SNY is to begin its 10th season televising Mets games on March 6, when the Amazin's host the Tigers in Port St. Lucie in spring training.
Speaking of amazin', the network has kept intact its popular three-man booth of Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling, as well as producer Gregg Picker and director Bill Webb, for the entire, decade-long run.
(Steve Gelbs will succeed Kevin Burkhardt as SNY's Mets reporter, becoming the third man on that job.)
Earlier this month Newsday spoke to Cohen, Hernandez, Darling, Picker and executive producer Curt Gowdy Jr., who assembled the team, about why it has worked, where it goes from here and what to expect from the 2015 Mets.
(Some answers were edited and/or condensed for clarity.)
To what do you attribute being together and seemingly happy and successful for a decade?
Keith Hernandez: Well, even if we didn't get along, we're professionals, we would work. But we're fortunate we get along. We just melded right together quickly, from the get-go. Every year when we're off for six months and we come back and we do our first game it's always like we've never missed a day and just stepped right back into the same clothes and it's like being at home again.
Another important thing, too, is we're popular with the fan base and I think we give an honest broadcast and I must say we're getting full support from the network and ownership. And I emphasize the ownership. I think it's very important that the fans know the Wilpons want an honest broadcast. I think that's what we bring, and that in particular is what New Yorkers want.
Ron Darling: Well, one thing I didn't anticipate when we started this process is how tight you become as a broadcasting team . . . I think a great symbol of us is every time after the game is done and it's getaway day on the road, everyone from Dan [Barr] and John [DeMarsico] in the truck to Gregg and Bill, and then we come from the booth, we all sit together and we all talk about the game or we don't talk about the game, or we all call our wives or our families or whatever.
There is isolation you have as a broadcast unit that is really just us, as a group. We have each other. We really don't have anyone else. And I think that makes you closer, and I honestly never knew that would happen. I just thought it would be like it was 20 years ago when I used to sit in the back row [as a player]. But it's not like that at all. We sit and we kind of care about each other.
We've been doing it so long that if someone's a little off - and I'm not talking about the broadcast - just not feeling well or a little off or a little angry that day, we care and if you need to talk about it I'm here. All those things I didn't think would happen have happened on this broadcast.
Gary Cohen: I think we're all exactly where we're supposed to be. It was this perfect storm that brought us all together. If you think about the way we started, all of us came to this as a new challenge. I was coming from radio. Ronnie was very inexperienced. Keith had never done this full time. Gregg had never done day-to-day baseball. Curt had never been the executive producer of a network before.
We were all starting kind of from scratch, other than Bill Webb, who obviously transcended the business for decades. But I think what that did was it took a group of people, all of whom have fairly strong personalities, but all approached it in a very low-ego way. And I think what happened is that when we were successful - and a lot of times when a group is successful some people start to develop a greater sense of their own importance - but I think all of us came to this in such an inexperienced and low-ego way that we understand we're responsible for the fact it's been successful.
And I think that plays itself out every day. We're all deferential to each other. We all understand the importance of everybody else in making this work and I think that's why it's continued to be successful and I think it's why we've all, and Ronnie is a perfect example of that, and Keith, too, why we've all worked so hard to get better at this over the last 10 years. We haven't, for lack of a better phrase, rested on our laurels.
Curt Gowdy Jr.: One of the key things as to why it's worked so well is everybody loves what they do. They have a passion for the game. They have a passion and professionalism for their job. And I also think that by design having this continuity that there are the same folks in the truck, the same three guys in the booth, that continuity has given us a great consistency with our broadcasts, from the first year to this upcoming year.
I think viewers have grown to love the fact they hear the same guys entertain and enlighten them every single game. So I think that's really important.
Gregg Picker: I think in many ways we've created an environment that has allowed us to do that. And it starts here with [SNY president] Steve [Raab] and Curt and the support we've gotten from them. Some of it is tangible and some is intangible. We've been able to, without writing down any rules or any scientific formula, we have been able to find an environment where each of us can thrive as individuals, growing and doing what we do, and we at the same time thrive and grow as a group.
And I think it's very unique to have the people that have the experience level that all of us have work together and be able to say at the end of the day that we really, really respect each other and everybody has very, very strong opinions and beliefs about what they do and how they feel about the game, how they feel about the broadcast business, but there's an incredible amount of respect for what each of us feels individually and a willingness to be unselfish in what we do.
