A July 4th without John Sterling is like a firecracker without a match

Wallace Matthews
TORONTO, ON - MARCH 31: John Sterling the radio play-by-play announcer of the New York Yankees during batting practice before the start of MLB game action against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre on March 31, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** John Sterling
Yankees radio play-by-play man John Sterling will miss his first game in 30 years on Thursday due to health woes.

NEW YORK — John Sterling can’t remember the last time he didn’t work on his birthday.

After all, he was born on July 4 and for the better part of the past four decades his life has been calling baseball games.

And baseball, especially Yankee baseball, is as much a part of the Fourth of July as a Roman candle.

But Sterling will certainly remember this birthday, his 81st, because it will be the first one on which he has not called a Yankee game since he began working as their radio play-by-play voice in 1989.

Sterling likes to say he called every pitch thrown to Derek Jeter and every pitch thrown by Mariano Rivera. He has worked through minor illness and exhaustion, family functions and at least 30 July 4th barbecues. By one tally, Wednesday night’s game between the Yankees and Mets at Citi Field was his 5,060th consecutive game, which is almost 300 games, or roughly two seasons, more than the streaks of Cal Ripken and Lou Gehrig combined. For the past 30 years, he has missed just one game, in his first season, when he took a day off to attend the funeral of his sister.

For an entire generation of Yankee fans, John Sterling’s mellifluous voice has been the soundtrack of the summer.

But not this July 4, because for the first time since George H.W. Bush sat in the White House, while the Yankees are playing the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg, John Sterling will be at home in Edgewater, N.J.

For the first time in his career, John Sterling does not feel well enough to go to work.

And it will not be a one-day absence; Sterling will miss the Yankees’ entire four-game game series against the Rays, and then will get an additional four days off for the All-Star break. He will miss another game on July 16, when the Yankees face the Rays at home, to have a medical procedure performed that he hopes will set him right for the rest of the season.

But believe me when I tell you that a circumstance that would fill most people with joy -- a day off -- is the last thing John Sterling wants for his birthday.

“I’m really looking forward to not having to get on a plane this weekend,’’ Sterling told me while preparing for Wednesday’s broadcast. “All I have to do is make it through today and I’ll be fine.’’

Over the past month or so, Sterling has been “under the weather,’’ as he puts it. For years a daily lap swimmer, Sterling has found his energy sapped and his appetite diminished. He no longer feels well enough to drive himself to work and has been taking a car service to and from Yankee Stadium. The suits of the best-dressed man in radio now hang loosely on his frame as if they were originally purchased for someone else.

Sterling’s doctors haven’t pinpointed exactly what has been troubling him, but his diminished energy, weakened voice and significant weight loss have been noticeable to his longtime colleagues and friends.

But as Suzyn Waldman, his broadcast partner of the last 15 years, said on Wednesday, “No matter what’s going on with him, once the microphone goes on, he’s John.’’

That means a compendium of his trademark home run calls, his own brand of quirky humor and a dash of Broadway show tunes thrown in. Sterling loves baseball -- he loves all sports, for that matter -- but he has never lost sight of the fact that no matter how “important’’ the game, sports are just entertainment, and entertainment is supposed to be fun.

And while some professional media critics, and more than a few fans, love to pick his calls apart for not being reverent enough to the games, Sterling is held in high regard by those who have worked with or alongside him over the past three decades.

“Over the same time you haven’t missed a game, I’ve missed about 200,’’ Gary Cohen, the Mets TV play-by-play voice, told him before Wednesday’s game.

Howie Rose, Sterling’s counterpart on Mets radio broadcasts, fondly tells the story of coming across Sterling arguing with his car, which refused to start, outside Nassau Coliseum on a frigid night when Sterling was the voice of the Islanders and Rose a college student aspiring to the same profession.

“I realize it’s the coldest night of the year,’’ Rose recalls Sterling saying to his car, with that inimitable inflection, “But how could you choose tonight to do this to me?’’

And when the apartment building Sterling lived in burned down a few years ago, destroying not only his Yankees World Series rings, his Emmy awards and his beloved collection of Sinatra records, his many friends came to the rescue.

The Yankees replaced the rings, WPIX replaced the Emmys, and several baseball writers paid to buy him an iPod -- a technological mystery for a man who neither owns a computers nor has ever sent an email -- pre-loaded with the entire Sinatra catalog.

(On a personal note, during a recent period of unemployment Sterling called me once a week “just to check in,’’ and when after two years I got hired by the New York Daily News to write a column, his was the first congratulatory call I got).

Waldman and Sterling eat dinner together before every game and during the season spend more time together than most married couples. As in most relationships that close, there are rocky times, but Waldman says, “John doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.’’

For Waldman -- who has her own sterling record of work attendance, missing just one game every year to observe Yom Kippur -- this will be the first July 4th in 15 years not spent with Sterling. On Thursday, she will call the game alongside Ryan Ruocco.

“It will certainly be different,’’ she said.

Different for all of us. Although Sterling now says, “The streak doesn’t mean anything to me,’’ those who know him understand how proud he was of his work ethic and his ability to make every game sound as if it were the first one he ever called.

“His voice, his calls, I try to listen to them every night,’’ Yankees manager Aaron Boone said on Tuesday.. “If I go back and want to see certain plays, certain highlights, I always love hearing it with a John Sterling call.’’

Sterling said he expects that these four days off, followed by the All-Star break, will be enough to restore him to good enough health to finish out the season strong.

“I really can’t complain,’’ he said. “I’ve been blessed with 80 years of good health.’’

Hopefully, he’ll have 80 more.

And even if he won’t be calling a Yankee game this July 4th, you can bet John Sterling will be doing what for him is the next best thing.

Listening to one.