Suzyn Waldman returns to WFAN as Yankees broadcaster

Suzyn Waldman in the radio booth at Yankee Suzyn Waldman in the radio booth at Yankee Stadium.

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept. ...

One of the first things Suzyn Waldman thought when she learned the Yankees' radio home would move to WFAN was that it was "very cool," given that on July 1, 1987, she became the first voice ever heard on the station.

"I smiled, I really did, because it's really coming full circle," she said before traveling to Florida for the team's first spring training broadcast Thursday against the Pirates.

One of the other things that occurred to her was this:

"It's something George [Steinbrenner] always wanted. George always wanted the Yankees on WFAN; that was one of his dreams, and it just never happened. But here it is. I think he'd be very happy."

Steinbrenner is believed to have been reluctant to move for fear of hurting the Mets and his friend Fred Wilpon, but now the Mets have left for WOR and the Yankees find themselves with, in effect, a 24-hour-a-day lead-in.

"I think that's exactly what George had always talked about," Waldman said. "To have Mike Francesa as a lead-in for Yankees baseball? It has to help."

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Although the Yankees' move was within the CBS Radio family, it involved new decision-makers, notably WFAN executive Mark Chernoff. That led to speculation about whether Waldman and John Sterling would return for their 10th season together. But Waldman said she never was concerned.

"Baseball, on the radio in particular, is a game of familiarity," she said. "I think when the landscape is in upheaval the way it is, people will go up and down the dial looking for familiarity. If you're going to change total stations and replace another team that's been there for almost 30 years, you better have familiarity there. You better have the voices that people are looking for."

There is no questioning the familiarity of Major League Baseball's most distinctive radio booth. But Sterling and Waldman long have been lightning rods for criticism, even as they have become local sports media institutions.

Let's face it, New York: Whatever their flaws, if they had been replaced by more conventional announcers, they would have been missed.

Entering her 28th season covering the Yankees in one capacity or another, Waldman said adjusting her style to conform never was an option. "I was never going to change, because my belief was if you don't have something different to offer, why bother?" she said. "The people that I grew up really loving changed paradigms. They didn't sound like everybody else."

Waldman cited Howard Cosell and Celtics announcer Johnny Most as early favorites, but while they were different, she was even more so as a pioneer among women in sports broadcasting.

She recalled "really ugly" times in the early days, both in locker rooms and at the station, including staffers who would intentionally edit reports to make her "sound like a moron."

"That happened, and it happened for a while, and it happened more than once," she said.

Now Waldman is back in a new role, in a new era and with mostly new teammates. Among them is morning co-host Craig Carton, who regularly has endorsed Sterling and Waldman staying on the job -- and regularly does less-than-flattering imitations of Waldman.

"I've never met Craig Carton; I wouldn't know him if he was in my living room," she said. "I don't listen to them. I'm not their demographic . . . Whatever they do, they do. I've been here almost 30 years. It is what it is."

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Speaking of teammates, Waldman has proved to be a loyal one for Sterling, including smoothing over some of his famously erroneous descriptions of action.

"I think because John is so emotional in his calls, and he's so out there, that when he does make a mistake -- and everybody makes mistakes, everybody -- it becomes overblown because of how he broadcasts and who he is," she said.

"If you take out whatever mistakes you think he makes, listen to the rest of the broadcast. He's really, really good . . . We are a team. He's corrected me. I'll pronounce names wrong. I'll get excited, too."

Waldman, 67, would not discuss the length of her new contract other than to say, "It's perfect for where I am in my life, let's put it that way."

It helps to be energized by each new season, this one even more so than usual. "I'll get another criticism," she said, laughing. "If you think I was emotional with Mariano [Rivera retiring], wait till this year."

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In other words, Derek Jeter's final season will be an ongoing narrative.

"People can play the highlights, but to travel and see every game he's ever played, to meet him when he was 18 and to watch the evolution of this kid turning into Derek Jeter, that's what I'm going to share," she said.

Waldman knows there are many young Yankees fans who have no idea she was the first voice on WFAN and can't appreciate the role the station played in her career.

But she knows, and being back at the old frequency has special resonance, another sign of outlasting skeptics stretching over two millennia.

"I am a really easy target," she said. "John Sterling is a really easy target. Mike Francesa is a really easy target. Anybody who's different or goes against whatever everybody thinks should be the norm is going to get killed one way or another.

"But if you can't do something important in this world, if people don't have an opinion about you, what's the point?"

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