The transformation of Sarge

Sarge (with cap) greets a starstruck Nationals/Cubs fan named Barack in the broadcast booth. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Sarge (with cap) greets a starstruck Nationals/Cubs fan named Barack in the broadcast booth. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Posted: July 15, 2012

It was a late June game at Citizens Bank Park, and play was about to begin in the top of the fourth inning. Down on the field, Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Neil Walker limbered up in the on-deck circle, while Phillies righthander Joe Blanton took his warmup tosses.

Another sellout crowd was in a good mood: the Phillies had a 5-1 lead, and the weather was perfect, with a game-time temperature of 79 degrees.

Up in the Harry Kalas Broadcast Booth, game notes and scorebooks were scattered around the microphones on the desk. Lineups and defensive-alignment charts were taped to the walls for easy reference. And the first nightly changing of the guard had taken place. Analyst Chris Wheeler gathered up his voluminous materials so Gary Matthews Sr. — better known as Sarge to pretty much everybody — could settle in next to play-by-play man Tom McCarthy for the middle three innings, his normal slot.

A stiff wind blowing from leftfield to right starched the outfield flags and, soon enough, McCarthy pointed it out. It was a moment straight out of the broadcast team playbook, with McCarthy setting up his sidekick with an opportunity to explain how the weather might impact the game's strategy, maybe relate it to an experience from his playing career. And Sarge jumped right in.

"Hitters always like the wind blowing out of the ballpark. That way they don't have to hit it so hard for it to go out," he responded, authoritatively.

Now, here's the thing. When Sarge joined the Phillies' television broadcast team in 2007, that sort of comment would have been widely ridiculed. If he wasn't being criticized for making statements that seemed blatantly obvious, he was slammed for his occasional grammatical lapses or for mangling names. Jayson Werth came out as Jason Wertz. He displayed an odd habit of calling players by their last name only. Placido Polanco, for example, was unfailingly addressed as simply "Polanco" in postgame interviews.

Wheeler has known Sarge since the Phillies traded for him in 1981. "He's always malapropped. He always pronounced everybody's name wrong. He just does it to a larger audience," the veteran announcer said.

Something amazing has happened since then, though. Sarge has been transformed. Once scorned, he's now viewed as a colorful character of the game.

It's the biggest turnaround this team has since they came from seven games down with 17 to play to edge the Mets in 2007.

He hasn't changed. But the perception of him, incredibly, has.

Don't believe it? Consider that Sarge's love for wearing hats has become such a trademark that the Phillies began carrying the The Sarge Collection as part of their official merchandise. "Sarge is our Secretary of Style," says Phillies merchandising director Scott Brandreth, who came up with the idea.

He's been part of two book projects. Few and Chosen ranks the best Phillies players of all time at each position. Phillies Confidential, coauthored with Scott Lauber, is an insider's account of the 2008 championship season. He said the response he gets when he makes promotional appearances for the book is a barometer for him how much the attitude toward him has changed. "When I do my book-signings, I don't look up for a whole hour," Sarge says. "You kidding me? Anywhere I go — and we're not really advertising it. I did it over there at Barnes & Noble. There were people who were irritated because they said they couldn't believe you guys didn't advertise this. I've got to go home and I'll be back. Yeah, all those things are really flattering."

There have been T-shirts. One had a drawing of him riding in a big car, a nod to his penchant for calling home runs "Cadillac Time." (At least it was his penchant until Toyota, an official sponsor, objected.) Another read, "I Listen To Sarge."

Even more indicative of the sea change is that he's become an Internet hit. An R-rated remix of some of his Sarge-isms has had over 17,500 views on YouTube. There's even a Twitter site, Sarge Said What?, dedicated to his utterances.

In modern culture, that's currency.

Besides, how many broadcasters know the President of the United States well enough to ask him if he's lying?

"This is a pitch he usually always swings at."

The beginning wasn't promising. Sarge is the first to admit that. "I mean, yeah. When you get ripped as much as I did on the morning [sports-talk-radio] shows. Everywhere I went. I frequent over at Nick's Old Original Roast Beef. And they're great people over there because they always just tell the truth. They said to me early on, ‘Hey, Sarge, we didn't know if you were going to be with us after that first year. But you've grown on us. We like it.'

“Nobody likes to be talked about or ripped. You've got to have thick skin, because it's not the easiest place to play. And, on the broadcast side, I've gone through my things here. But I think like in most cases, you can use it as constructive criticism instead of thinking that people dislike you."

