It is a misty Tuesday night in Chilmark, the kind of evening when the Vineyard seems a million miles from the rest of the world.
At the end of a meandering driveway on a gently rolling hilltop, a small assembly has gathered around a television set. On the screen flashes the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, that venerable midsummer classic that has the ability to connect generations as well as remote Island towns to the rest of America.
Baseball and by extension the all-star game has admittedly lost some of its luster in recent years, amid steroid scandals and fan disenchantment over fat salary deals. But the game still has its appeal. Fathers still bring their kids to ballparks, and young fans still collect the baseball cards of their favorite players.
And while recent all-star games cannot compare with, say the 1941 contest when Ted Williams hit a three-run, game-winning blast in the ninth inning, or even the 1999 game when Pedro Martinez struck out four future hall-of-fame players to start the game, it still has a firm place in the heart of America.
On this foggy night in Chilmark, the chatter surrounding the game is at once celebratory and scathing, as David Ortiz comes to the plate, followed by Barry Bonds.
But amid the chatter floats some downright astute commentary from a man who obviously knows a bit more than these rank and file fans and pundits.
When one fan complains that the starting shortstop for the National League, Jose Reyes, seemed to be swinging at too many first pitches this season, the baseball maven is quick to set him straight.
"Actually Reyes has drawn more walks this year," intoned the silky smooth baritone voice. "And he has more hits with two strikes then anyone in the league. If he is swinging at the first pitch it's only because its a he can drive it."
If this man sounds like he talks baseball for a living — it's because he does. He is Gary Cohen, longtime radio and television announcer for the New York Mets and widely regarded as a contemporary to broadcasting greats like the late Curt Gowdy and Vin Scully.
In addition to being a member of the small fraternity of baseball broadcasters, Mr. Cohen also has the unique distinction of having covered one team his whole career, both on radio and television. He was a member of the Mets radio team for 17 years, before taking over as the play-by-play announcer for the newly created SportsNet New York network.
Mr. Cohen also got to live out what seems like a boyhood dream, calling the games for a team he rooted for while growing up in Queens, N.Y.
On this evening, he was visiting the home of his friend Peter Simon in Chilmark; it was his first visit to the Vineyard. And even though he broadcasts 140-games-plus a year (he skips games that are nationally televised) there was little chance that you'd find him away from a television for the midsummer classic.
After all, the Mets sent four players to the game, including starters Carlos Beltran in center field, David Wright at third base and Reyes at shortstop.
Even in the heart of Red Sox Nation, Mr. Cohen on this night found himself surrounded by fellow Mets fans. Mr. Simon is a diehard Mets man himself, and there was a decided Mets tilt to the gathering.
In the bottom of the first when Reyes smacked a ball to right field, Mr. Cohen struggled to contain his inner broadcaster, although he did stop short of calling the play. When one man excitedly wanted Reyes to take third base, Mr. Cohen calmly asserted, "That's not going to happen with [Vladimir] Guerrero's arm."
Clearly, this was not Mr. Cohen's first time at the rodeo.
Mr. Cohen kept some of his signature phrases — like Swing and a Miss, He Struck Him Out! and It's Outta Here! at bay for the evening. But he did flash glimpses of his well-known tell-it-like-it-is style and sometimes biting baseball commentary.
Between pitches, Mr. Cohen spoke about his long tenure as the Mets' radio broadcaster. While he said he is excited about his new role on television, he misses his radio days, especially his years working with Bob Murphy, the play-by-play announcer for the Mets from their inception in 1962 until his retirement in 2003. Mr. Murphy died in 2004.
Mr. Murphy was known for his impartial style, and would sound equally excited whether the Mets were winning or losing. Mr. Cohen grew up listening to Mr. Murphy do games on the radio, and whether he intended it or not, he said his broadcast style is partially modeled after his former partner.
"Bob was the consummate professional and a tremendous person. I was very lucky to have had a chance to work with him," Mr. Cohen said.
The style embodied by Mr. Cohen and Mr. Murphy is in stark contrast to New York Yankees' radio broadcaster John Sterling, who at times seems more cheerleader than impartial broadcaster. But asked if he is ever offended by Mr. Sterling's untraditional style, Mr. Cohen had nothing but good things to say.
"[Mr. Sterling] is not for everyone, I understand that. But you can't deny he brings excitement to the broadcast," he said.
He admitted it is often difficult to separate his own emotions from the game during broadcasts, especially since he grew up a fan of the team he covers.
"I think I do channel my fandom, and I can't prevent that, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. There are certain announcers who will just come and say ‘Okay, let's get a run here,' and if you go to that extreme I think it takes away from the game. But there are more subtle ways to let the fans know you care about the team," he said.
He said there have been times when it was hard to keep his inner fan from trumping the professional broadcaster. One example is the gravity-defying catch made by Endy Chavez last year in the seventh game of the National League championship series.
Because the game was being nationally televised, Mr. Cohen was actually broadcasting that inning for radio in the WFAN booth, and called the play as Chavez ran to the warning track, planted his right foot, leaped at the wall and fell to the earth with the ball cradled in his glove like a snow cone. Chavez then threw back to the infield to double a base runner off first for a double play.
He knew instantly that he was witnessing a catch for the ages.
"If you consider the circumstances, the deciding game of the National League championship series, you could regard it as one of the best catches ever. I've seen better catches in the regular season, but to make that catch with everything on the line like that - that's what made it truly memorable," he said.
There have been many other memorable moments, including first Mets game following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Mr. Cohen recalls that the Mets won 4-1 and Rey Ordonez went 2-for-4 with an RBI.
"PNC Park in Pittsburgh has this wonderful view of Pittsburgh's skyline, and as I looked out I couldn't stop thinking about how [New York's] skyline had been changed forever. And then I'm there thinking how surreal it was for me to call this baseball game like everything was normal. But I also realized how important it was for [baseball] to be played . . . the game had to go on," he said.
After broadcasting thousands of games, Mr. Cohen manages to still have total recall. He remembers that night in June of 2000 when the Mets rallied from an eight-run deficit against the Atlanta Braves to win 10-8, or the game in May of 1999 when they scored five times off Curt Schilling to beat the Phillies 5-4.
He said it's the little things that he often remembers — a fan flubbing a fly ball, an umpire running someone out of a game, a rookie player just called up from the minors who strikes out in a big spot and is never heard from again. And he said it is this unpredictable quality that continually renews his love and passion for the game.
"Yes . . . I do the same thing every day. You never know when the kid they called up for a spot start will pitch a no-hitter, or when the team rallies from eight runs down. That's the beauty of the game," he said.
As for the state of the game today, Mr. Cohen offers an evaluation that mirrors his broadcast style — brutally honest yet guardedly optimistic. He is critical of steroid use in baseball and the subsequent mess of Barry Bonds chasing Hank Aaron's home run title, although he is just as critical of the players who did not take performance enhancing drugs but said nothing.
"You can't tell me the players who weren't using at the time didn't know what was going on. And in a way I almost blame them the most, they had the most to lose because they were allowing other players to gain on advantage. When they stayed silent they were hurting the game," Mr. Cohen said.
But his enthusiasm for the game is no different than when he was a boy listening to Bob Murphy call Tom Seaver shutouts and Donn Clendenon hit home runs.
"You can throw all the salary disputes and big contracts and steroid scandals at the game but it just keeps going forward. It must be a great game, because through it all nobody has figured out a way to kill it yet," he said.