When Lifetime network begins its WNBA coverage tonight, Suzyn Waldman steps closer to another broadcasting first. After five years as a television baseball announcer, after a dozen years as a radio sportscaster, just three weeks remain before she will finally walk into a arena without hearing grumbles and catching stares.
She will be a woman play-by-play announcer crossing over from a man's sport to broadcast a women's professional event on the self-proclaimed network for women.
You go, girl.
"It makes it very special," said Waldman, 52, the first professional woman announcer in baseball and a longtime reporter for New York's famed WFAN-AM. "It's probably the first time where you aren't fighting the 'woman' stigma. People aren't saying, 'You're taking a job from a real announcer.' "
Waldman, the former off-Broadway actress (who earned raves here 20 years ago as Aldonza opposite Richard Kiley's Don Quixote in "Man of La Mancha" at the late Stanley Theater), won't be behind the microphone at 8 tonight for the Houston-Orlando broadcast. That duty falls to Lifetime's A-team: Michele Tafoya, Mary Murphy and halftime host Maura Driscoll. Yet Lifetime needed to add an announcing team because of its hectic schedule of 11 regular-season games, the All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden and three playoff dates.
So it hired former WNBA player Fran Harris and USA Today columnist Christine Brennan as color commentators, former water skiing champion Camille Duvall-Hero as halftime host and the most respected woman announcer of the generation as play-by-play voice. They will work their first of four scheduled broadcasts on July 2, Sacramento at Washington.
"Very much so, I'm looking forward to this," Waldman said during a Yankees homestand, when she wasn't covering a game for radio or broadcasting one of her 30 TV games (with Ken Singleton and Jim Kaat on MSG, Tim McCarver and Bobby Murcer on Fox Sports Net N.Y.). "Particularly because it's Lifetime, it's an audience that needs to be taught and entertained. You have to make them fans of the sport. Lifetime obviously isn't a sports network. You're bringing in a new audience and their children. It's reminiscent to me of the 1950s, when the NBA was really getting going. The announcers were the ones who taught the game and brought in the fans, with Johnny Most and Chick Hearn. They not only taught the game, they gave fans the personalities to hang onto."
Waldman knows about personalities. She was one.
For 15 years, she performed in off-Broadway musicals such as "No, No Nanette." The New York Times loved her in "Nine." Then there was that Pittsburgh showing of "La Mancha," when she managed to slip in the national anthem during the Pirates-Orioles World Series. A native of the Boston area, meaning she dies a little each Red Sox fall, Waldman worked so many anthems that she became the modern-day Kate Smith -- the Knicks at one point went 20-0 behind her.
Because she already was attending games, and because ESPN used her as a free-lance broadcaster, Waldman put in a resume when country station WHN-AM turned into the nation's first all-sports station. Just before 3 p.m. on July 1, 1986, after disc jockey Dan Taylor spun Ray Price's "For the Good Times," the first sporting voice heard on WFAN was Suzyn Waldman giving the first update. Then came Jim Lampley's show.
Soon after, she was an everyday reporter, covering the Knicks and Yankees. In 1992, St. John's asked her to call one of its men's basketball games on radio. In 1993, the Mets asked her to fill in as the TV color commentator at Houston, making her a baseball trailblazer -- Mary Shane in 1977 was a Chicago White Sox radio-TV announcer in a one-time publicity stunt by the gimmick-meister Bill Veeck. Waldman made her Mets debut June 4, 1993, nearly two full months before former ESPN and NBC sportscaster Gayle Gardner worked play-by-play for the Colorado Rockies.
That Waldman cameo led to a handful of games for The Baseball Network in 1994, then the gig as part-time Yankees play-by-play.
Gayle Sierens called play-by-play on an NBC Kansas City-Tampa Bay football game in 1987. Leandra Reilly did the same on a SportsChannel NBA game the next year. The fluff and poof provided by long-ago CBS studio ornaments Phyllis George and Jayne Kennedy notwithstanding, the standard for women sportscasters nationally was set in the 1970s and 1980s by Jane Chastain, Lee Arthur (once of KDKA-TV) and Andrea Kirby.
Waldman belongs in that girl group because of her New York stories. Within the past year, she has broken the news about the trade for Roger Clemens, brokered the peace-making reunion between Yankees boss George Steinbrenner and Yogi Berra, escorted Darryl Strawberry to chemotherapy -- she's a breast-cancer survivor herself.
Nowadays, she's a Lifetime Lady, and loving it. She and her broadcast teammates have worked practice games already, and she can feel the camaraderie, the lack of whispers and eyes and snide comments.
"It's the first time you walk into a control room or an arena and you feel welcome," Waldman said.
At long last, she is a real announcer.
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