Said broadcasting manager Rob Brooks: "The first year he was here he was in a three-man booth and it was a lot of change. There was a lot of stuff for people to digest and that wasn't really going well."

One columnist referred to them as "The Three Stooges."

He had played the game. He had that going for him. He played 16 seasons in the majors with the Giants, Braves, Cubs and Phillies. He was the Most Valuable Player of the 1983 NLCS when the Phils beat the Dodgers to advance to the World Series. He was also a major league coach for the Cubs, Blue Jays and Brewers.

What he lacked, however, was broadcasting experience. He had done two years of radio in Toronto and briefly worked on a cable show called "Headline Sports Television" in Toronto. He was thrown into a sink-or-swim situation.

Chris Wheeler's innings bookend Sarge on television. "He had done mostly radio, and radio and television are totally different," he explained. "Now you come to television where all of a sudden you work off pictures. There's a totally different skill involved in it. Or a replay comes up and you have to try to add something to it and not make it sound exactly like what you just saw. Add some expertise to it."

Sarge laughed when he remembered coming in to do some simulated innings with the late Harry Kalas for a sort of trial run during his interview. "And Harry, as you would know, was really in kind of a hurry to get over to the racetrack. So we were doing innings and he said, ‘Listen, he's fine with this. Is there any problem? I'm kind of really ready to go. He can do the job. He's fine.' Nobody else said a word and that was the end of it, basically," he said.

What's instructive, though, is how Sarge reacted to the negative backlash. Didn't pout. Didn't really even get angry. Just resolved to prove the doubters wrong, even taking some off-season classes to try to improve. "Like I said, constructive criticism. It always makes you a better person," he says. "You've got to realize, early on when Charlie Fox was the (Giants) manager, he would come down to Instructional League. I had signed as a No. 1 (draft pick). And there was a high sky in Arizona and I was having some problems. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and so on. And Fox took one look at me and said, ‘Who signed this kid? He'll never make it out of A ball.' I said, ‘Oh, really?' Hank Sauer took me under his wing and he said, ‘If you hit, you'll play in the major leagues.' And I'd hit all my life, so that was like, game on."

”Jair Jurrjens is a pretty good pitcher when he's on the mound.”

Rob Brooks has seen firsthand the broadcasting alchemy Sarge has undergone. "I used to joke around that Harry [Kalas] and L.A. [radio analyst Larry Andersen] are so beloved partly because they'd had a drink with everybody in the city. And, you know, Sarge has had dinner with everybody in the city," Brooks said. "He's out all the time and people get to meet him. Sarge is always, ‘Hey, how are you doing?' He'll stop, he'll chat, he'll take pictures. He's just a great guy to be around. And I think the longer we've been able to leave him in that seat, the easier it's been for people to see that.

“When you give somebody the title of broadcaster, people come to that with certain expectations. Sarge, in many ways, didn't meet up to those. His style of speech, his grammar doesn't quite meet those expectations when you say broadcaster. But he's a great guy. He has great baseball knowledge. And he's a really warm human being. And the longer we've kept him on and people have been able to see some of that and experience some of the humor, it's a comfort level that develops. Maybe he's not the perfect broadcaster. But he's a great guy to hang and watch a ballgame with."

Talk with the broadcast crew and two common themes quickly emerge. The first is that change in their profession is almost always wrenching at the outset. The second is that, given time, people will sense it if the person on the other side of the camera is genuine. If he is, they'll start rooting for him to succeed. "I think Sarge is one of those guys, the more you get to know him, the more you like him," radio play-by-play man Scott Franzke said. "And that's what we have in this business of doing baseball games. There is more of that time to let your personality show. There are so many games, day in and day out. You do feel like you get to know the guy. And I think to know him is to love him. I know it's a cliché, but it's so true with Sarge."

Added Chris Wheeler: "I think, in time, he wore well. That's the one thing about our business. Some people aren't going to like you. Others don't like you at the beginning but you wear well. And some like you right from the beginning. Sometimes there's a period involved where you have to be allowed to shake out a little bit and let people see who you really are."

Tom McCarthy gets a lot of credit for going out of his way to draw him out, to try to put him in the best possible position to succeed. "I had said it early on, likened [McCarthy] to Willie Mays," Sarge said. "What did I mean by that? Simple. He makes other people better."