Honestly, I've worked a lot of different places and I've had the good fortune of working with some great people. It's a very unique group. I think the attitude we've always maintained is to try to keep it simple, to try to serve the fans in an honest way, put in a very diligent amount of work so that we're well-versed and well-educated in the subject matter but at the same time, just as importantly, not take ourselves too seriously, that if we have something that goes wrong we're able to sit back and keep it in a pretty good perspective and have the faith and confidence that in the long run everything is going to be all right.
How have you tried to keep telecasts interesting with a team that has not been in contention since 2008?
Hernandez: Well, certainly it would be better if we were every year in contention, because it's very exciting, for the player as well as the broadcaster, to be playing meaningful games in August and September. In a perfect world you're contending the entire season. But you know what? Each game is different. You get to watch the various teams come in.
I've always told Gary that you have a three-game series and a second-division team comes in, in three games they'll show you why they're a second-division team. You watch the individual players. Each game is unique, has its own flavor, its own path that it takes. Now, obviously, even when you're on a contending team, the 10-0 game in the fourth inning is the toughest game.
But we've commented a bunch of times in the booth where we get a good game in August where it might be a meaningless game but we sit there when the game is over and Gary always goes, boy, that was a good one. So the game is still beautiful. We're just a part of it, observing and getting in our observations and Gary, of course, is the beautiful maestro.
Cohen: This is going to be my 27th year doing Mets baseball. The vast majority of those years have not been contending years. I think it's very much what Keith said. You approach every game as an individual event. The best three hours of the day are the hours the game is going on. I mean, yeah, the season can drag and being away from home and the travel and all the attendant pieces of covering a non-contending team might feel onerous at times, but the three hours of the game are transcendent.
Every day you see something or learn something or talk about something or hear your partner joke about something that's never happened before. I don't have any issue with doing these games in the same way every day and if there are more people watching or there are more people in the stands and the game means more in the standings, that's great. But ultimately it really doesn't affect what we do.
Darling: I think that's why we are at our best whatever the game status, because Gary is the rudder and it certainly feels that way, that every game is as important as the game before and the game after. Gregg was talking about the environment. Gary provides that environment for Keith and I. Every game, he's ready to go, and if the game gets out of hand and the Mets are losing, occasionally he gets better.
So it inspires, if you're working with him, to c'mon, snap to it! They're losing 10-2 but we have to keep going, let's go, let's plow through this. And I think that's inspirational. That being said, I think when the games are great I think we rise to the occasion. I think when you have a game that comes out of nowhere, like the June 1 [2012 no-hitter] game with [Johan] Santana, and I'm not saying we nailed it but you come out saying, boy, we got what we were supposed to do there, that makes you feel good. Because sometimes you can go two weeks without anything resembling that. Then that happens and if you're ready for it, it feels good.
Picker: We've always prided ourselves on more of a global broadcast, and when the team is not doing well, or as well as fans would hope, we have things to fall back on because I think we like to credit the New York baseball fan, or the Mets fan, as being very well-educated and interested in not just the Mets but the opponent and what's going on in baseball. We take the opportunity when the Mets may be struggling or we may have games that are lopsided to kind of emphasize those things that we think may be of interest to them.
Gowdy Jr.: What I tell these guys every year in January is that our broadcast team is going to win 110 games regardless of what happens on the field. So the bar has been set very high from the beginning. We get that support from ownership that I think allows our broadcast to be interesting regardless of what happens on the field throughout the course of the baseball season because we're honest, we're fair, but we're balanced, too. And that goes a long way in terms of creating a broadcast that is just not vanilla.
It's also the way we treat the opponent as well. Gregg brings a lot of things, when we're on the road especially. We'll educate and enlighten the viewers with the history behind an opponent, whether it's the Oakland A's or the Cincinnati Reds. But ultimately I think it's the professionalism that every one of them, all of us, particularly the guys in the truck and in the booth, show on a given night from April until early October. They never let up.
I've never had to get on them for not caring, showing passion and being dedicated to get these games to be entertaining on a nightly basis. And that's a true test of how professional they run their broadcast and how they broadcast.
Will the Mets finally give fans relevant games this September?
