Radio Radio, or The Mets Prepare To Lose Their Voice

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What's the best season to need crutches? Look out your window at the blackening New York slush, and it seems reasonable that, if one absolutely must spend three weeks Rear Windowing inside a walk-up apartment, January would be the ideal time to do it. Why waste summer sweating in your bandages, staring out at clear blue skies and aching to be in a park? Only a fool, you’d think, would prefer crutches in July.

Unless that fool was backed up by Howie Rose.

Crutch-bound for three weeks last summer, I left my apartment only four times. Once was for lunch, when a foolish attempt to crutch my way to a nearby park left me feeling like I'd attacked my arms with a meat tenderizer. The other three excursions were for baseball. I'd slide down the stairs, crutch to the bench in front of my building, and spend three or four hours breathing and smiling, the Mets chirping from my transistor.

A person on crutches wants to vacate the body, head floating off cramped shoulders and away into the blue. Sports, at their best, make that possible—and nothing can deliver us from our blighted physical form quite as well as good sports radio. In the world of good sports radio, I know of no pairing so transporting as Josh Lewin and Howie Rose.

***

A good radio voice cuts through static, whether it's Edward R. Murrow penetrating the chaos of the London blitz, or Vin Scully piercing the L.A. smog. Fans turn to the radio when we need sports most—while washing dishes, stuck in traffic, or sitting on a park bench wishing desperately we could stand and walk away—and for more than two decades, the serene baritone of Howie Rose has been there to distract and delight, slicing the static like an electric knife through an overcooked turkey breast.

Since 2012, Rose has been backed up by Josh Lewin, a Rochester-born American League-refugee who peppers his color commentary with “Seinfeld” references, and does a piano man-imitation when he's not situated in the Peerless Boilers broadcast booth. After just two seasons, Rose and Lewin have the easy rapport of a pair of aging vaudevillians. They are endlessly, genuinely funny, calling games with a "just a couple of idiots" schtick that relishes all the absurdities that bad baseball so regularly provides. As Faith And Fear In Flushing described Lewin's debut, "he and Howie sounded at ease, and when you get right down to it, that’s what I want."

Despite that, the Mets team has the dignity that comes with Rose's status—along with Ralph Kiner—as a living repository and embodiment of Mets history. Unlike their giddy rivals in the Bronx, these two are never homers. They understand that Mets baseball can be torture, and they are here to ease the pain. Rose and Lewin are Metsian novocaine. And now, like a sadistic dentist, the Mets are trying to take them away.

As Howard Megdal reported last week, Mets COO Jeff Wilpon wants to replace Lewin with an ex-player, a Cliff Floyd-type, suggesting that what the Mets organization wants from its radio broadcasts is not nerdy good cheer, but the dour blather of earnest ex-jock. There is nothing wrong with the Mets radio broadcasts—or with Cliff Floyd, a good Met and a likable enough presence on TV—but this is one of the few places where the debt-burdened ownership group can afford to meddle, and so meddle they must.

As far as cynical, Mr. Burnsian evil goes, Fred and Jeff Wilpon are middle-of-the-pack, ranking far behind actual tyrants like Jeffrey Loria. But in the years since the Madoff implosion handcuffed them financially, a certain strain of idiot paranoia has emerged in the Mets front office, whether they're attacking a reporter, using the press to slander a popular player, or publicly shaming a hapless young shortstop. The swirling hate circus that surrounds Madison Square Garden means the Wilpons will never be the worst owners in New York. But they are heroically petty, and not as innocent as all that blundering might suggest.

Mets fans have grown accustomed to abuse in this Wilpon-haunted time. There is no expectation that the team will chase or catch big free agents. We do not expect them to re-sign high-priced players, either. We do not even expect a winning season, and we have grown numb to the annual lies about the franchise's future. We get our 70-odd wins a year, and all we ask is to be left to enjoy them in peace.

On the radio, baseball is perfect. The players are titans, the outfield is infinite, and the stands are always full. The rapid-fire call—the pitch, the swing, the play in the field—conjures up not the whole of the ballpark, but a series of rapid close-ups, angles that we never get on TV. The game in your head is a baseball montage, where pop flies are near home runs, routine plays are spectacular, and flailing Ike Davis strikeouts are less ugly than we know they really are.

Baseball on the radio is a safe place, a happy place, and Lewin and Rose make it safer and happier. That Jeff Wilpon has pushed to break up that duo demonstrates something more frightening than the cynicism and deceit we have come to expect from this ownership group. It suggests a fundamental blindness to what fans love about baseball. That is maybe not a surprise, knowing what we know of the Wilpons. It is a reason to be terrified for the team’s future all over again.

***

I don't remember who won the three games I listened to last summer, my crutches propped beside me on the bench downstairs. I remember comforting July heat, and the joy of colors and faces and dogs and babies and birds and trees and life. It was a lot to take in, in the best and most bracing possible way, after three weeks stuck in my apartment having increasingly strange conversations with my cats. If the Mets lost, I know I didn't care, because Howie Rose and Josh Lewin make losing baseball not just bearable, but pleasant. For three hours, they transported me from a bench in Brooklyn to a packed stadium in Queens. For those of us who have decided to listen to a team that doesn't win much, that's something to cherish.

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