Wednesday, Jan 22 2014 06:00 AM

Roadrunner Connection: Hanging one last star for Jerry Coleman

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Corey Costelloe

"Remember kid, heroes are remembered, but legends never die."

Remember that line from the 1990's baseball film "The Sandlot"? The "ghost" of Babe Ruth visiting the dreams of Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez when he was debating whether or not to jump the fence and get the doomed baseball out of the jaws of 'the beast'?

Despite the cinematic cheesy-ness of the scene, it really is a great line that does have some real-life application.

Recently, we learned of the passing of a true American hero and one of the finest men ever to grace a broadcast microphone, the legendary Jerry Coleman. Longtime radio voice of the San Diego Padres, former big league player, manager and a decorated veteran of two foreign wars.

I never met the man personally. I was, however, connected to his voice thanks not only to my time spent living in San Diego and getting hooked on Padres baseball, but through other means, including, as fate would have it, going to college with his granddaughter who was the first woman I met while attending Point Loma Nazarene University. We became friends and still keep in touch today.

I use the term "hero" for Coleman not in the same sense normally reserved for baseball players and broadcasters. For those of you that might not know, he put his baseball career on hold two times to serve his country, both in WW II and Korea, flying over 120 air combat missions providing fire support for the boots on the ground.

When he was 18 he left the minor leagues for the Marine Corps, becoming a distinguished Navy pilot shortly thereafter. He returned from World War II and eventually broke into the big leagues with the New York Yankees, playing in six World Series, winning four and taking even more time out of his career in the 1950s to fly in the Korean conflict. He's the only Major League player ever to see combat in two wars and was decorated with two Distinguished Flying Crosses for his efforts.

The man returned to baseball but retired in 1957, becoming a front office staffer, then a broadcaster for the Yankees. He came out to California to join the Angels broadcast team before being convinced to go to San Diego in the early 1970s. It was there he would make is mark with his trademark calls of "Oh Doctor!" and "You can hang a star on that one, baby!" They nicknamed him "The Colonel" because of his service as a Lieutenant Colonel in the military and his demeanor around the ballpark.

I always enjoyed sitting in right field when the Padres played at Qualcomm Stadium. When a spectacular play was made, the usher in the section, Sterling, had a big star hanging from a fishing pole he would pull out and wave around in tribute to Coleman's trademark words. I loved that star.

Jerry Coleman wasn't the most famous announcer in baseball, but he was one of a kind for sure. He stuck with the Padres organization despite the fact that they lost far more than they won. He even managed the team for one of their worst seasons in 1980. I'm sure he was happy to return to the broadcast booth after that.

Coleman's grace and elegance on air taught this young broadcaster about professionalism and hard work simply by listening to him. I also learned that becoming a legend requires more than talent and dedication.

His granddaughter, who started her career in baseball at the lowest levels, once told me she took that route instead of using her family connections because she wanted to earn her place on her own. I guess she felt that if the Colonel never took a shortcut in life, why should she?

Ted Leitner, Coleman's longtime broadcast partner and someone I've come into contact with recently because of his other job as a college sports announcer, told me in an email this past week that "Colonel Coleman was the greatest man I ever knew and we were lucky to have him around for so long."

The fiber of one's being is woven from the fabric provided by those that have surrounded and influenced them on life's journey. Jerry Coleman influenced me simply by listening to him. I'll never be the caliber announcer he was, and I certainly won't measure up in the legend category either. If I can pull a fraction in either one of those chapters, I'll be happy.

Heroes are remembered, but legends never die.

And you can hang a star on that.

COREY COSTELLOE, a Tehachapi High graduate, is Director of New Media and Broadcasting for California State University, Bakersfield.

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