Hernandez: You never know with injuries, but I'm certainly more optimistic than I've ever been going into a season since, when, '07? It's so long ago it seems like ancient history. I think Atlanta has taken a step back. Philadelphia certainly is in rebuild mode. Obviously the Nationals are pretty much the powerhouse of the National League, and Miami has improved itself very much. I thought they had a great offseason.
I think the Mets are in position to be playing meaningful games. If the pitching holds up and lives up to its potential, I think they have a shot. So before I was always a little bit cautious, I'm always cautious to a degree. But certainly I can really honestly say it's the most optimistic I've been since that 2007 season or the last contending year, absolutely.
Darling: There's a part of me I think when I do the broadcasts that I'm not as cautious as Keith. For whatever reason I still think part of me is like a player, thinking that this season is going to be the season. I really have some of that strange optimism about me, but I do, and I always feel like the team is going to be a good ballclub.
This year watching the young pitching, it makes it real fun for me for the entire season. Yeah, I think they're going to be a better team. I think just watching the postseason last year you saw a team that won 10 more games than they did go to within one game of winning the World Series. That's got to give everyone inspiration.
Cohen: Well I think certainly more pieces are in place. Any time you have quality pitching you have a chance to win every day. The fact they've got bullpen pieces in place, you think about last year and how long it took them to get through some horrible performances early and how much that cost them early in the year. You've got young players who should be getting better. You've got your captain who should be better after an off year.
So there are a lot of things that cause you to be optimistic. But you've got the best team in baseball in your division, and I think that certainly gives you pause and makes you realize what the obstacles are this year to getting there. But after six straight losing seasons, I think there's every reason to think this team will take a step forward.
Do you aspire to match Ralph Kiner, Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy and stay together for 17 seasons? How long do you think this group can stay together at this level?
Hernandez: Well, there's one problem: I'm the elder statesman here [at age 61]. It's matter of how long I can live. It's very much in question how long I'm going to last here. I'm shooting for 80. I'd love to get over 80, but we'll see.
I'm perfectly happy here. Those decisions aren't ours. I'm going nowhere. I'm very happy. I've been in New York now since I was traded [in 1983] and it's a lovely place to be. I love it. I feel a part of Met history. I'm still very fortunate that I was able to segue right into the booth even though I had some periods where I wasn't doing very many games.
Timing is everything. I feel very, very lucky the position I'm at and the job that I have and staying in the game. I have no desire to cut back or anything. I want to keep plugging. So I'm all for it.
Darling: The early part of that, how long we're going to be together question I think has just been ended, because the early part of Keith's speech I think is going to give him a lot of problems in negotiations with Curt next time.
I think one of our strengths is that I don't think I've given it one thought other than stay in the moment, today's game. I never think of that kind of stuff and knock on wood, I hope we're together. This has always been so beautifully organic, and I think that will be, too, so I never think about that.
Cohen: If we stayed together for 30 years, we would never accomplish what Murphy, Kiner and Nelson did. Let's remember the three of them did every inning of every game for 17 years on radio and TV. So we're not even in that conversation. But I'll be here as long as they have me.
Gowdy Jr.: When you look back in late 2005 when we had this task of assembling this broadcast team, as Gary alluded to earlier, there was a lot of unknown. But I always knew what I needed on the analyst side, knowing that I had experience working with [Al] Michaels, [Tim] McCarver and [Jim] Palmer at ABC, that that pitcher/everyday player connectivity worked really well.
So getting Ron, getting Keith not only as astute analysts with a lot to be able to enlighten the viewers with, they're also great players. And the fans had a real connectivity to those two guys. Then you bring Gary on board, and he's been a fan since he was a little boy and who's been the voice on the radio, and then you take the truck with Bill Webb and Gregg Picker.
Bill had that great sense of being around the Mets, and he also had that national sensibility as a director with Fox. And I was always impressed with Gregg since the first time I talked to him about the job, his creativity and his ideas. I think we've been really lucky. I don't think any of us in this room knew back in 2006 we cared what 10 years from now looked like. But it's been a pretty damn good run for 10 years and as long as this group can stay together only the viewers and the fans are going to be the beneficiaries.
Is one of the challenges for Keith and Ron keeping up with the game the further you get from your playing days?
Hernandez: Yes, there have been a lot of changes in the game, and some things I like and some things I don't. Sometimes I tend to be very stubborn and it takes me a while to come around, where Gary is much more pliable. I don't know if that's the right word. Gary is more open to the changes.
