NEW YORK -- John Sterling's voice is instantly recognizable to any Yankees fan, and indeed to many Yankees haters. Deep, rounded and emotive, it has called thousands of games -- he has not missed one in more than two decades on the job.
On Wednesday, the voice was just the same, but the lines were slightly different.
"I predict the fur is going to fly."
"The winners will go nose to cute little nose in the championship game..."
"They don't look like they're kitten around!"
John Sterling was in a midtown studio to record his lines for the Kitten Bowl, the Hallmark Channel's new counterprogramming to the Super Bowl (and to Animal Planet's Puppy Bowl, which features a Kitty Halftime Show). Across the large room, 20-plus kittens frolic, play-fight, nap, rest and occasionally fall asleep in the litter box on the field of Kitten Stadium, a miniaturized football arena designed just for them. The three-hour show will be edited out of many hours of footage from a three-day shoot. Occasionally a referee comes to pet them and also call them for delay of game or "unkittenlike conduct."
"This is a very unusual day," Sterling tells me before his second day of taping begins. "I've never done anything like this before, and I've done everything."
* * *
Watching kitten football leads to some thorny philosophical questions about about the nature of games and rules. Are rules really "rules" if the players they govern have no idea those rules exist? If so, what does that say about the the human impulse to impose --
Awwwwww! Look at the kitties.
There are 70 kittens on set, all adoptable strays from the North Shore Animal League, most about 12 weeks old and at peak adorableness. If one of them drags a toy football into an end zone, that's a touchdown, though good luck explaining that to the participants -- never mind the idea of extra points via getting a toy through the uprights. (Extra points can also be awarded for "cuteness," which seems a far more promising strategy for these teams. "It's very biased," admitted one crew member.)
The Kitten Bowl is really more of a Kitten Playoffs: There are four kitten football teams, who by the time editing is complete will have "played," sort of, two qualifying games and then a championship, for a kibble-filled trophy.
Each of the teams has a similar scouting report: great speed and agility; an aggressive, physical style of play; an almost total lack of discipline; prone to silly penalties and to attacking the ref because he wears a dangling, shiny whistle; no passing game to speak of. Every few minutes they'll lose a player when he or she climbs the goalposts, leaps into the upper deck and walks on the crowd, requiring gentle retrieval by one of the shelter volunteers.
So there are issues with these teams' style of play, but I think we can all agree that the actual NFL would only be improved if it involved not only multiple footballs in play at one time, but also balls with flashing lights and maybe electronic mice.
Beth Stern, the model, animal-rights activist and wife of Howard, is the Kitty Bowl's host, a seasoned pro who reels off take after take while sitting on a literal field of kittens, with several using her as a jungle gym.
"Say, 'Touchdown, Terry Bradclaw!'" suggests one member of the crew.
"Noooo, he was a quarterback," protests another. (Presumably referring to Terry Bradshaw, and not his tiny namesake, who honestly looks more like a wide receiver.)
"Well, quarterbacks can score touchdowns."
"Touchdown, Terry Bradclaw!" says Stern.
* * *
How did Sterling, who has a cat named Stormy at home as well as a dog named Kahlua but, by his own potentially scandalous admission, is "more of a dog person," end up here? Simple enough: He's friends with Bill Abbott, President and CEO of the Hallmark Channel, who also happens to be a Yankees fan.
"He called me this summer," says Sterling, recounting their conversation. "'I'd like you to do something that's really offbeat. It'll be on tape, and it'll be on opposite the Super Bowl.' And I said, 'Oh good, it's not live, because I plan on watching the Super Bowl.' ... This conversation occurred before a game, before going on the air. I said, 'What is it?' He said, 'Well ... I'd rather tell your agent.'"
Sterling's co-broadcaster for this event is not Suzyn Waldman but Renee Herlocker, a TV host recently seen as ESPN's first sideline reporter at the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island. Among those stopping by the Kitten Bowl are Regis Philbin, Nicki Hilton, Rachel Rae and Hoda Kotb.
However unlikely he finds the whole enterprise, Sterling says he's enjoying himself. He has never seen the Puppy Bowl, and coming in -- Tuesday was his first of two days on set -- he says he didn't know what to expect. But unlike, for instance, a Yankees game, this is not a gig that requires much preparation.
"The production team has the job," he says. "What I'm doing is nothing. When they put it all together, when they paste all the words over the actions of the cats, it's a very cute idea.
"I'll call a couple of touchdowns, it's all kind of having fun with it ... and phrases -- "You're cat-atonic," or "It's a cat-astrophe!" Like that. Almost everything is a play on words."
The Kitten Bowl, in addition to being essentially heaven for cat lovers, is also a bounty for pun enthusiasts. This makes it something of a perfect match for Sterling, who's famous for his personalized wordplay-based home run calls. Kitten Bowl names (or more accurately, screen names), in addition to Terry Bradclaw, include Feline Manning, Lane Kitten, Feral Owens, Drew Breeds, Tomcat Brady, Mike Kitka, Tabby Romo and Troy Paw-lamalu.
Kitten Stadium has at least one other thing in common with Sterling's usual gig.
"Isn't that field unbelievable they put together?" he asks. "And another thing I love is, just like in stadiums where they use every available inch for advertising -- it is a business -- what they've done, to make the stadium look like a stadium, is they've put up little promos."
Information about the cost of premium field-level seats at Kitten Stadium was not available, but attendance seemed strong, at least going by the kitten tailgate in full swing in another corner of the studio, with tiny cardboard cars and toy barbeques.
* * *
The project is for a good cause, as well as good counterprogramming ratings: it's part of Hallmark's Pet Project, which supports humane treatment of animals and pet adoption.
If there's one thing that seems to have taken Sterling aback, it's the interest that his newest anouncing job has generated.
"I can't believe the attention it's gotten," he says. "I went to my gas station-coffee-newspaper place, and this fellow who I know well, another Yankees fan, he said, 'Oh, you're doing the Kitten Bowl? It's purrrrfect!' ... I can't imagine that people write about this."