TORONTO — Before a recent Blue Jays game, Jerry Howarth strolled onto the turf at Rogers Centre, walked down the side of the diamond and held a long glance out at the field.
The venue still feels like home for the longtime broadcaster, who retired last February after 36 years with the team.
“For years, every now and then, once or twice a season, I would purposely go down by myself somewhere in the ballpark and hope nobody found me,” Howarth said. “It was just to reflect upon my blessings, the ballpark I was in, the career that I’ve had, the opportunity to call games.
“Then by quiet reflection, I could think about where my career had taken me up until that particular point because sometimes we forget in the quickness of the moment to do that. Enjoy the moment.”
Now 72, Howarth is still a regular at the ballpark. He tries to make it down at least once a series, more for the social aspect than anything.
Howarth works the area during batting practice like the King of Kensington. Smiling and jovial, he catches up with players, coaches and broadcasters from both teams along with fans and stadium staffers.
Easy to spot in his trademark golf shirt, khakis and running shoes, Howarth knows almost everyone by name. The difference this season is the thick spiral notebook is no longer by his side and he’s not in game preparation mode.
Howarth announced in February that he would not return to the broadcast booth this season. He made the decision due to health issues that affected his voice in recent years.
“No regrets at all about my decision or missing it,” Howarth said. “I have just really enjoyed what I’ve done. Baseball is still part of my life but now I don’t have that routine and discipline and I’m OK with that.”
In 2016, a small tumour was discovered when Howarth underwent a magnetic resonance imaging scan after learning he had elevated prostate-specific antigen test numbers. The tumour and his prostate gland were removed and doctors declared Howarth cancer-free after the procedure.
He returned to the booth last season but had to miss 21 games after a virus led to laryngitis. Nasal congestion issues continued and Howarth’s sleep patterns fluctuated after surgery.
He would aim for his usual eight hours of sleep but found himself getting up 4-5 times a night. It led to a tired voice and he would often become fatigued in the evening.
“I told young broadcasters who would send me their work, rest is just as important as any homework you can do,” Howarth said. “If you can apply that rest to your voice, you’re just sharper in what you do. That began to break down for me a little bit. It helped lend itself to my retirement.”
Howarth, a husband, father and grandfather, now has more time to spend with family and said he “couldn’t be happier.” He has also rediscovered his love for duplicate bridge and usually plays two or three times a week.
“I like the competitiveness and the preparation,” he said. “It’s like a broadcast. The irony is when you broadcast, all you do is talk. But in bridge, you don’t talk at all.”
Howarth, a native of York, Pa., began his broadcast career in 1974 with the Tacoma Twins of the Pacific Coast League. He joined the Blue Jays in 1981 and has called Toronto home ever since, eventually becoming a Canadian citizen.
Howarth called Toronto’s back-to-back World Series victories in 1992 and 1993 with Tom Cheek, who died in 2005 from brain cancer. Howarth worked the Sportsnet 590 The Fan booth last season with Joe Siddall and Mike Wilner.
Ben Wagner, who called games for the Blue Jays’ triple-A affiliate, was named Howarth’s replacement last month.
“I like Ben a lot,” Howarth said. “What I’m really happy about is, No. 1, he got the job after 14 years in the minor leagues, 11 in Buffalo. Ben is a real pro. He works well with whomever is around him. He’s going to get better and better. He’s got a good style and a good pace. He works hard at it and he’s knowledgeable.
“He’s 37. I began here when I was 35 and 36 years later I retired. He can have that same kind of career.”
When Howarth was on the job, his preparation was meticulous. He would peruse online baseball stories for two hours in the morning before arriving at the stadium in mid-afternoon. From there, he would take in pre-game availabilities and conduct interviews before heading upstairs to review notes and eventually call the game.
“Before there were computers, when I would go on the road I would go to every city’s public library and I would ask for 30 newspapers for the last 30 days,” Howarth said. “They would give them to me, truck them out to the table. I’d go through 30 sports sections for the previous month, take notes, I’d say thank you, and that was my preparation for the team we were playing that night in any city because there was no Internet.
“All that was important to me because I was only as good as the confidence I had on the air. The reason I had confidence on the air was because I was well-prepared to do my best.”
Now that he’s retired, Howarth will often watch a couple innings on television before turning on the radio broadcast. Sometimes he’ll skip the game altogether and watch the condensed half-hour version on TV the next day.
When asked about his long run as the voice of the Blue Jays, one particular moment came to mind. Howarth’s eyes moistened at the recollection.
“The one reflection I had was at the end of my 30th year, it was a home game here, I drove home by myself,” he said. “I kind of mentally patted myself on the back. I said, ‘Jerry, you just completed 30 years as a major-league broadcaster. Whatever else you do from here will be a bonus.’ And six bonus years later, I retired.
“I almost get teary-eyed about it because I never dreamed that I would be a major-league announcer, let alone for one team and the first team. That told me, be content where you are.”
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press