I always listen to what he has to say, but I was very fortunate that I read a book about the Gashouse Gang [the 1934 Cardinals], and I gave it to Gary to read and I remember Frankie Frisch, who was the player/manager, had a quote in that book. The one quote that stuck out in my mind was when Frankie first became manager, and he was a great player, he had to step back and realize that not everyone is a Willie Mays or a Mickey Mantle, a David Wright, and they're doing the best that they can do.
That's what Frankie Frisch said was the hardest thing, and I found it very, very true at the time I made the move into the booth, that I could be very impatient and how I still can be at times. But I temper it more now with experience, because I can never get on this team throughout the years because they always hustle, and that's what you want from a team is they're hustling and doing the best they can do.
It took me a couple of years to come around to that, but I'm so fortunate that I read that book and sage advice for Gary and Bill Webb, too, and Gregg Picker even though his experience is in tennis.
Darling: Almost all players end up not being very good. That's why your career ends. So I think for most players - I know it happened to Keith and it certainly happened to me - you don't want to be around the game for a couple of years because you feel embarrassed. I'm not saying Keith felt embarrassed, but I felt embarrassed. You feel sad, you're 35 years old and your career's done, so it takes you a while to come back to the game.
But one thing that this job has not taught me, but I guess has revealed to me, is that basketball has gym rats. I don't know what the baseball equivalent is, but I love the game. I love being around it. I love watching it. You see something new almost every single day. A lot of things you don't even talk about or mention. You just see it.
It could be a fan catching a foul ball one-handed behind his back. Whatever it is, I think that's something I didn't know about myself is how much I love the game, and I certainly got that from my father.
Gowdy Jr.: It's incumbent on all of us, especially our broadcast team, to remain very contemporary . . . That's certainly a goal and a challenge for us, to keep all the great things that we do but also to be contemporary.
Picker: They don't come off as being out of date. They are fabulous at that, and it's an important thing.
Are you proud of how it's all worked out when you look back to 2005?
Gowdy Jr.: We all should be proud . . . I told both Keith and Ron this when they first came aboard: Knowing Gary's work ethic in the booth, you guys have really got to step up and make sure you're prepared every single day like everybody else is. You want to be on that same wavelength with Gary in the booth. He's going to challenge you. I want you to be able to challenge him back. I think our guys have done just that.
How important has Bill Webb been to making it all work?
Picker: Oh, gosh. Webbie is a vital cog in what we do, and he's one of the most unique individuals I've ever met. He has a way about him that the technical people he works with, the cameramen, form an allegiance, a bond that he has formed with them that many of them would literally run through a brick wall for him.
He's been on baseball for decades. Obviously everybody knows the awards he's won, but there's no way to express how valuable an asset he is to our entire group, from an advice standpoint, an experience standpoint, and he's got a loyalty to people he works with that when you first meet him you probably would not recognize, but when you're around him on a day to day basis, there's an old-school loyalty that you don't see very often, and it goes a long way to making us the cohesive, tight group we are.
Gowdy Jr.: Actually, he's the first guy that we hired. He had had a long history with the Mets on the local side but also had that national sensibility we were looking for. I had worked with him a lot in our ABC days. We once had a reporter who came in the truck and talked about being a fan and being in the truck and being producer/director.
He said Bill, you must be a big fan of the team. Bill said, I can't get that involved with the team. I have to be really objective. I have to be sure that I'm directing this broadcast where it's objective and fair. Of course we all want the team to win. But I thought that laid the foundation of how our broadcast was going to go.
What role has Gregg Picker played?
Darling: Gary is the wordsmith in our broadcast but the man with the best communication skills of our five major guys is Gregg Picker. Always has been, from Day One. He just has an ability to speak whatever language you're speaking that day, because it changes sometimes, depending on how much sleep we've gotten, or there might be tension in the booth, whatever there is. He just has amazing skill at that.
I've worked with a lot of producers. He's got a creative skill that I've never worked with yet. He also just punishes himself daily when we're on our flights to come up with new ideas for our broadcast. I don't think I've ever seen him on a flight without a notepad, just writing. It's new ideas because his mind works that way. He's not happy unless we're pushing the envelope, and it makes us better.