Players, coaches pay tribute to Sheppard
Longtime Yankees PA announcer remembered fondly
Fittingly, as the baseball world absorbed the loss of the longtime "Voice of the Yankees," Bob Sheppard, on Sunday, the words -- over 55 years of memories, sounds, and stories -- flowed freely.
Of all the tributes, the most appropriate and extended was paid by Eric Smith, the public address announcer in Dodger Stadium, scene of the lone Sunday night game.Veering from his usual style the first time through the Dodgers' batting order against the Chicago Cubs, Smith introduced the players in Sheppard mode: "Batting next, center fielder, No. 27, Matt Kemp," he would say, then, after a brief pause, add, "No. 27." The pause and the repetition of the player's uniform number were Sheppard trademarks. Dodgers manager Joe Torre, at home with the Yankees for 12 seasons prior to joining Los Angeles before the 2007 season, remembered Sheppard as "just a classic." "I was talking to [actor and famed Yankees fan] Billy Crystal this morning, and he used Bob in his movie '61.' The energy he had for the age he was was pretty amazing ... You'd see him in the dugout every once in awhile before batting practice, just sitting there. He didn't necessarily need to talk to anybody, but he was like a magnet because he drew a lot of people." Around the league, other current and former players and managers paused to reflect on Sheppard's passing, what he meant to the game, and moving forward without that melodic voice.
From his debut alongside Mickey Mantle in 1951 to the famous "No. 2 Derek Jee-tah, No. 2" call, Sheppard became an iconic bastion at the old Yankee Stadium, a place that valued the history and tradition of the game above all else. And in "The Cathedral," Sheppard was the "Voice of God," as dubbed by Reggie Jackson.
Veteran Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, who first heard his name from Sheppard's mouth during the 1996 World Series, echoed that characterization of the legend.
"When you combine that voice with playing in Yankee Stadium, it was almost eerie," Jones said. "You're playing on such hallowed ground and you got that voice coming out of the darkness, and it almost seems like it's God talking to you. It's one you hear in your dreams."
Lou Piniella, now a National League manager with the Cubs, heard his name enunciated by Sheppard for 14 of his 41 years in the Major Leagues -- 11 as a Yankees player, three as their manager."Wonderful memories," Piniella said. "He was an institution in New York, and a famous voice. It's a big loss to the Yankees family. He was a friend and he lived a good life. He was a wonderful human being. Coming up to home plate and hearing your name was special." Former Yankees reliever Dave Righetti remembered Sheppard as "a hell of a man and a gentleman in his own way." Chris Ray, one of the Giants pitchers currently being coached by Righetti, who made frequent Bronx visits as a former closer for the Orioles, recalled Sheppard's voice as "definitely something pretty distinctive in Yankee Stadium." "You get used to hearing that voice and the crowd going crazy," Ray said. "It's just sad that he passed, but I think Jeter still uses his voice when he comes up, and I think that's a nice tribute." Not surprisingly, players and coaches' accounts of hearing Sheppard utter their names over the PA system for the first time were common on Sunday, but for some, it was also the first time they heard their names announced in a big league stadium.
That was the case for Blue Jays third-base coach Brian Butterfield, who had the honor of hearing Sheppard intone his name while serving as the Yankees' first-base coach in 1994-95. The Yankees opened the 1994 season at home against the Rangers, so Butterfield, who never reached the big leagues as a player, was to hear his name announced in the Majors for the first time, by Sheppard himself.
"Don Mattingly approached me before the game and said, 'You're going to be excited when Bob Sheppard introduces you.' He went through it," Butterfield recalled. "He did a great immitation of Bob Sheppard. He said, 'First-base coach, Bri-an, But-terfield,' with the accent on the two 'Ts', just like 'Mat-tingly."
And when the moment finally came, when Sheppard's voice offered a stentorian welcome to the big leagues, it didn't disappoint.
"It was a great day and it was an emotional day, just thinking about the Yankee tradition and hearing Bob Sheppard's voice -- the greatest of all time -- and then to be introduced on the chalk line," Butterfield said. "It was such an emotional day. It was one of my big highlights of my professional career, being introduced by Bob Sheppard on Opening Day."
The anointment by Sheppard was shared by Reds outfielder Johnny Gomes, who made his big league debut with Tampa Bay on Sept. 12, 2003 in Yankee Stadium."I definitely do remember that," Gomes said, "walking to the plate and hearing him say my name. I grew up on the West Coast, but his name stretches all the way over there. It's a tough loss for Major League Baseball, not just inside the Yankee family. "Not only am I a player and blessed to be in the big leagues, but I'm a big fan of the game," Gomes added. "I really pay attention to the game. The little things in the game. I'm a big fan of the history of the game, and he definitely has a big part of history with the Yankees. Not only calling my name but the name of some of the greatest players this game has ever seen. His voice will definitely stand in this game for a long time." Yes, for many, that voice meant meant you have arrived.
"You knew you'd made it in the Majors when you heard Bob Sheppard announce your name at Yankee Stadium," John Flaherty, former Yankees catcher and current YES network analyst said. "It was always a thrill to hear his voice, regardless of whether I was with the Yankees or with another team."
Marlins pitcher Nate Robertson, who had the opportunity to hear Sheppard more often when playing with the Tigers in the American League, highlighted a certain je ne sais quoi that Sheppard brought to the microphone.
"You have to have a certain sound," Robertson said. "You could be around a long time, but you have to have a certain sound.
"What a great voice and style he had. It was part of Yankee Stadium to go there and experience him. You felt like you were in the big leagues when he would call your name out in that venue."
In addition to Sheppard's legacy at the microphone, he perhaps left a greater impression in the hearts and minds of those who knew the man.
"I had the honor about three years ago to sit and talk with him in the old Yankee Stadium," Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said. "Probably the first thing is, what a gentleman."
As profound a mark as Sheppard's passing leaves on the game and the players he left behind, the void will be greatest with the team he loved, the Yankees.
Soon after word spread of Sheppard's passing on Sunday, Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner issued a statement reflecting on the loss of one of the Yankees' most iconic figures.
"I am deeply saddened by the death today of Bob Sheppard, a good friend and fine man whose voice set the gold standard for America's sports announcers," Steinbrenner said. "Bob Sheppard was a great member of the Yankees family and his death leaves a lasting silence."
Indeed, Sunday's reaction showed that those who once wore the pinstripes knew perhaps better than anyone that Sheppard was an irreplaceable element of the Yankees' great tradition.
"He's a Yankee icon," said A's manager Bob Geren, who caught for the Yankees in his playing days. "For anyone that's ever played there, you'll never forget that voice. Every stadium has something you'll never forget, and that's one of them."
Bailey Stephens is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.