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Jerry Coleman's Actions Speak Louder Than His Colemanisms

April 20, 1985|DAVE DISTEL | Times Staff Writer

When an artist makes a mistake, he slaps some more paint on his easel. When a film director makes a mistake, he leaves it on the cutting room floor. When a waiter makes a mistake, he takes it back to the kitchen.

Indeed, I made a mistake in the first paragraph. I misspelled the word "mistake" in the very first sentence. I knew right away it was wrong, so placed the cursor over the offending letter and wiped it off the computer screen.

Most of us have the luxury of correcting our mistakes before anyone else knows about them.

Jerry Coleman doesn't.

When the Padres' director of broadcasting gets his syntax twisted, the malaprop dives irretrievably into his microphone. He cannot cover the microphone or pull a plug or somehow intercept his words in mid-air. They are gone.

And dozens of delighted listeners will scribble the latest "Colemanism" onto a waiting pad of paper. They collect poor Jerry's verbal mishaps like others collect stamps or coins or autographs or baseball cards. And Colemanisms get circulated and re-circulated, some of them becoming funnier--and less accurate--with each telling.

All of this mirth at Jerry Coleman's expense really has not been fair to the man himself.

Colemanisms have caused their namesake to be perceived as a buffoon of sorts. You expect Jerry Coleman to be the kind of guy who would wear a Hawaiian shirt, a polka-dot bow tie and plaid pants to a formal dinner. You expect him to have an attache case full of comic books and gum stuck on the bottoms of his shoes.

If you expect Steve Martin or Soupy Sales, you'd never pick Coleman out of a lineup. Instead, pick the impeccably dressed man who looks like he could travel comfortably in the most elite of social circles. Pick the man with the aura of class about him.

That would be Jerry Coleman.

I suppose I should make it clear that I am not saying that looks are deceiving. I am not saying that Coleman could step into a telephone booth with a coat and tie and step out dressed as Ronald McDonald. I am not saying he is a clown who simply likes to look nice on the way to the circus.

What I am saying is that Colemanisms create a mistaken and perhaps unfair impression of the man. He is a man with quiet dignity, a gentleman whose demeanor commands respect. He's simply a very pleasant man to be around.

Not that he can be considered a good ol' boy to have along for a good ol' time. He is a private man whose favorite "restaurant" on the road is probably his hotel room. Give him room service and a good book.

"And he reads the heavy stuff," said Tommy Jorgensen, the producer on Padre broadcasts. "No junk. He'll read something on the history of the Vietnam War or The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire before he'll ever read The Betsy."

Jorgensen, and the others who are part of the Padres' broadcast team, are fiercely loyal to Coleman.

"I'd practically kill for the man," Jorgensen said.

And it all has to do with Coleman's willingness to go out of his way for virtually anyone else who needs help. Jorgensen was feeling ill in Philadelphia last year and Coleman insisted that he go to the hospital, even though it was 3 a.m.

"Not only did he insist," Jorgensen said, "but he went with me. He sat with me for hours."

Jorgensen returned to San Diego and underwent heart bypass surgery. Coleman called him every day during his weeks and months of recuperation.

Little things like that go unreported because Coleman is a private man. No one knows how many unemployed broadcasters have been steered toward jobs by Jerry Coleman. I have never heard him talk about his two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Air Medals and three Navy Citations from his days as a pilot in World War II and Korea.

Do you know what he did the night the Padres opened the 1985 season in San Francisco? A friend happened to own a minor league team playing north of the Bay Area in a hamlet named Rohnert Park. Would Coleman be so kind as to do a few innings of the broadcast to promote the opener? Sure, but no fanfare.

The man has no pretenses. And little ego.

Coleman played for some of the great New York Yankee teams and also served as the Yankees' director of personnel. He has done network radio and television work. He has managed in the major leagues.

Guess who functions as the expert analyst on Padre broadcasts? Not Jerry Coleman. Dave Campbell handles the analysis.

"He's structured our set-up so I come on and sound like the guru," Campbell said. "He's allowed me to expand my role so that we're almost equals."

Coleman is philosophical about egos and the broadcast booth.

"Everyone has an ego," he said. "You just have to know where to put it."

And Colemanisms can be bruising to the pride, if not the ego.

"I haven't seen the latest lists," Campbell said, "but I've seen some others. I've sat next to Jerry for a long time and I've got to say maybe 1 out of 10 (Colemanisms) is viable. It's like with Yogi Berra. If anyone says something dumb, it gets attributed to Yogi."

No one is denying that Coleman occasionally gets his tongue twisted, least of all Coleman himself.

"This isn't my favorite subject," he said, "but I've probably said a lot of the things people say I've said. We're on the air three hours times 200 games, and that's 600 hours of conversations. There have been times when I've said something I've known right away was wrong, but what could I do about it? It was gone."

There was, of course, nothing he could do about it.

"I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it," he said, "but I don't feel quite as dumb as they make me look."

That Colemanisms make him look dumb at all is an injustice. And I, for one, never want him to change. So what if the words get a little discombobulated once in awhile? Colemanisms, after all, are a part of Jerry Coleman.

But remember, a very small part.

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