Said Brooks: "Tommy is more of a modern announcer. As a play-by-play guy, he knows that the color guy is supposed to be the star of the show. So he works with both guys, trying to bring them out and be sure that they're always seen in the best light. Sarge makes it easy because you can tee up a thousand fun things and just sort of let him have at it."

For McCarthy, it's all about letting Sarge be himself.

"Harry Kalas used to tell us this. [Mets broadcaster] Gary Cohen used to tell me this. [Tigers Hall of Famer] Ernie Harwell used to tell me this. You can't be somebody you're not. He can't be that. I can't. None of us can. And I think it's good that he's comfortable in his own skin. That's one thing about Sarge. He's always been comfortable in who he is.

“I think he's exactly the same as he was when he came here. Like all of us who do this, the repetitions have helped. Understanding the flow of the game. That's helped. I think he's got a good grasp on it. Sometimes it still sounds unscripted, but that's OK. It's important for him to be himself. So I think I've just let him be himself. I've always felt comfortable that whatever is said, I can adapt. That I can go with it."

Case in point: When Sarge recently had Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks playing for the now-defunct Montreal Expos, McCarthy waited a moment and then made the correction so smoothly that it didn't seem like a correction at all.

And if the syllables he emphasizes sometimes seem a little out of place or he peppers his commentary with "actually" and "as well" and "for me" that's just Sarge Being Sarge. The audience, it seems, has adapted, too.

”The Mets scoring first messes up your mojo, if you will.”

"Sarge is not afraid to laugh at himself. I think that's a big part of why people sort of embrace him. He's in on the joke. He's having fun with it, too," Rob Brooks said.

As a result, more and more, he's the target of barbs from his fellow broadcasters. And that's helped his image, too. "I think that humanizes him," Tom McCarthy said. "Because think about your family and the way your family is. There's always that aunt, there's always that uncle, there's always that cousin that just makes you laugh. You tell stories about them. I think each of us tell stories about each of us to everybody. But his stories are so funny. They're hysterical. So it humanizes him because it just makes him seem like a normal person. You know, he's not above anybody else. He would never want to be perceived as being above anybody else. So those funny stories are all him being a human being."

As a result, those who tune in regularly know that he referred to his phone as an i-Droid and said he was going to go to the App Store. "We told him it was around Cherry Hill, right next to the Photo Shop," Andersen said with a chuckle.

They know that he mistook the financial firm Smith Barney for a furniture store. That he was brushing his teeth in Cincinnati, paused to answer his phone without turning off the water, lay down on the bed to talk, fell asleep and flooded not only his room but adjacent ones as well. That he called McCarthy at 6:46 in the morning in Toronto, waking him up to ask what shirts they were wearing at that afternoon's game. That he said he was happy that Roger Clemens was ‘exhilarated' of perjury charges related to steroids.

"One day he was talking about his friend having the swan flu," Chris Wheeler said. "And I turned to him and he said, ‘Oh, you know what I mean.' And that's the whole thing. Exactly. We all know what he means. He screws up all kinds of names…there's a charm to that."

Larry Andersen started it and now it's become open season for all the broadcasters. "Like when I was reading the Daily News Home Run Payoff [promo]," Andersen said. "Scott [Franzke] will start reading it and then he'll stop. And I'll say, ‘And it's easy to play.' And the other day, I was like, ‘It's so easy even Sarge can play.' Just stuff like that, little shots every now and then. But you will not find a better personality. You just won't and he's fun to be around."

What viewers might not know is that he brings freshly cut flowers to the broadcaster's office at the park every game day. Or that he sometimes passes the time watching cooking shows on the television while working on his fingernails. Or that he's a connoisseur of fine wines.

Wheeler once asked him what he thought people would think if they knew about the flowers and the cooking shows and the manicures. "That's just me, man," he said with a shrug.

"That's why you have to hit the ball hard as many times as you can. Preferably every time up."

No story about Sarge would be complete without mentioning Alyssa Milano. The actress visited the booth in 2008 to promote a new line of baseball-themed clothing. But Sarge was clearly more interested in talking about her body art.

Sarge: "I understand you're a tattoo fan."

Alyssa: "I have a little ink. How about you?"

Sarge (suggestively): "No ink. I like looking at ink, though."

Alyssa (coquettishly): "You can only see two of mine right now."

Said Jim Jackson, laughing: "That's my highlight Sarge moment because the third out of the inning came just in time. We might not be having this conversation about Sarge's great career here as a broadcaster if that hadn't happened."

