file this under old, but semi-interesting news. When Yankee PA announcer Bob Sheppard missed opening day two weeks ago, with a bad hip, I lept into action and reported a story that almost got published by a real news outlet in NYC. in the end, it was too little, too late, but still, hopefully, marginally entertaining--and not too annoying to its very awesome subject.
I found out his phone number. For someone who's often referred to as the "Voice of God," it was easier than it should have been. I looked at the clock on my computer, Wednesday's game against the Royals had just started. It was the second game that he'd miss, a 55-year streak now busted up. Another 50,000 Yankee fans would miss him, miss his voice. I was excited, but I vowed to wait, ring him up after the game was over. Why not let the guy rest?
In the top of the third inning, I called him. The Royals are lightweights. They could play a thousand innings. The Yankees would still win. If his attention was diverted from the game a bit, it wouldn't matter. The phone rang twice. Ailing Yankees Public Address Announcer, Bob Sheppard answered it!
"How are you doing?" I said. I introduced myself, feeling already a little like Rupert Pupkin to his Jerry Langford. When you idolize somebody, it's best to not to contact them, and if you do, don't let your first phone call be when they're 95, and laid up recovering from a dislocated hip.
"Well, I'm alright. I'm in my pajamas. Lying in bed." Each sentence was crisp. Deliberate. Just like at the Stadium.
"I'm working on a sort of "Get Well Soon, Bob' story," I said. "Can I bring you anything?" I didn't let him answer. I cut right to my plan, which was like Tuesdays with Morrie, except, you know, for just about everything. We didn't live in Detroit and neither of us was dying. Additionally, Sheppard had never been my professor. And we wouldn't be meeting every Tuesday. It would be just one goddamn afternoon. Some chit-chat. "I thought it might be nice to bring you a lunch or something and maybe watch some of the game with you, see how you're doing."
"That's okay," he said, meaning, stay put. "Mrs. Sheppard is here and I've got (Yankees' play-by-play announcer) John Sterling at my elbow." The radio played in the background.
"Well, I wouldn't stay for the whole game," I lobbied.
"No," he answered. "You know," Mr. Sheppard paused a long second, knowing, perhaps, that he should be delicate with whomever the loon on the other end of the phone was. "I like being by myself."
"I understand, sir." I upped the respect ante. What a moron I was. You don't just invite yourself over twelve seconds into the conversation. Finesse! Still, the guy was 95. How could he not like chicken salad? Toasted rye. A little iceberg. Salt. Pepper. Speaking of pepper. A Dr. Pepper. In a glass. Maybe served over ice cubes in an old Sheppard family heirloom. Maybe from a mug that said "Grandpa" on it. God, would that be awesome. A bag of sour cream and onion chips. Cloth napkins. Or not.
"Call me in a couple of days," Mr. Sheppard said. "And I'll be able to tell you more."
I love Bob Sheppard, and I love Yankee Stadium, but I don't like the Yankees. I'd want to meet Bob Sheppard to meet Bob Sheppard, not to ask if he knew what Mo Rivera smelled like after a save. Jason Giambi? Ish. Gary Sheffield? The world is not out to get you, tough guy. The Yankees I like died when Billy Martin crashed in a pick-up truck on Christmas Day in 1989, ensuring once and for all he'd never return to manage the team. Okay, I liked the 1996 team an awful lot. But I grew up reading The Bronx Zoo, by Sparky Lyle. Jerks seemed easier to stomach twenty or thirty years ago. In an era of pink souvenir caps, steroids, and Randy Johnson's unflinching homeliness, it's reassuring to know that a man like Bob Sheppard still exists and does a lot of speaking into a microphone. He's the anti-Michael Buffer. His voice is soothing and his ego could fit in a thimble and still leave room for your thumb.
I waited 27 hours. I called back. I got his wife. She wanted to know exactly who I was. "It's only because I can't hear you. We have a bad connection," she said. I was mumbling. Maybe I was gun shy from my last old baseball fellow interview. I called Cubs' announcer Harry Caray once, shortly before he died. Some media relations person actually went to the trouble of setting that one up. I wasn't throwing Mr. Caray any curve balls, but he lost it on me. Called me "pal," as in "Listen pal, if you've got some real questions, fine, I just don't like the way this is going."
"You're three days late," Mr. Sheppard said, after Mrs. Sheppard put him on the phone. "They've all done their stories," he added, referring to the sportswriters from the dailies. "Do you come out every day?" I didn't mention that he was the one who told me to call him back in a couple of days, nor that I was the mere freelancer who wanted to bring him chicken salad.
"We just left the Doctor for a follow-up," Mr. Sheppard added. "He likes the way I've been making progress. The X-Ray shows no fracture. The bone is fitting nicely into the socket. The Doctor manipulated the leg and it didn't cause any pain. He said as long as I take it slow, easy, careful and didn't do anything absurd, it would be fine." He emphasized the word absurd. Bob Sheppard would never do anything absurd.
"Have you had any other significant health issues?" I asked.
"Fifteen years ago, the hip that came out of the socket, was replaced by a new hip," Mr. Sheppard replied. (perhaps he meant leg---doesn't your leg come out of the hip socket?) "It has served me well for fifteen years, but in fact, (Monday) I made an awkward move and the hip came out of its socket." Leaving him out of the P.A. booth at the Stadium, and only Reggie Jackson to do his Sheppard impersonation for the sportswriters. It's quite good, apparently.
"The procdeure was done Monday night at Mercy Hospital in Rockville Center at 11p.m.," Mr. Sheppard continued. "Up until I received the necessary painkillers it was excruciating. After wards, it was fine."
Mr. Sheppard was on a roll, so I didn't want to derail him by asking him what kind of painkillers, even though I wanted to know. I wanted to know a lot that I didn't ask: Do the Yankees pay for a car service for you to and from games? Do you eat anything during the games? Is your booth heated and/or air-conditioned? Ever have layrngitis? Did you ever read anything by Beckett? What do you dream about? Instead, we stuck strictly to the story.
"The doctor did the procedure while I was unconscious," Mr. Sheppard said, "I woke up and asked him, 'When are you gonna do it?'" There was a giddiness in his voice as he mentioned this.
"Did Mr Steinbrenner send you a get well card?"
"No comment," Mr. Sheppard said proudly, without the above giddiness. "If I say that he didn't, you'll paint him as an ogre, and he is certainly not an ogre to me. I've heard from many of the Yankee brass."
"Will you have to use a walker from now on?"
"Oh no, no walker," Mr. Sheppard said, adding that he'd be back to work for the Yankees' next homestand. "My wife found an old cane in the attic. I don't know what to do with it. I like the looks of it though--it's a little Maurice Chevalier." A dose of which would benefit these Yankees. A little less photo-op at Pacha, a little more dapper Frenchman. Get well soon, Bob.