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RIP Jerry Coleman

Jan 6, 2014, 12:16 PM EDT

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Calvin Trillin has written on more than one occasion that the best hamburger in the entire world is broiled and served at Winstead’s in Kansas City, and he insisted that his evaluation had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he grew up in Kansas City.

I agree with him. Winstead’s (Steakburgers since 1940!) does make the best hamburger in the world. And this viewpoint has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I lived most of my adult like in Kansas City. Really.

Hamburgers are one of those things that bring out the citizen in a person. Pizza is like that too. Barbecue. People may not take great pride in the place where they live. They may gripe about the local government, the school board, the traffic or the general disposition of people. They may complain about road construction or the weather or the fact that nothing stays open late enough. But, dammit, they’ll tell you that any other town’s pizza is garbage, and that the place down the road makes a barbecue sandwich that would put the finest restaurant in Paris to shame.

So, hometown pride* comes out for food. Hamburgers. Barbecue. Chili. I will forever insist the best mustard on earth is made in Cleveland, Ohio. But that pride also comes out for other things.

People love their hometown baseball announcers.

*This hometown pride factor, incidentally, does not preclude Winstead’s from being the best hamburger in the world. As Trillin wrote when reminded that everyone believes their hometown burger is the best: “Yes, but don’t you see that one of those place actually IS the best hamburger place in the world? Somebody has to be telling the truth and it happens to be me.”

After years of telling my buddy Jim that Winstead’s did indeed make the world’s best hamburger, I took him there one afternoon. He spent much of the drive over scoffing. And then he ate his first Winstead’s burger and was remarkably silent. “Well?” I asked. He looked defeated. “That’s a good burger,” he admitted.

* * *

The first I ever heard of San Diego Padres broadcaster Jerry Coleman, it was for the malapropisms. Sometimes people called them Colemanisms. He was famous for them. I remember years and years ago getting a book of baseball’s greatest quotations and half of them seemed to be from Jerry Coleman. I spent an inordinate amount of time reading and loving those Colemanisms. They are all over the Internet, if you feel like searching, but most I can recall from memory.

“McCovey swings and misses. And it’s fouled back.”

“They throw Winfield out at second. And he’s safe!”

“Grubb goes back. Back. He’s under the warning track.”

“Enos Cabell started here with the Astros. And before that he was with the Orioles.”

“Hi folks, I’m Jerry Gross. No I’m not, this is Jerry Coleman.”

“Larry Lintz steals second standing up. He slid, but he didn’t have to.”

“Rich Folkers is throwing up in the bullpen.”

“On the mound is Randy Jones, the left-hander with the Karl Marx hairdo.”

“He slides into second with a standup double.”

And, of course, the all-time classic:

“Winfield goes back to the wall. He hits his head on the wall. And it rolls off! It’s rolling all the way to second base! This is a terrible thing for the Padres!”

I could read these all day. I keep a collection of them in my head. My second favorite is actually not a Colemanism but a different announcer who said, “That pitch is way outside for a ball, no, they say it hit him.” And my favorite come from my own hometown announcer, longtime Cleveland Indians play-by-play man Herb Score, who made a gaffe that I think of as a poem.

It’s a long fly ball
Is it fair?
Is it foul?
It is!

I love these calls, in part, because I am 100 percent sure that If I was a baseball broadcaster, I would make these kinds of mistakes all the time. But, more, I love them because they represent what a local announcer means to us. They are like family. We laugh with them.

See, national announcers have it tough. They have a wide, disparate audience of people — fans of the home team, fans of the visiting team, fans of neither team, people who know the game, people who sort of know the game, people who don’t know the game at all. Every time something dramatic happens in the game, a huge chunk of audience is ecstatic, a huge chunk of the audience is despondent, and a huge chunk of the audience is interested only in a detached way.

What can you say to reach all those people? Part of the magic of Al Michael’s incomparable, “Do you believe in miracles?” call was that, for a few moments (the Olympics can do this), he basically WAS a local announcer because almost everyone who was watching was rooting for the U.S. hockey team to beat the Soviets. The United States, for a moment, had become one small town. If Michaels had made the same call, say, when Eli Manning threw the touchdown pass to lead the Giants past the Patriots or when Auburn beat Alabama on the final play, the angry responses would have blown up Twitter, and, with that, the internet.

So national announcers have to be precise, they have to be even-handed, they have to be interesting without distracting, it’s a tough racket. Our expectations are all but impossible and so some people will never tire of ranting about Joe Buck or Jim Nantz or Bob Costas.

But the local baseball announcer — we don’t expect perfection. In fact, we’d be suspect of perfection. Instead, we want passion, we want consistency, we want a friend in the booth. In Cincinnati, people grew to love Joe Nuxhall not for what he said but for who he was … that daily presence on the radio who reminded you that, hey, if you swing the bat you’re dangerous.

In Seattle, people grew to love Dave Niehaus, again not so much for what he said but for who he was … that inexhaustible font of optimism and enthusiasm even through all the bad years.

Jerry Coleman died Sunday — he was 89 years old. He was perhaps the most beloved man in San Diego. It’s probably silly to quote Wikipedia here, but on there it says, “He was known as the ‘Master of the Malaprop’ for sometimes making embarrassing mistakes on the microphone but he is nonetheless popular.

The “but” is the wrong conjunction. People didn’t love him in spite of those times he jumbled up a few thoughts. They loved him BECAUSE of it. They loved him because he would laugh at himself and move on to the next pitch. They loved him because Jerry Coleman was a wonderful guy who lived an extraordinary life, a life that towered over a couple of verbal missteps.

Coleman was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marines. He was the only ballplayer to serve in combat in both World War II and the Korean War.* He won two Distinguished Flying Cross medals. He was the starting second baseman for the Yankees from 1949-1951, three of the best teams in baseball history.

*Tracy Ringolsby brought this up first on Twitter and he was quickly besieged by people who brought up Ted Williams. Ringolsby pointed out, rightly, that while Williams was in combat in Korea, he was a flight instructor during World War II and was not in combat. It’s a subtle but important distinction.

He played ball with and aging DiMaggio and a young Mantle. One of Coleman’s most memorable quotes was not a malaprop at all but a story he would tell of seeing DiMaggio strike out then hurt himself kicking the ball bag. “It really hurt,” Coleman said. “He sat down and sweat popped out on his forehead and he clenched his fists without ever saying a word. Everybody wanted to howl, but he was a god. You don’t laugh at gods.”

There are 36 words, all of them perfect, a description of DiMaggio that say just about everything.

Coleman was a voracious reader, especially anything to do with history. He got into announcing through his friend Howard Cosell. He broadcast San Diego baseball every year from 1972 on, not counting 1980 when the Padres briefly made him their manager. His catch phrase “Oh Doctor!” is one of the most famous in sports. When a ball was hit high and well, he would shout “You can hang a star on that.” There’s a statue of him outside of Petco Park.

And he won the Ford Frick Award — the baseball Hall of Fame’s highest honor for broadcasters — in 2005. In his acceptance speech he told a story of the time for four innings he kept referring to Cleveland pitcher Jack Kralick as Sam McDowell.

“That put me in the Guinness book of records,” he said to raucous laughter. “‘Most innings, wrong pitcher: Jerry Coleman.’ Not many can make that statement.”

I have a friend who who will insist that while Vin Scully is great and while Harry Caray was fun, Jerry Coleman was the greatest baseball announcer who ever lived. And my friend will tell you: He’s not just saying that because he grew up in San Diego.

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