Sunday, July 11, 2010

Bob Sheppard, the Eternal Yankee

Sheppard: Simple, succinct, and divine

To be idolized as a ball player comes with the territory, but to be idolized as a public address announcer, well, that is proof that you've really gone above and beyond the standards of your profession.

Legendary New York Yankee public address announcer Bob Sheppard did just that, and with his passing at the age of ninety-nine today, baseball fans everywhere are now reminiscing about the rare and precious qualities of the man that many affectionately referred to as "The Voice of God."

Ah, that voice. So unmistakable, I can hear it in my mind and follow it as if it were a trail of bread crumbs leading me back to my youth.

Back in the days when you'd sleep with your baseball glove and count the weeks or months until your dad took you down to the Bronx for a Yankee game, Bob Sheppard's was the voice that greeted you when you finally got to the promised land.

"Now batting, the second basemen, number thirty, Willie Randolph... number thirty." That was it. Perfection and simplicity and redundancy intertwined to bring you to the height of anticipation. This voice, you thought to yourself, is something special. You didn't need to be told. You didn't need to hear it from somebody else.

As it turns out, the imitation that many of us kids enjoyed doing more than any other back in the day was that of the illimitable Bob Sheppard. We'd grab our Wiffle-ball bats and walk up to our makeshift home plates, set to face our buddy or our big brother or our dad, and break into the routine: "Now batting, the first baseman, number twenty-three, Don Mattingly, number twenty-three."

There it was, the sound of summer in a nutshell. As sweet as crickets on a hot summer night, better than the bells of an ice cream truck at noon during a record-breaking heatwave.

Bob Sheppard. He may be gone from the planet, but he'll never be gone from our collective consciousness. Like Pete Rose spiking a baseball on the astro-turf of the Vet, or George Brett running and screaming out of the dugout after being called out for too much pine tar on his bat, the memory of Bob Sheppard's soothing voice has a distinct place in our treasure chest of baseball memories.

Derek Jeter—Mr. Yankee himself—had Mr. Sheppard do a recording of his famous introduction after he became so ill that he was no longer able to work at the Stadium. For many fans, hearing the recording is the highlight of their trip to the Stadium.

"That first at-bat in Yankee Stadium, you don't forget," said Yankee catcher Jorge Posada, "and he is part of that." Posada was one of many Yankees, both present and former, who lamented Sheppard's passing today. "Nobody is better," he added. "People look forward to coming to Yankee Stadium to hear that voice."

Bob Sheppard was a man who understood his calling in life. He came from an unselfish era when people were happy to perform their function for a team, and stayed on even as old-fashioned values started to fall by the wayside. The times may have changed since his tenure began in 1950, the players, the teams, the character, the ownership—but always, there was Bob Sheppard at the microphone, remarkably steady, and indescribably pure.

In an age of in-your-face commercialism, sycophantic cheerleading, and electronic pleas for "noise," the sheer dignity of Sheppard's delivery is what will remain in our memory banks. He was a man who had an implicit understanding of how we wanted to be treated at the ballpark, even when we ourselves had no idea.

Unlike the trashy and needlessly overbearing announcers now making the rounds in Major League parks these days, Sheppard was calm, smooth, and considerate. At times it almost seemed that he was aware that there were people at the park that might have actually preferred to talk amongst themselves than to listen to an announcer feign unnecessary enthusiasm.

Simplicity, efficiency, and consistency. With a tone to die for.

Baseball will always be great, but it will never be the same without him.

Bob Sheppard, rest in peace.