In an 89-year life that would make even Walter Mitty jealous, Jerry Coleman was a hero of two wars, Joe DiMaggio's teammate, Mickey Mantle's roommate, a four-time World Series champion with some of the greatest Yankee teams of all time, a Major League manager, and finally -- what made him most beloved for thousands of Padre fans -- a broadcaster for almost 42 years.
His death on Sunday, the result of complications from a fall at his home, hit Padres fans (yes, they do exist) very hard. If anything represented San Diego baseball, it was Jerry Coleman. Tony Gwynn is the franchise's best player, but Jerry Coleman was the organization's most respected icon.
Coleman had been there through all the lows -- and there have been many of them -- and some of the rare highs, moments made more special because Coleman was there to call them.
"Nettles to Wiggins, and the Padres have won the National League Pennant! Oh, Doctor!" was Coleman's call in 1984 when San Diego upset the Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series to advance to its first World Series.
I vividly remember exactly where I was when I heard Coleman utter those words. As a young boy growing up in south San Diego, I had the responsibility of being the scorekeeper for my father's semi-pro men's adult league team in Tijuana. It so happened that one of the games fell on the same day as the deciding Game 5. I never thought twice about skipping out on my scorekeeping responsibilities, because I knew Coleman would describe the game to me on the radio as well as anyone would on television. So I took my small G.I. Joe transistor radio and listened to the game while in the dugout keeping score.
I excitedly listened to Coleman describe San Diego's surprising late-inning comeback. Then, when the game was coming to a close, the group of semi-pro players gathered around my little radio to hear Coleman's call of those final outs. When it was over, we all jumped up and down in joy, knowing that our lovable losing Padres had finally made it to the World Series.
From that moment on, I tried to relive Nettles to Wiggins again and again in my backyard by bouncing a tennis ball against the wall and pretending I was making that final out throw to second base. Nettles to Wiggins. Each time I would shout "Oh, Doctor!" pretending that Coleman was using his signature catch phrase. If I close my eyes now, I can still hear Coleman's call rattle around in my head.
Coleman's death is truly an end of an era in San Diego sports history, one of those heartbreaking signs that life moves on more quickly than you hope or wish that it would.
Coleman wasn't the greatest game caller, and his mistakes become almost legendary -- at times he'd mistake a shallow pop fly for a fly ball to the warning track -- but that wasn't the point. Every night for 162 games, during his peak game calling years, you could count on Coleman to describe the action, to bring you close to the games on the days and nights when you were at school, or working, or were supposed to be asleep in bed but instead had snuck a small G.I. Joe transistor radio into your bed to listen to the final few innings.
Announcers play a unique role in people's lives. They are the caretakers of the game. For many fans, announcers become as important as the players themselves.
Of course the dynamic has changed. Technology has brought new ways to track games. In Coleman's day, most games weren't televised, so you were forced to listen to the radio in order to know what was happening on the field. But that wasn't a bad thing. You wanted to listen to Coleman. You wanted to hear the "Oh Doctors!"
Now, most every game is televised, and fans can chose to watch on television, on their computer or on their smart phones or tablets. Fans on the East Coast can watch games from the West Coast. If you don't have the time to listen or watch, then there are gamecasts on most every major sports website. It's never been better to be a sports fan.
Yet the one constant is that while national broadcasts are often slicker and better produced, hometown announcers still play an important role. In reliving a historic moment, fans still want to hear the hometown call.
The Dodgers may very well win the World Series next year, and you can be assured that any Dodger fan worth their salt will want to hear Vin Scully call the final outs of the game rather than listen to the Fox broadcast.
That's the way it was with Coleman too. It wasn't an important San Diego baseball moment unless you heard him call it.
Sadly, despite having become a sports journalist, I never got to know Coleman. I was never fortunate enough to hear all of his stories. My career took me to the East Coast, and by the time I was lucky enough to cover major league games, Coleman didn't many of the trips out east anymore. I only saw him up close when he was able to make the trip out to Yankee Stadium for Old Timer's Day.
It was strange to see him in that context. I had only known him as associated with the Padres. But he had been a Yankee favorite, a slick-fielding second baseman who was well respected by fans, former teammates, and the Yankee organization itself, which always made it a point to mention his bravery during World War II and the Korean War, tours that had cut short his baseball career.
He wasn't just San Diego's Jerry Coleman.
Last year, to see him walk out onto the field in his Yankee uniform -- in slow measured steps because of old age, with a huge grin on his face, and with thousands of fans applauding -- made you understand that Jerry Coleman truly had lived an extraordinary life.