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Gary, Keith and Ron: A broadcasting dream team

Mets television trio weaves knowledge, friendship into highly regarded on-air work

NEW YORK -- An hour before one of their busier broadcasts of the season, Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling sat inside Citi Field's media cafeteria, having the same conversation as so many Mets fans throughout the five boroughs. Matt Harvey had recently tweeted that he planned to be ready for Opening Day 2014, and the team's television crew was dissecting that message, pixel by pixel.

Sitting across from each other, Darling and Cohen discussed how they might present Harvey's tweet on air, offering skepticism over the pitcher's intent. Longtime producer Gregg Picker steered the conversation. At one end of the table, Hernandez sat with his nose buried in a cell phone, apparently uninterested or perhaps not listening.

Suddenly, Hernandez looked up.

"Can we talk about the Russian swimsuit model?" he said. "Is she going to dump him now? A summer rehabbing in Port St. Lucie does not sound quite so attractive."

"You don't think she'll be impressed by a Duffy's card instead of a Bergdorf Goodman card?" Darling shot back, referring to a popular sports bar near the Mets' Florida training facility.

Eventually, their conversation drifted back to that night's broadcast, which was to feature a heavy dose of Harvey analysis. Picker asked Darling to address Bob Ojeda's comments, made earlier in the day, regarding the stress that Harvey's low-90s slider may have contributed to his season-ending elbow tear. That led to a discussion of pitching mechanics in general, which somehow funneled to a commentary on foreign exchange rates, which melted into talk of Hillary Clinton's potential presidential candidacy, then a dissection of Juan Lagares' batting stance.

It was pure stream of consciousness. Much of it was absurd. Yet it was -- and continues to be, on a daily basis -- the engine behind one of the most well-regarded local sports broadcasts in the country.

How exactly Cohen, Hernandez and Darling reached this perch as one of baseball's best, most respected television crews may be a matter of opinion, but at some point over the past seven years, it happened. Those who do not simply refer to them by their first names -- Gary, Keith and Ron -- use the acronym GKR, as if everyone should know what that means.

They are now pop culture. Gary, Keith and Ron have their own Twitter hashtag. They have their own charitable foundation. They have their own bobblehead. Thanks to one enterprising fan blog, they have their own dorm-room-style drinking game.

In a landscape littered with local broadcasts that often lean too provincial, too one-sided or too outdated, SportsNet New York seems to have stumbled upon the magic formula. As Curt Gowdy Jr., the network's executive producer, put it: "We were looking at building the best booth in baseball."

What went unsaid was that SNY may have already done just that.

* * * * *

Talk to industry types about Cohen, Hernandez and Darling, and the conversation inevitably drifts to chemistry. It seems obvious now, 7 1/2 years after the network's launch, that the three of them genuinely like one another. But understand that this did not necessarily have to work; at its birth in 2006, SNY was at risk of all the same pitfalls that can hamper local broadcasts.

Gowdy's mission at the time was to hire a team that could "educate, enlighten and entertain," in his words, and his first stop was Hernandez. Wanting a former player with whom the fan base was familiar, Gowdy turned to a man who had been contributing color commentary to Mets broadcasts since 1999. Hernandez represented Gold Gloves and "Seinfeld" cameos and local glitz. He was an obvious choice.

The next piece was Cohen, who grew up rooting for the Mets, began calling games alongside Bob Murphy in the radio booth in 1989, and did so comfortably for the next decade and a half. Murphy's retirement allowed Cohen to score his dream job as lead radio play-by-play man in 2004, which lasted two seasons. That is when SNY came calling, and despite an affinity for radio, Cohen could not say no.

Darling's hire was more unexpected. In what he remembers as a frustrating year commentating on Nationals games for the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, feeling stunted in his growth as a fledgling broadcaster, Darling impressed Gowdy with an analytical side that did not always translate well on camera. Watching tape of Darling's MASN broadcasts shortly after his hire, Picker remembers being "stunned" by how much work he thought Darling needed. Seven years later, the producer says, "I have never worked with an announcer who has improved as dramatically and as quickly as Ron."

Kevin Burkhardt has been SNY's Mets field reporter since 2007.

Prior to its second season, SNY filled out its core staff by hiring Kevin Burkhardt as its sideline reporter -- a job Burkhardt has, in some ways, modernized through his seamless booth communication and textured reporting, both from the home and visiting clubhouses. Cohen, Hernandez, Darling, Picker and director Bill Webb are now in their eighth season as a team, with Burkhardt there for seven, giving the broadcast uncommon fluidity. Often, they dine as a group on the road. They log hours together before and after games.

"I think there have been plenty of people in this industry that don't like each other, yet still have good broadcasts," Burkhardt said. "But us, our whole crew that travels, we all see each other way more than we see our families or friends. So the fact that we all really like each other is a big bonus."

The group also believes such chumminess translates to television, freeing each member -- and it's a cliché, they freely acknowledge -- to be himself. If that means Hernandez launching into a discussion about who mows his lawn, so be it. If that means Darling running down next year's Oscar contenders, all the better. If that means guest analyst Ralph Kiner drifting into a half-century-old anecdote, fantastic.

"More than football, where it's once a week, or hockey or basketball, where it's a few times a week, I think baseball fans over the course of the summer really get attached to their announcers," Picker said. "It's important that they understand the announcers are human beings who have the same things outside the broadcast that they do -- the same responsibilities, the same concerns, the same interests."

