On a recent day, Gary Cohen dumped nine bags of potting soil into the planters, brushed his dogs, pooper-scooped the backyard (which he says is a “rather monumental task” because he has two Great Danes), put water in the humidifier, changed the water on the water cooler and did three loads of laundry.
All before 4 p.m.
“I’m expanding my horizons,” Cohen said, “as best I can.”
He’s watched far too much news. He’s also cooking more than ever, going from a guy who could make scrambled eggs and broiled steaks to one who can whip up pork chops, roasted Brussels sprouts and scallops. And he even said some strange words to his wife recently: “I’m going to do my yardwork.”
“You have never said those words before in your life,” Lynn Cohen, who has known Gary for 45 years, told her husband.
“And she’s right,” Cohen says. “I never have.”
To Cohen, SNY’s Mets play-by-play announcer, these unprecedented times feel like an extension of his offseason. He and Lynn are homebodies, so now they are just at home for a longer period of time. But he sees the nightmare at hand in our country.
“It’s just so far beyond horrible in terms of the incredible scenes from the hospitals and nursing homes and meat-packing plants and all that,” Cohen, who lives in Connecticut, told NorthJersey.com and USA Today Network over the phone.
“And then multiply that by the horrific economic suffering people are going through. It’s really a little hard to digest, and my heart goes out to everybody because everybody is affected in some way.”
‘I’m trying to live my life right now’
On social media and the internet, we’ve seen many broadcasters calling life events — family games at home, basketball in the driveway — to remain fresh. FOX’s Joe Buck even asked his Twitter followers to send him videos of anything he could do play-by-play on to get in his practice reps.
Cohen? He’s different in that way.
He has not done any of that — well, except for calling a simulated MLB The Show game with partners Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling (something they will do again on May 5). Gary, Keith and Ron — “GKR” as fans call them — have also appeared together on SNY’s Beyond the Booth Live, a Facebook live broadcast hosted by Mets field reporter Steve Gelbs on Thursdays at 4 p.m. ET.
But you won’t hear Cohen doing play-by-play on his cooking or yardwork. Nope, that will return when baseball does.
“I’m trying to live my life right now,” said Cohen, who recently turned 62. “Baseball and play-by-play will be back when it’s back.”
Cohen has two seasons: The offseason and the baseball season. He dives into the deep end of the pool in March and comes up for air in October.
“When the season starts, I’m all in,” he said. “When the season is not going, I’m all out.”
He’s merely waiting for it to begin again. To Cohen, it’s like a light switch and he’s waiting for the light to go on.
There are a few reported plans for a 2020 baseball season. They range from every team playing in Arizona to a three-division league in which teams only play within their own division.
“I am perfectly willing to do whatever it is and I do not hold myself out as an expert on which would be the best plan,” Cohen said. “But what I do know is that, in this country right now, we are not even scratching the surface of the testing that would be needed to be able to make any plan a viable one. Until enough testing is in place to ensure the safety of everybody involved in whatever endeavor they try to establish, then it’s really a moot point.”
On that fateful Thursday in March, when sports shut down, Cohen had been preparing for a quarterfinal game in the Big East men’s basketball tournament. But Seton Hall’s radio play-by-play announcer never called a minute of action as the conference canceled its tournament.
It hardly surprised him.
Days before, he traveled to Washington to call the Colonial Athletic Association tournament championship game for Westwood One. “I already had an inkling at that point that things were getting a little dicey,” he said. Cohen brought his disinfectant wipes on the trip and noticed many people weren’t shaking hands.
The inevitable occurred a couple days later when sports were put on hold for the time being. No one knew when they might return, which remains the case.
“By that weekend, I think we all came to the realization that this was going to be something for the long haul,” Cohen said. “There is a feeling for everybody, I’m sure — no matter what line of work they’re in or what their circumstances are — that you’re powerless to change this. It’s just a matter of waiting for circumstances to be different. It’s very odd.”
‘Not a huge stat guy’
In today’s game, analytics are more popular than ever. They inform front office decisions and, because of sites like FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus, fans can also dig into them.
“I’m not a huge stat guy,” Cohen said. He uses numbers to tell a story but tries not to overwhelm viewers.
Has the analytical revolution pressured him to change his style in the booth?
“Here’s the only way I can put it to you: I’ve had thousands of fans come up to me over the course of the last 30-plus years to talk about our broadcast, the Mets, their experience,” Cohen said. “I have never, ever had a fan come up to me and say, ‘You need to do more statistics.’
