HOLY MACKINAW! BOWEN ON AN ISLAND OF HIS OWN
Joe Bowen stood in the press box at the Gale Centre in Niagara Falls, Ont., when a young fellow approached from the stands and asked for an autograph.Then came the kids, one after another, taking pictures, happily taking selfies with Bowen, excitedly finding a celebrity of significance on the first day of Maple Leafs training camp.Most of the kids approaching Bowen seemed to be under the age of 12. Probably few of them have heard him do a game on television. But I happened to ask one of them if they knew who he was.Without mentioning Bowen’s name, he said: “He’s the voice of the Leafs.”I thought of that as the young man spoke and of the reverence with which he said that. The voice of the Leafs, soon to be presented with the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award at the Hockey Hall of Fame. Teams are supposed to have voices. That’s always been part of the attraction.When you heard Vin Scully, it didn’t matter what the game was, you thought Los Angeles Dodgers.When you heard Ernie Harwell, it was Detroit Tigers. When you heard Johnny Most mumbling, he was mumbling about the Boston Celtics. And when Chick Hearn did a game, it had to be the Los Angeles Lakers.It’s a remarkable attraction: when a man and his voice in some ways become as powerful and as popular as those who play the game. Especially voices attached to home teams. Our teams.The way Bowen has been attached to the Leafs on radio and on television and foolishly not on television anymore.And then I started thinking about this detached Blue Jays season, a season of disappointment and despair, and it almost makes sense that Jerry Howarth hasn’t been part of it.The disconnect just became more official without Howarth being there, without that sound and feel, and it became more real to me as the Jays put out lineups on a nightly basis that led to a major-league lead in attendance drop.Is there a voice of the Blue Jays today? Tom Cheek has long passed away. This is the first season without Howarth and rather than trust strong broadcasters on radio or television for this first season without Howarth, Rogers treated the season in the same manner the Blue Jays treated their outfield: with a rotating cast.Bringing out a different lineup on radio and a different lineup on television regularly and all that is a disservice to a public that watches and listens and is all but trained to be part of the process.Sometimes the television lineup has Buck Martinez doing play by play and Pat Tabler doing colour. Sometimes it has the exceptional Dan Shulman doing play by play and either Martinez or Tabler doing colour. And sometimes all three of them are there.You turn on your television on any given baseball night and you’re not sure who is doing what, except the occasional yelling for a ball to get out of the park.It’s no different from the radio side. Ben Wagner, the Blue Jays’ rookie of the year, was brought in from Buffalo to do play by play alongside the venerable Mike Wilner, unless Shulman is doing the play by play, unless some ex-Blue Jay is brought in to do some innings of colour. It’s not very apparent to the listening public who the radio crew is on any given night.So who is the voice of the Blue Jays? I’d prefer it to be Shulman, as I suspect most baseball watchers would, but he does some TV and does some radio and not enough of either while busy working his baseball and basketball assignments for ESPN.Truth is, right now there is no voice of the Blue Jays, which may be appropriate considering the state of the team and that the face of the franchise won’t be here until April.And at the same time, there is no real radio voice of the Raptors, either, but that’s more the fault of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, where the combined ownership of Rogers and Bell have diminished its own product by the petty infighting of the two companies.They have one radio crew on Sportsnet 590 The Fan. They have another radio crew on TSN 1050. On any given night, you have to be a mind reader to know which station has the game on (the same applies to Leafs games on radio). And they have Matt Devlin doing play by play on Sportsnet and TSN, but with a crossover of colour commentators and announcers.So who is the voice of the Raptors with Chuck Swirsky and “T-Mac to the rack” long gone? It’s probably Devlin, but that’s no slam dunk. For all of us, that becomes a personal question about what you hear or how you feel.For me, it’s probably Jack Armstrong, who doesn’t work on all the broadcasts, television or radio. But the division of networks and radio stations and ownership squabbles has made it that way.The Blue Jays, under one ownership group, can and should fix this.Having no voice in a year of having not much of a team is unnecessary confusion for everyone.Teams are supposed to have voices. That’s always been part of the attraction.
Toronto Maple Leafs radio play-by-play man Joe Bowen is a rare highlight in the city’s sports broadcasting landscape, laments Steve Simmons.
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