Like fungoes to the infield or wind sprints in the outfield at Rogers Centre, Jerry Howarth has become a ritual with the Toronto Blue Jays. Standing in back of the batting cage with Buck Martinez and Jack Morris as he enters his 32nd full season with the Jays, Howarth has outlasted virtually everyone else in terms of consecutive service around the team.
And in his profession.
“What brought it home to me when I started my 30th year was seeing how few broadcasters make it that far and even fewer still with their original major league team. That’s gratifying,” says Howarth.
Who then admits he hasn’t changed much on the way., “I’m a dinosaur. I don’t have a cell phone, and I only use my laptop at home to prepare.”
While his late partner Tom Cheek will be inducted into Cooperstown this summer, Howarth has now set the endurance record since coming to Toronto in 1981. There isn’t a fan of the team who doesn’t know his trademark “The Blue Jays are in flight ...” or “Call it two, a double play!” crackling through the radio on a warm summer night.
Part of longevity is his “corny as Kansas in August” personality. Howarth is the Ned Flanders of Toronto baseball. He makes Tony Robbins seems manic depressive. The humour of TSN’s Mike Richards doing the “evil Jerry Howarth” is the implausibility of imaging the 67-year-old Howarth sipping anything stronger than a milkshake.
This day behind the batting cage he’s pumping the tires of general manager Alex Anthopoulos. “The real competition isn’t on the field, it’s among the general managers,” Howarth says. “And Blue Jays fans can be very thankful they have a young Canadian GM in his fourth year who is as good as anyone in baseball.”
Howarth cites the uncanny similarity of the work done last winter by Anthopoulos to Pat Gillick’s most subtle moves as Toronto GM in the 1980s and ‘90s (stealing Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter and Rance Mulliniks). “Alex keeps things to himself, you don’t hear him talking about his plans. That’s why everyone was so surprised when they woke up that morning last December to see the big trade with the Marlins.
“Because of Alex, I think this team will have a chance to compete twice or three times in the next five years. If they do we may have a second Blue Jays general manager in the Hall of Fame someday.”
Howarth starts work with just his fourth fulltime partner this week as former Blue Jays pitcher Jack Morris joins him in the Sportsnet radio booth. After the cerebral catcher Alan Ashby (“Catchers make good broadcasters because they see the whole game”), the power-throwing Morris will create a different tone in the booth.
“My job is not to overdo the nostalgia with Jack,” says Howarth as manager John Gibbons ambles by. ”We want them to know it’s Jack, but I don’t want him saying ‘In my time’ too much. We want him talking about why this out was not made or why that pitch was hit.
“Jack is very good on that, he won’t dwell in the past. Having pitched 18 years, four World Series, that will lend a great perspective on a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs in 20 years.”
Morris is feeling his way with Howarth. “It’s my job to know when to jump in and out,” Morris says as he studies Adam Lind’s cuts in the cage. “Get the rhythm of Jerry’s call. He has to get the balls and strikes in there, then I can stick my two cents in once in a while.” Meaning it will be more than just J,P. Arencibia and R.A. Dickey working on their chemistry in this early season.
Tuesday afternoon, the 162-game odyssey starts yet again for Howarth. After the disappointment of last season (“they were hit with so many injuries. You can’t win with kids at this level”) having a competitive team has Howarth warming up his “"Up! Up! Up! And there she goes!”
He sees “88-93 wins” this season for the retooled Blue Jays, likely good enough to get Toronto into the postseason for the first time since 1993.That would be appropriate as Cheek, his former partner, is honoured in Cooperstown for his “touch ‘em all, Joe”.
A pennant run will be a reward for all the losing Howarth has endured since then. But don’t expect him to change his approach as everyone around him awards the Jays the World Series in April. “Every game is a blank canvas,” he says. “You do your best and then you go on to next game, the next month, the next season. I like the every-day quality of the games. So I won’t be changing.”
Most Blue Jays radio fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
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