"I think that there’s a very dedicated, committed portion of the fan base who cares very deeply about statistics and advanced statistics. But I think for the vast majority of the people who watch the game, they are much more interested in the human side of baseball than the statistical side of baseball. All of my experience, even through the statistical revolution, backs it up.
"That’s not to say that advanced statistics don’t have a huge part to play in terms of the way baseball franchises operate. They do. They’re the most important thing now in the modern era of baseball — the way that teams can differentiate themselves through the use of proprietary statistics and otherwise. But my experience in talking to actual human beings who watch actual baseball games is that most of them could not care a whit about most of it.”
In a few words, Cohen views his preparation like this: “Keep up with the sport.” Baseball is unique in that everything changes daily, meaning he must know everything that occurred in the sport over the last day. He understands he might be called upon to talk about something he learned that day, the last week, 10 years ago or 45 years ago.
It’s imperative he knows everything. And nowadays, he is more immersed in a season than ever before because there is much more information than when his career began.
Still, he does not overload viewers with numbers.
Ten years ago, he hardly used OPS (on-base plus slugging). Now he routinely utilizes it. But every time he says “OPS,” he still explains what it means.
“I feel as though any statistic that you have to explain to people every time you use it is probably more than people want to hear,” Cohen said. “When I say somebody’s batting average, every fan knows what that means. Now, a lot of might say, ‘Well, it means nothing. It’s not a important statistic anymore.’ But the fact of the matter is, because of the way baseball has been related over the course of years, it’s something that people instinctively understand.
“If I use wOBA (weighted on-base average), nobody knows what that means and I would have to go into a treatise on what it means before I could use it as a viable statistic to make a point. And frankly, that doesn’t fit with the way a baseball broadcast operates. I know there have been some Statcast-oriented broadcasts where they do that sort of thing, and that’s great for the people who care about it. But I will still maintain that for the vast, vast majority of the audience: A. They don’t understand it, B. they don’t really care about it and C., it makes it very hard as a broadcaster to weave that into the conversation in a meaningful way.
“It’s easy to throw stuff out there, but the point of any broadcast is to entertain and educate, and if you’re using things that people don’t understand and really don’t care to understand, then you’re not doing a service to anybody — even if the point you’re making is a valid one.”
Reflecting on his career
Even after calling Mets games for SNY since 2006, Cohen still considers himself “a radio guy who now does TV for the main part of the year.” He believes radio remains the more difficult medium.
With radio, “you are the game. You get to decide what to talk about, you get to decide what to look at, what to describe, what sequence to do it in and the overall presentation of the game.”
With TV, which he said is more of a team sport: “The thing that I had to learn is that I can’t control what the cameramen are showing, I can’t control which pictures the director chooses, I can’t control the audio or the video. All I can control is my piece of the much larger puzzle that goes into presenting a game that day.”
Cohen had done almost no television before SNY hired him, but that actually helped his new broadcast team gain chemistry. Darling did color commentary for the Washington Nationals in 2005, but Cohen described it as a year in which Darling “didn’t have a whole lot of direction.” Hernandez had dabbled as an analyst.
The three leaned on one another as time progressed. They learned together and, because of that, they haven’t changed much.
Cohen loves working for SNY, but his Seton Hall play-by-play fulfills the radio guy in him. Plus, the sports couldn’t be more different — which is what he enjoys most.
“You’ve got baseball, which is now a three-and-a-half hour game with eight minutes of action and then college basketball, which is a two-hour game with almost incessant action,” said Cohen, who has called Seton Hall hoops for 17 years. “It’s the difference between sitting 200 feet away and sitting six inches away.”
Since SNY launched, Cohen has called more than 2,000 Mets games. He’s aware of the broadcast trio’s popularity among fans and greatly appreciates that so many people love tuning in each night.
To get to this spot, Cohen overcame many challenges. A speech impediment. A New York accent. Not having a father in the business, as some other broadcasters do.
Now, he’s in the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame for his work in the industry. Aspiring broadcasters look up to him. Fans look forward to hearing him on TV.
Regardless of his success, Cohen has retained a drive to improve. “I think fear of failure is a fantastic motivator,” he said. He prepares as hard for the next game as he did the last. He couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.
The job keeps him busy, calling game after game in city after city, but he still manages to stop and appreciate his journey.
“I never take any of this for granted,” Cohen said. “I never take one day of this job and the position that I’ve been in for the last 32 years for granted. I am incredibly lucky to be doing something fun for a living that I would probably be doing for free if I didn’t have the job. I never forget where I’ve come from and how fortunate I am.”