The Men in the Booth Know Their Baseball and Their Music
It was the home run call that rock and rolled Mets World.
August 5, 2019. The New York Mets are trailing the Florida Marlins 4-3 in the bottom of the seventh inning at Citi Field in Queens. Michael Conforto hits a tying home run, enhanced by Mets announcer Gary Cohen's trademark call of jubilation, "It's out of here!"
But Cohen and the Mets were just getting started. The next hitter, Pete Alonso, the Mets slugger who that season set a major league rookie record with 53 home runs, also hits it out of here. Back-to-back home runs. The crowd is going nuts. Cohen: "Pete Alonso gives the Mets the lead. A laser beam!"
As Alonso rounds the bases, Gary Cohen shouts out amid the joyous noise, "Scooter and the Big Man bust the city in half!"
Cell phones started buzzing in that larger-than-you'd think universe where Mets fandom and rock love intersect. My daughter Sasha texts: Did you hear that? People pause to frame the moment: a home run call that quotes Bruce Springsteen's 1975 track from Born to Run, "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out." Gary Cohen has done it again: He busts the city, built on baseball and rock ‘n’ roll, in half. Completely shatters the ceiling of expectations. Like the Mets, it is Amazin'.
The Men in the Booth: Ron Darling, Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez. Photo courtesy SNY Network.
Gary Cohen, along with his booth teammates Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez, both stars of the 1986 Mets World Series champions, have long been known for the high-level of conversation on baseball and other topics, like music. There is enough music chat that Mets/rock crossover fans like Hope Silverman, who writes the Picking Up Rocks blog, curate references. Some catches by Silverman from the 2022 Mets season include Martha & the Vandellas, the Monkees, Cake, Mountain, Madness and a surfeit of others.
"That's the thing about baseball," Cohen said. "It's often three and a half hours of game with eight minutes of action. It's a lot of time to fill. It gives us time to talk about other things, like music."
I met Cohen for lunch earlier in November at a country restaurant near his home about an hour north of Queens’ Citi Field. His network, SNY, does not provide him a driver; Cohen likes his long late night drives to unwind after home games. Keith Hernandez, as regular Mets viewers know, has an even longer commute, about 90 minutes from his home in Sag Harbor, on the East End of Long Island. Hadji, Keith's Bengal cat with a cult following and merch line of his own, must be fed.
My favorite musical question from the 2022 season was when a player named Bird came into the game, and Cohen asked which version of "Surfin' Bird" Darling preferred: The Ramones' cover, or the Trashmen's original? (Because of surgery, Hernandez finished the season on the announcers injured-reserve list.) It was duly noted that both versions owed their existence to the root folder of the Rivingtons' "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow," a crazed moment of surf-doo-wop-dance fad intersectionality from late 1963.
It's off-season, and we agreed not to talk on the record about the the Mets or baseball, and one suspects a mutual protection of privacy among the three men in the booth. Though Darling is Cohen's most frequent and adept musical foil, Hernandez has his own zone. Keith, Cohen said, is a Frank Zappa fan, which one might never expect, or totally expect from the inscrutable No. 17.
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
I knew a few things about Cohen's interest in music before we met for the lunch interview, since his sister, Debra Rae Cohen, three years older than Gary, was a long time colleague of mine in the rock critic world, when it was much smaller. She recently retired as an honored English professor at the University of South Carolina.
The conversation with Gary Cohen, below, has been edited for clarity.
WR: WHAT WERE YOUR EARLIEST MUSICAL MEMORIES?
Gary: My earliest memories of music, my parents, my mothers record collection was classical music, The Threepenny Opera, a lot of Irish folk music, Clancy Brothers, stuff like that, but... I was born in 1958, they also had Chubby Checker records, and I distinctly remember, when I was 6, acquiring Meet the Beatles. And that being a very important touchstone. I remember "All My Lovin'" playing constantly.
I also remember from that same year riding on on the bus to day camp and the driver was playing the radio, and the two songs I remember from that year were "Rag Doll" by the Four Seasons, and "Under the Boardwalk," by the Drifters. The way my brain works is that what I remember most about that time was top 40 stations WABC, WINS, WMCA, they would introduce the song by the number on the chart. And what I remember is, being 6 years old, hearing that "Rag Doll" was No. 3, and the next week, it was No. 6. And I remember thinking, wait! There's something wrong with that! And my orderly brain couldn't conceive of the fact that the number of the song had changed over the course of the week.
WR: IT'S A LITTLE HOW WHEN WE'RE KIDS AND WE NOTICED BATTING AVERAGES CHANGING.
Gary: Exactly! My experience with sports early on was very number and order oriented.
WR: SIX YEARS OLD IS PRETTY YOUNG TO ORDER AND SPECIFY MUSIC.
Gary: My epiphany came when I was 9 and I got my own radio: old fashioned, tubes, pre-transistor, it sat on my desk. You'd turn it on, it would take 20-30 seconds to warm up. I discovered top 40 radio, and that was the era of the WMCA Good Guys, the WABC All Americans. What I found was, and this plays into my sense of order, every day between 4-7, Dan Daniel would count down the top 25. And every Wednesday, a new survey would come out. I would sit and write down the survey every week, as diligently as I could, at 9 years old.