Added Tom McCarthy: "We were on the air and all he kept talking with her about was her tattoos. And all I could think of was, ‘Oh, no.' And it just went from there."

That, too, becomes part of the appeal, though. Better to be sure to watch tonight. Heck, there's no telling what Sarge might say next. It will be something to talk about around the water cooler tomorrow.

"Not many second basemens will make that particular play right there."

Among Jim Jackson's duties is hosting the pregame radio show. Sarge often provides the taped interview. "He sent the show back one day. ‘And now, we'll go back to more of Phillies On Deck with Jim Johnson.' With just that kind of emphasis," Chris Wheeler recalled, shaking his head.

So, yes, he can have some trouble with names. But guess what? So did Richie Ashburn. And he's one of the most revered figures in Philadelphia sports history.

Rob Brooks even suggested that Sarge could be this generation's Ashburn. And he may be onto something. Both are former players. Both are prone to malapropisms that became more endearing than irritating. Both approached the job with a sort of casual willingness to wing it. Both have a personal warmth that viewers can feel.

Chris Wheeler sees a parallel to manager Charlie Manuel, whose way of talking was off-putting to many fans, at least until the Phillies start winning. And Sarge is far from the first to succeed despite not fitting the stereotype of what a polished professional broadcaster should sound like. Hall of Famer Harry Caray, for example. And even before Caray, CBS received complaints from schoolteachers in the 1950s who believed that Dizzy Dean's fractured syntax set a poor example for the nation's youth who watched the Saturday afternoon Game of the Week. "Syntax?" joked Dean, who remained a popular national broadcaster for a decade. "Are them jokers in Washington planning to start taxing that, too?"

"Those foul tips either stay in the glove or not."

Sarge's workday is limited to the pregame radio interview and the fourth, fifth and sixth innings. He no longer is involved in the pregame TV opening shot. He no longer does postgame television. That could be awkward, but there's not a hint of jealousy from his co-workers.

Part of the reason, again, is that he's just so well-liked. And part of it is that knack for self-deprecating humor. "One of his favorites, he'll come into the radio booth after the sixth inning, when he's done with his TV, and he'll hold both his hands out," Andersen said with a laugh. "Fingers kind of pointed toward the ground. ‘To the bone, boys. I'm working my fingers to the bone.' So now after he's done his three innings on TV, we'll just walk by him and hold our fingers out. And he's, ‘To the bone, don't you know it.'"

"It's almost like driving your car through the wash. It's just a clean base hit."

The Phillies visited the White House in 2009, the year after winning the World Series. After a tour, they assembled on the South Lawn and were addressed by President Obama.

And when Obama was done, the first thing he did was come out from behind the podium, walk over to the front row, stick out his hand and say happily, "Hey, Sarge. What's happening?"

Their daughters had gotten to know one another in Chicago while Sarge was a coach with the Cubs. Through that connection, the former player and the future president became friends.

Typically, knowing how much Chris Wheeler wanted to meet the president, Sarge had saved him a seat right next to him in the front row. Just as typically, he neglected to mention this fact to Wheeler, who ended up sitting six or seven rows behind and whiffing on the opportunity. "After it's over, he said, ‘Man, where were you? I saved you a seat and you were supposed to sit right beside me. You'd have met the president!' I said, ‘Sarge, you didn't tell me that.' and he said, ‘Did I have to tell you?'

“I'll never forget that he got all over me. It was my fault. But he never told me! And I was so pissed. If you looked, there was a freakin' empty seat beside him. That was my seat!"

The following year, Sarge atoned. Obama was at Nationals Park to throw out the first pitch. Wheeler was on the air and heard a stirring behind him. Sure enough, the president stopped in to say hello to Sarge, who was sitting in the back of the booth.

Through his headsets, he could hear the conversation. It started with Sarge asking Obama if he'd had a chance to play golf lately.

"Yeah, I shot eighty-something the other day," the president said.

"Oh, man, you're lying," Sarge replied.

"What, you think I'm lying?" Obama teased back.

But before Obama left, went over and said hello to Wheeler. "Right about that time this hand comes in and it's him. And I mouthed, ‘It's nice to meet you.' And he said, ‘It's nice to meet you, too.' Sarge had sent him over. That's the essence of Sarge," Wheeler said.

Which is just another reason for the astonishing metamorphosis of Sarge. From an object of derision to a distinctive voice right in front of our eyes.

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