Three hours before a recent game, looking up from the stacks of notes and glowing iPad in front of him, Darling recalled his inaugural SNY broadcast in 2006. About 15 seconds before Gary, Keith and Ron were about to go live on air for the first time, Hernandez turned to his former teammate and said simply: "You do the pitching. I'll do the hitting."

It has been that way ever since, in a process with benefits beyond the obvious. Many of the network's since-parroted ideas -- broadcasting a game from the upper deck of Shea Stadium, for example -- have developed out of dinner conversations.

That is not to say SNY's crew is perfect. Sometimes, Cohen receives criticism for his outward distrust of sabermetrics. During longer games, Hernandez openly sighs and grumbles on air, to the chagrin of some fans (and the amusement of others). But rarely does any bit of denigration stick. Asked if there is anything he dislikes about the broadcasts, Sports Illustrated media critic Richard Deitsch paused for a beat before answering.

"I think Keith takes too many vacations to the Hamptons," he finally said.

* * * * *

One day after the roundtable discussion on Lagares and presidential politics, Hernandez took to grumbling again. Notoriously deliberate pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka was laboring against the Phillies, and when Matsuzaka stepped off the mound for the umpteenth time in the third inning, Hernandez emitted a long, slow, "Jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeez."

"I'll be right back," he said on air. "I have to go for a hot dog."

Moments later, in a bit of on-the-fly ingenuity from Webb's team in the truck, SNY began tracking Matsuzaka's time between pitches with a cartoonish clock on the screen's bottom-left corner.

The idea to broadcast from Shea's upper deck came over dinner.

It was a cocktail of humor and exasperation from a group that has at times become infamous for its on-air honesty. Despite the fact that the Mets own a majority stake in SNY, Hernandez, Cohen and Darling openly criticize the players who share their charter flights and luxury hotels. Since its infancy, much of SNY's acclaim has stemmed from that standard.

"There's a reason why Vin Scully is thought of as he is," Deitsch said, referring to the Dodgers' legendary play-by-play man, "and there's a reason why the Met broadcast is thought of as it is. I think a lot of that reason is because viewers believe that these guys are dealing straight. Very rarely do we see the cheerleaders get the reputation of being the best in the business."

Such criticisms do irk players, who grouse about their broadcasters from time to time -- particularly when the disparagement comes from Cohen, who never played professional baseball. But SNY considers it vital that its broadcasts do not stumble into the common trap of, in Deitsch's words, being "all sunshine and lollipops."

"We've never wavered," Gowdy said, crediting Mets owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon for the freedom to be "balanced, but also fair, never malicious" -- a freedom that not all team-owned networks possess, or choose to exercise if they do.

Those around the industry have taken notice. Since joining SNY, Darling and Hernandez have each won two New York Emmy Awards, while the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association named Cohen its New York Sportscaster of the Year for 2012.

"It's kind of a shame in a way that they're calling so many meaningless games," said Neil Best, Newsday's sports media critic. "But what are you going to do? Mets fans still want to see what the team is doing, and they're still going to watch. If they were ever playing meaningful games in September again, then that would make it even better."

* * * * *

When longtime FOX color commentator Tim McCarver announced that he would retire after this season, baseball's blogosphere erupted with speculation over who might take his place. Among those names generating the most noise was Darling, who has earned national renown for his work covering postseason games on TBS.

A few months later, Darling signed a five-year extension with Turner, effectively taking himself out of the running for the FOX job. But the whole episode served to underscore a certain inevitability about the broadcast business: With success comes interest from other organizations.

Gowdy, the architect, believes much of his network's accomplishment stems from the fact that unlike in some other markets, where small armies of broadcasters shuttle in and out of the booths, SNY relies exclusively on Cohen, Hernandez and Darling in some combination. As a result, the network has done everything possible to keep those three intact, quietly extending their contracts as needed.

Jerry Seinfeld with Keith Hernandez and Gary Cohen in the booth.

"It is a challenge to try to keep everybody together," Gowdy said. "But I think it goes back to the fact that they truly enjoy what they're doing. I'll go one step further: They truly love what they're doing. They love working on our Mets broadcasts on our network. They love being a part of working for a network like SNY. They know they have a good thing together as a group, and that's important."

Cohen does not hesitate when asked if he could see himself retiring as a member of the broadcast team. Darling may have aspirations beyond the local market, but SNY gives him the flexibility to indulge them through his work with TBS. Hernandez is in a comfortable place covering a large percentage of road games, allowing him to avoid too-frequent commutes from the south fork of Long Island.

If any member of the group is to leave anytime soon, it could be Burkhardt, whose contract expires after next season. Fresh off two winters calling Dallas Cowboys games for Compass Media Networks, Burkhardt recently signed on with FOX to broadcast NFL games alongside John Lynch and Erin Andrews, a job that will score him massive national exposure. But even Burkhardt acknowledges he would be hesitant to venture away from the professional bubble that SNY has created.

Six years ago, after his first Spring Training broadcast, Burkhardt recalls Hernandez walking into the Mets' clubhouse -- something he rarely does after games, if at all -- to seek out and compliment the network's newest face. Small gestures like that are what keep the group tethered.

And so they plug forward, now 1,272 games and counting. Ever the historian, Cohen notes that the Mets' inaugural broadcast team of Kiner, Murphy and Lindsey Nelson stayed intact for 17 years, a lifetime in this industry. Considering that he, Hernandez and Darling are nearly halfway to that mark and "all very happy with our situation," they could be on their way to something similar.

After all, Cohen added, "We're in New York. Where else are we going to go?"

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo.
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