All the music of that era is totally engraved in my brain. The Rascals, Grass Roots, the Turtles, and for the next three or four years, I was pretty top-40 immersed. Meanwhile FM radio started to happen, but I wasn't really into that, my sister was listening to WNEW-FM in 1967, but I was not.
WR: HOW DID YOUR MUSICAL TASTES EVOLVE?
I discovered oldies radio (WCBS-FM) my early teenage years, and getting into Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and doo-wop, the Five Satins and the Penguins. I don't know how that happened exactly, but it gave me an appreciation of the beginnings of rock and roll.
WR: WHAT WERE YOU INTERESTED IN HIGH SCHOOL?
My tastes in high school skewed very mainstream. I was really into Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears, the Beach Boys, a lot of oldies stuff. It wasn't until I got into college that I discovered what was really going on. Springsteen, then I discovered Iggy Pop, the Ramones, ultimately The Clash, all that new wave music that became my bailiwick. Talking Heads, the B-52s.
But the album that blew me away the most of anything that I ever heard for the first time was the first Pretenders album . I mean, from the first notes of "Precious," it was like nothing I'd ever heard before, and that was a jumping off point. At that point I was going to CBGBs, the Danceteria, and Mudd Club, and Max's Kansas City, hearing all sorts of bands of that ilk and era. Seeing the Clash at the Palladium was a seminal experience.
When I discovered the Clash, and heard "Janie Jones" for the first time, I thought, this is phenomenal, I absorbed everything they had done. I thought Joe Strummer was so brilliant. And the political nature of it. It became so ingrained, their slogan, 'the only band that matters.' That was pretty amazing.
I probably saw more Ramones shows than anybody else. I never made it to the New York Dolls, but I got very into David Johansen, I went to a number of his shows.
THIS MUST HAVE BEEN DURING COLLEGE.
(Nods affirmatively between bites of salmon burger.) I went to Penn for a year, then came back and went to Columbia.
AS A POLITICAL SCIENCE MAJOR, WHAT WERE YOUR CAREER AMBITIONS, IF ANY?
I spent more time at the radio station [WKCR-FM] than going to class. In my mind, I wanted to pursue radio in some fashion, hopefully sports.
DID YOU READ ROCK MAGAZINES BACK IN THE DAY?
Not really. I read Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, the Soho Weekly News. There was rock criticism in those, I wasn't all that attuned to it. When I was attuned to it, it was because my sister was writing. . . A lot of rock criticism in that day, and there a lot of incredibly smart intellectual people writing about rock music, and I thought a lot of it was overblown and they were mostly writing for each other.
LET'S GO TO YOUR YOUR "DROP THE MIC" MOMENT: "SCOOTER AND THE BIG MAN BUST THE CITY IN HALF," BACK TO BACK HOME RUNS BY CONFORTO AND ALONSO.
I use other Springsteen stuff. Every time we're on the West Coast and it's midnight in New York, I'll say "It's midnight in Manhattan, It's no time to get cute," from "New York City Serenade."
I was huge into Springsteen for awhile. I remember waiting for Darkness at the Edge of Town (1978) to be released, because it had been three years since he'd had an album out because of legal troubles. I remember listening to that album over and over.
YOU ARE MORE FOND OF THE EARLIER SPRINGSTEEN, IT SEEMS.
It's kind of a sportswriter/sportscaster thing to be enamored of Springsteen, but he lost me a long time ago. I believe the last good album he put out was The River, and that would be 40 years ago. I feel like he's gotten much less inventive, and much less interesting over the years musically. The shows are great. But I still love that first album [Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J], the poetry, the lyricism; the second album [The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle] wild music, the jazzy stuff. I love Born to Run, the anthemic album. I love the Darkness album. But I feel like he ran out of ideas a long time ago. I loved his autobiography, I read that. That was great. There was a time when I was very immersed in Springsteen, but it's been a while.
ANY INTEREST IN MORE CURRENT MUSIC?
Like a lot of people my age, my taste gets stuck in my teens and early 20s. Very few things really struck me in the decades that followed. Green Day I think is fantastic, and their American Idiot was just a revelation. That's the first concert I took my daughter to see when she was 13. That was the American Idiot tour. Certain things, I like Arcade Fire, I think they're really good . . . I do sequester myself and don't listen to a lot of new music . . . I never cared for hip-hop . . . never got into heavy metal, my tastes tend to skew to what is considered to be mainstream.
I've become aware of how little about music I really know. I listen to "Little Steven's Underground Garage" [on Sirius XM] and I'm constantly hearing stuff that I never heard. Like the Pretty Things. Never even aware they existed. And I heard them on the radio a couple of years ago.
DID YOU SEE THE BEATLES GET BACK SPECIAL?
Yes. It was great. What really shocked me was the degree to which Paul was the leader. I always thought of John more of a driving force, but by that time, Paul, with that overwhelming presence that he was, that was the most surprising piece of that.
When I was young, it wasn't the Beatles or the Stones, it was the Beatles or the Monkees. We watched the Monkees religiously. That was, you know. . . I think the comedy was better than the music. That was the deal. Very much in touch with the times. I was 8 years old.
WHAT DO YOU LISTEN TO ON YOUR LONG DRIVE HOME AFTER A GAME AT CITI FIELD?
I'll usually listen to Underground Garage, that's my go-to. I find it fascinating, the mixes that they play: familiar stuff, unfamiliar stuff. Old stuff, new stuff. I like it.
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