didn't seem possible he could do that. 

SN: Speaking of being stunned by something, my next one is the Bartolo Colon home run. 

COHEN: People ask me about that one all the time, and what I tell them is this: There are certain things in baseball that you can prepare for. Someone's coming up to a milestone or someone's going to clinch a pennant and you may not script what you're gonna say, but you have some idea that it's coming. But the best moments are always the ones that come completely out of the blue. And the backstory of that moment is as important as the moment itself. The fact that Bartolo coming over from the American League, hadn’t swung the bat in years and looked like the guy off the street trying to swing the bat, either losing his helmet or flailing away. And that's what had happened through most of his tenure with the Mets. He had gotten subtly better over the course of the months leading up to that, but it was still absurd to think that it was actually possible that he was going to hit a home run. I think you can hear the shock and awe in my voice and because again, who could ever prepare for something like that happening? 

SN: He crushed it, too. It wasn't a wall scraper. I mean, he got ahold of that one. 

COHEN: Well, he's a big, strong guy, but still.

SN: OK. The next one is the Johan Santana no-hitter. 

COHEN: Again, the backstory is as important as the moment itself. I’ve been a Mets fan virtually from the beginning of the franchise, and the fact that the Mets had never thrown a no-hitter bordered on the absurd. They had had some of the greatest pitching of the previous half-century, from Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden and David Cone and Frank Viola and Darling and Sid Fernandez and Al Leiter and all these guys who, on any given day, could have thrown a no-hitter. Mike Scott. All these guys who pitched for the Mets and went on and threw no-hitters for other teams.

So for the Mets to have gone half a century without a no-hitter, it almost became part of the legend of the franchise. And for it to happen that night was rather shocking, too, because remember Santana was coming off shoulder problems. He had had a capsule surgery. They were trying to limit his pitch count. He walked a lot of hitters early in that game. It didn't even seem, as the game progressed, that he was going to be allowed to finish, much less that he could. So there was the drama in that, too. And watching the agony on Terry Collins’ face as he kept sending him out there inning after running, knowing that it was against his better judgment. So all of that played into the ultimate reality of Santana completing the no-hitter. And it was great to see that he did it, too, because he was such a wonderful role model and the kind of guy that you want to be the guy who broke the, the, the no-hitter drought, that it not be some random guy who just has a big night because Santana was baseball royalty and you know, he may not have been quite the picture with the Mets that he was with the Twins, but he had had some real seminal moments with the Mets, and for him to, I think you have to say, culminate his career because while he pitched for awhile after that, he was never quite the same. That was his last big moment and it's great that he was the guy.

SN: And the last one for this is the Wilmer Flores game. Not the home run he hit a couple of days later, but the game when everyone thought he was traded. How, as a broadcaster, do you try to handle a situation that's as bizarre as that one was? 

COHEN: Yeah, well that's a testament to the new reality of the way information travels. I follow Twitter during the game and I was seeing all these reports from credible sources that the trade was basically done. I have a whole different level of thinking about that because I had a lot of conversations with writers in the days afterward, and with people in front offices about the way this information is transmitted and the fact that clearly front offices leak to writers about trades that haven't happened yet. It puts everybody in kind of an awkward position. It still bewilders me that it's in anybody's best interest, but you know, you've got good reporters with good sources and for whatever reason those sources are inclined to let that information leak out as things are happening. And so you get a situation like we had that night, where basically every credible writer in the country is saying that the deal was done, and Wilmer’s still out there on the field, and the fans of the stands all know this. Terry Collins doesn't necessarily know this, so he leaves Wilmer in the game and Wilmer comes to find out from fans yelling at him that he's been traded, and yet he's still out there at his position. So it put everybody in an extraordinarily awkward situation. But because of the way Wilmer reacted, because he was so tied to the Mets; he'd signed as a 16-year-old and here he was eight years later and about to be traded from the only organization that ever known, and yet he's standing there out there on the field and still playing. So he reacted in an extraordinarily human way. And I think that, in many ways, it tightened his bond with the Mets’ fan base, because he was demonstrating to them how much it meant to him to be there. It was a fascinating evening from a lot of standpoints. I think it only worked in Wilmer’s favor and made him a more popular player.

SN: You know this as well as anyone, obviously, but the Mets are a franchise that everyone has opinions on, and they love to voice those opinions. You're kind of the voice of the games for the franchise. Do you try to keep your opinions out? Do you try to inject some? How do you kind of approach that with a franchise that’s as interesting is the Mets are?

COHEN: Well, I'll say this: We are very fortunate that we work for a franchise that allows its broadcasters to be honest. You know, that's not true everywhere. A lot of franchises would prefer that their broadcasters sugarcoat what's going on in the field and what's going on off the field. We've never had that mandate. We've always been told to tell the truth. So that gives us a lot of leeway to express opinions that you might not hear on another regional broadcasts. At the same time, we have a responsibility to be responsible and not to go off a half-baked. It's a line that nobody has ever demarcated for us but we tend to credit and so when we have things that we need to say, we say them and we make them clear, we try not to belabor them. But if you listen to the broadcast on a regular basis, you have a pretty good idea how Keith and Ron and I feel about whatever issues are surrounding the Mets and baseball in general. 

SN: Definitely. You've called a lot of college basketball games, a lot of hockey in your career. Do you have a favorite non-baseball game, maybe a couple favorites, that you've been fortunate enough to call? 

COHEN: Oh, sure. I've done Seton Hall basketball for the last 16 years, and I love college basketball and I love that it also keeps me connected to radio, since I don’t get to do as much radio these days. When Seton Hall won the Big East championship in 2016 with Isaiah Whitehead, that was one of the greatest moments that I've ever called. I've done a lot of great college basketball moments, and that was certainly one of them. The other thing that I would say is, I got to do Olympic hockey for CBS Radio for ’92, ’94 and ’98, and ’98 was the first year that the NHL players played in the Olympics. The gold-medal game that year between the Czech Republic and Russia, that was an amazing event as well. So those would be the two that stand out. 

SN: Did you ever have a low point in your broadcasting journey, a time when you thought, “Am I doing the right thing?”

COHEN: I went to Pawtucket in ’87 and I did two years there. I would say sometime in the middle of my second year in Pawtucket, there were thoughts. You know, I’d seen, traveling around in the International League, there were some guys who had been doing the International League for 20 years, and I knew that was not something that I was going to do. If things didn't work out, I was going to have to find another path. So yeah, that year, in ’88, I definitely had some thoughts in that direction that maybe the law school applications would be going out soon. But fortunately that year, I got to fill in on a couple of big-league games. I did one for the Mets that year and one for the Orioles. And that, at least, gave me the encouragement to keep plugging away, and I was lucky enough that winter to get the Mets radio job. I never had to send in those applications. 

SN: I’m sure Mets fans are happy for that.

COHEN: Well, I am, too. 

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