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They've never slapped a 3-2 fastball through a drawn-in infield, broken up a double play, or handled a tricky carom in the left-field corner, but you'd be hard-pressed to find three guys at Yankee Stadium who are more consistently on their game than Bob Sheppard, Eddie Layton, and Robert Merrill. The Murderer's Row of the Stadium sound system has been entertaining the masses a lot longer than Mantle, Mattingly, or Martinez ever did, and is as much a part of the sensory experience at the Big Ballyard as the sight of the right-field porch swallowing up another fly ball, the smell of spilled Budweiser in the corridors, or the sound of the Bleacher Creatures chanting, "Der-ek Jee-ter, Der-ek Jee-ter."
Sheppard is working his 51st season as the Yankees' public-address announcer, Layton is enjoying his 36th as the team's organist, and this is the 29th year that Merrill has been called on to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" or "America the Beautiful" before Opening Day, Old-Timers Day, and other important events. That's a combined 116 years of service, if you're scoring at home.
"Talk about long-term deals," Jeter says with a chuckle. "Maybe those guys have something on the Boss. Pictures of him doing things he shouldn't have been doing."
Think of a moment that has had Yankees fans rising to their feet, breaking into smiles, or dabbing at their eyes, and Sheppard, Layton, or Merrill likely played a part in it. In October 1951, when Joe DiMaggio stepped into the batter's box for the last time, it was Sheppard who introduced him. When the final game was played in the old Stadium before it closed for renovations in 1973, it was Layton who played "Auld Lang Syne" as souvenir hunters jumped up and down on the wooden seats in an attempt to break off pieces. And in 1979 when the stands were awash in grief during a tribute to Thurman Munson, who had just died in a plane crash, it was Merrill who raised goosebumps with his powerful rendition of "Ave Maria."
If the goings-on at the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue are baseball's version of a Cecil B. De Mille production, then Sheppard, Layton, and Merrill are its soundtrack. And if the Stadium is, as many have suggested, a sports cathedral, well, feel free to call them its Holy Trinity.
"They're treasures," says first baseman Tino Martinez. "The longer you're here, the more you appreciate them."
And if absence makes the heart grow fonder, then the Yankees and their fans were appreciating Sheppard even more after recent events. The Voice of Yankee Stadium fell victim to laryngitis during the fourth inning of the June 2 game against Cleveland. He was relieved by Yanks PR man Rick Cerrone, who also took over duties the next day. Sheppard returned on June 6, but it was just plain weird to hear another voice announce the linueps. It was odd for Sheppard as well: "After 50 years and three months of never missing a game because of illness [he thinks he's missed about a half-dozen all time for weddings and funerals and such], it came as a shock to come down with laryngitis. It reminded me of how blessed I have been."
About an hour before the first pitch of a game against the Red Sox, Sheppard is sitting in his tiny booth on the press level behind home plate and arranging his notes. "Ah, yes, the imitations of me," he says, fully aware that anyone worth his weight in Yankee paraphernalia has a Sheppard imitation at the ready. (Merrill even dusted off his version while speaking about his colleague.) "Are they a compliment? Yes. Tiresome? Sometimes. Reggie Jackson does a good Bob Sheppard. But [ESPN broadcaster] Jon Miller is the best because he's the only one who manages to get the Stadium echo into his shtick."
Miller's best bit is his take on Sheppard ordering breakfast. "And one day when my wife and I were down in St. Thomas, we went into a restaurant," says Sheppard, who last year was honored with a plaque in Monument Park. "I told the waitress, 'I'll have the Number One. Scrambled eggs, buttered toast, and black coffee. Number one.' My wife looked at me and said, 'You sound like Jon Miller's imitation.' I wasn't conscious of the fact that I was ordering the same way I'd introduce Billy Martin."
During a game, Sheppard's voice emerges from the giant speaker in center field, but it seems to be descending from the heavens. Jackson once said it sounds like the voice of God. It can make anything sound important, from a warning to stay off the field to an acknowledgment of the sponsor on one of those giveaway days. ("The Yankees and their fans say, 'Thank you, Frito-Lay.' ") When you first meet Sheppard, his simple greeting of "It's nice to see you" sounds as though it's being announced to 55,000 people during the seventh game of the World Series.
Two years ago, on the day DiMaggio's monument was unveiled and Paul Simon made a surprise appearance in the outfield to sing a couple of verses of "Mrs. Robinson," Sheppard read the same starting lineups that he did before Game 6 of the 1951 World Seriesthe Yankee Clipper's farewell. Some of those old enough to have remembered that Fall Classic said they closed their eyes and thought they'd gone back in time. Sheppard's sound and style hadn't changed at all.