He sat in the audience watching it all, like a proud grandfather at his college graduation. Fred Wilpon, 86, already owned the Mets when their new class of Hall of Famers — Howard Johnson, Al Leiter and broadcasters Gary Cohen and Howie Rose — made their mark with the team. At the press conference before the ceremony on Saturday, Wilpon was beaming.
He did not take part in the celebrations on the pitch. It was a stage for new owner, Steven A. Cohen, whose generous spending and respect for Mets history have made him the butler fans have always wanted.
But say this much for Wilpon, who bought into the team in 1980 and was sold to Cohen in 2020: For all the dysfunction that often cast a shadow over his Mets, he’s never silenced the voices of the franchise. Cohen and Rose have been mainstays at the booth since the 1980s, blending genuine fandom with the journalist’s instinct to tell it as it is.
Wilpons – like many owners – can be very sensitive to criticism. But they’ve always understood the value of credible broadcast as a channel for fans.
“I never called the booth, never called them afterwards, never told them they couldn’t be as honest as they should be,” Wilpon said on Saturday. “You don’t want them to be mean, but be honest. And rightly so.
When the Mets debuted in 1962, Rose was eight years old – the perfect age when a team and a sport can rule you for life. A native of Bayside, Queens, Rose said his old pal on PS 205 would “howl in the schoolyard” when he was inducted into the Mets Hall of Famer.
Then again, says Rose, is this as absurd as the Miracle Mets winning the World Series in 1969? The win, he says, was transformative: with hard work and faith, he learned, almost anything can happen.
Rose earned a spot on the Mets radio team doing pregame and postgame in 1987, and after years as their TV voice actor, he returned to radio near the end of Bob Murphy’s long tenure. Unsure of herself in that medium, Rose once wondered to Murphy, during a commercial break, about her future. Murphy, who is 30 years her senior and is tight-fisted with compliments, pats Rose on the thigh and tells her she is fine.
“It meant a lot to me and still does,” said Rose. “So when I think of Murph, it’s not only a happy recap and all the great calls, but, in the end, I feel like I got his approval.”
Cohen, 65, wanted to grow up to play shortstop for the Mets. Instead, he began broadcasting as a student at Columbia, and worked his way through the minors — Spartanburg, Durham, Pawtucket — before joining the Mets in 1989.
It’s hard to imagine a more interesting broadcast trio than Cohen and his SNY analysts Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez. They are erudite and witty without being condescending, very focused on action while remembering to have fun.
For Mets fans, they feel like family; Roger Angell, baseball Hall of Fame writer who died last year aged 101, said he never missed a broadcast.
“I’m not that good with moments,” Cohen said, when asked about his favorite nickname. “My feeling has always been that the most important part of any broadcaster’s job is not what they do in the 15 seconds where the big play happens, but more how they adapt to the fans during your 500 hours on the air. for one season.”
Leiter, who grew up supporting the Mets and spent seven seasons as the standout rotation, made a formidable connection: The last time the Mets enshrined the announcer was 1984, the same year Leiter was recruited (by the Yankees) from Central Regional High School in Bayville, NJ. Then, Murphy, Ralph Kiner and Lindsey Nelson, the soundtrack of Leiter’s youth on the Jersey Shore.
“I grew up with those people,” says Leiter, “as the current generation grew up with Howie and Gary.”
As a fan and a player, said Leiter, he always wanted the hometown broadcaster to side with the team. It makes sense, he says, because most of the audience are fans. But pollyannaish’s view would go too far.
“That’s my whole thing as a player: when I miss, I’m okay with the analysis of not doing well,” said Leiter, who is now living his own TV career. “Don’t go into an area that you think he’s thinking about, just execution or lack of execution.”
He added: “I think with Howie and Gary, the balance, because they are fans of the team and proud of it, gets sharp sometimes – just like a fan. We get upset when we see things we don’t like, but we still love the team.”
For fans who share that tradition, it’s helpful to have Shea Stadium’s sons like Cohen and Rose double as Mets historian — a role officially held by Jay Horwitz, the avuncular team’s publicist who was also honored on Saturday.
Cohen rightly notes that Johnson, a successful third baseman, has long been an underappreciated figure in Mets history. He had three seasons with 30 homers and 30 stolen bases, a feat matched only by Barry and Bobby Bonds, and Alfonso Soriano.
For Johnson, that final season was in 1991, over the past half.
“Probably not a day goes by that we don’t think about it, being able to play the game we did when we were 25, playing at that level,” said Johnson, 62. “Every time you roll out of bed, there’s a reminder that’s been a long time coming. It’s almost like two different people. And the older we get, the more distant that person is. And I don’t like that. I want to know people who are still playing. I want to know who that person is.”
That’s what days like Saturday are all about: honoring the past of the people who made a difference to the Mets. Thankfully, some of those people still do.