In his 36 years as the beloved radio voice of the Blue Jays, Jerry Howarth learned far more than the power and allure of the medium.
He learned of the passion of baseball fans from coast-to-coast in Canada, an enthusiasm that took root early then blossomed over during the team’s World Series years.
He valued the connection he shared with fans and, over time, treasured the impact that his simple, signature call had with them. “Hello friends” was much more than a welcome to the SkyDome or Yankee Stadium or whatever booth he found himself in.
So, count Howarth, who retired four years ago this month, among those profoundly disappointed with the puzzling move by Rogers Communications this week to shred the team’s broadcast infrastructure and diminish the legacy he artfully established with his long-time partner, the late Tom Cheek.
“People will probably, if anything, remember back to Tom and Jerry when they were growing up and recall what great moments they had enjoying the radio broadcasts and wondering why can’t we still have that,” Howarth said in an interview from his Toronto home on Saturday.
“I think the outcry is because people don’t understand why they can’t go back to enjoying baseball like they have for so long and for so many reasons.
“That’s the sad part of it all.”
The broadcasting world is changing almost daily in this country — much of it not for the better — but those passionate about the Jays are having trouble digesting the Sportsnet lunacy.
The rebuilding ball team that reported to spring training amid so much excitement and begins its exhibition schedule on Sunday in Tampa, has rarely seemed in such a buoyant place for owner Rogers Communications.
That same owner’s broadcast division has decided to wipe out radio broadcasts, replacing them with a simulcast of the TV call from Sportsnet’s Dan Shulman and Buck Martinez. In spring training, there will be no radio until three games in the final week with just 10 of 28 on TV.
Of those, seven will be called by broadcasters of the Jays opponents, who no doubt will gloss over stories relevant to Canadian viewers.
But it is radio that is truly gutted with the legacy of Tom and Jerry diminished and the booth they occupied no longer existing.
Besides Howarth’s successor, Ben Wagner — who will contribute to the telecasts but will be, at least temporarily, muted on the play-by-play — the biggest losers are the fans who treasure Jays radio broadcasts as a soundtrack of their summers.
“I think without question, baseball is the best sport for radio,” Howarth said. “I say that because of two things: The number of games — twice as many as hockey and basketball — and the pace of the game.
“The TV broadcasts are great, but to simulcast them is completely different from radio with its descriptions, its story-telling and the love of the fans, getting them involved.”
It was at that palette that Howarth thrived. A soothing, familiar voice regaling information gleaned in the clubhouse and batting cage prior to the game, the radio came to life under his watch.
“I tried to make it so that those fans listening could not only hear the game and the score, but to paint a picture for them so they actually felt like they were at the park,” Howarth said.
“Let them hear the crowd noise like they were right there with me.
“ I really feel like that’s what the fans are feeling here with their discontent. It’s let me have that whenever I can.”
Over time, Howarth was humbled by the kinship it fostered with listeners, his voice having resonated with so many.
“The nicest compliment I ever received was when people would come up to me and say: ‘Jerry, you are part of our family,’” Howarth recalled. “The reason for that was the number of games we did and the fact that I was on every night.
“What made it very special was that when I came on the air and said: ‘hello friends, welcome to Blue Jays baseball,’ it was like I was talking to my friends from across Canada. People would tell me that and it would really warm my heart.”
Optimistic by nature, Howarth is hopeful that the short-sighted move by Rogers is just temporary and that Wagner will resume his promising career next season.
He also holds out hope for a reversal of the move that sets a worrisome precedent and does such a disservice to the fan base.
“This is not a Blue Jays decision,” Howarth said. “This is a Sportsnet decision. With second thoughts, you never know when there can be an adjustment.”
Howarth shares our belief that if anyone can make play-by-play of a simulcast work, it is Shulman who he says “is smart and flexible enough to make these adjustments, whatever they might be, to satisfy as many people as possible.”
And he hopes for the best for Wagner, who worked his way through the minors for 14 seasons before getting his well-earned shot with the Jays.
“It’s almost like a son following you into the broadcast booth and I’ve talked to Ben a lot over the last couple of days. Ben is fine. Ben is very resilient,” Howarth said. “He earned his shot and deserved it.”
Tempered by his genuine politeness, you get the impression this is personal for Howarth. Just as it is for the fans he entertained and enlightened for so many years.