John Freeman Gill
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SEVENTH-INNING KVETCH
Seventh-Inning Kvetch

The airwaves of WFAN, New York's oldest sports-talk radio station, are a hearty aural stew of regular-Joe voices calling in from the five boroughs and beyond to offer up analysis and attitude about local sports teams. But the sharpest, sauciest voice of all, that of the preternaturally peevish Yankee fan known to hundreds of thousands of listeners as "Jerome from Manhattan," has been strangely silent this fall as the Yankees' season built to its history-making showdown with the Boston Red Sox.

Jerome Mittelman, an only-in-New-York bundle of frenzied rage, frustration and sports opinions, typically calls WFAN three or four times a week during the baseball season, often to subject his Yankees to the sort of searing, hurt-tinged critique usually reserved for one's closest friends and family. "He is the most manic Yankee fan in New York, because manic runs both hot and cold, up and down," said Jody McDonald, co-host, with Sid Rosenberg, of the WFAN midday show. "He can be overjoyed and likes to rub it in when the Yankees do well, but when they do poorly - and poorly for the Yankees is a relative term - he can get annoyed-slash-belligerent quickly."

To many listeners, Jerome from Manhattan's unself-conscious, Jackie Gleasonesque tirades are some of the funniest segments on New York radio. Mr. Mittelman knows his team, and his calls often begin with a calm, reasoned observation before igniting, within just a few syllables, into ear-splitting, apoplectic fury. "In radio we have a decibel meter, and if you go over 10 you're in the red," said Steve Somers, a WFAN host. "Jerome is always in the red."

But as the Yankees marched through the end of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs this month, into their decisive clash with the Red Sox, WFAN received just a single, short call from Mr. Mittelman, which he terminated abruptly. The station staff and callers alike found that his silence left a conspicuous hole in WFAN's programming. "A lot of people e-mail me, and call on the air on occasion, to ask where he is," Mr. Somers said.

Mr. Mittelman, it turns out, has been battling illness and is staying at his mother's Upper West Side apartment - located in the same building as his own - where he is caring for her. In a series of telephone interviews as brief and unpredictable as many of his on-air calls to WFAN, he explained that a recent bout of poor health (he suffers from epilepsy, diabetes and colitis) has kept him from calling.

But the mercurial 49-year-old fan expressed certainty, as the American League Championship Series got under way, that his beloved, accursed Yankees would soon fail. "I think they're gonna lose the whole thing," he said crankily, his voice coming in short, emphatic bursts. "Call me when they lose!"

A real-life caricature of Yankee Nation's anxiety, impatience and sense of entitlement, Mr. Mittelman can usually find something to fret about.

"There's very little that actually makes Jerome happy," said Mark Chernoff, the WFAN program director. "Even after the Yankees have won the World Series, Jerome would be on the air the next day saying he wonders which players are going to leave - so he's already looking at the negative side. One of our hosts' lines one year was, 'Jerome, can we have the parade first, before you're worried that they're not going to win the World Series next year?' ''

Mr. Mittelman's notoriety had already reached such heights a decade ago that a WFAN staffer put together a special introduction that Mr. Somers still plays before Jerome's every on-air call. A parody of "The Twilight Zone," the segment features an announcer who earnestly intones: "Picture a man sitting alone in his room: no family, no friends, just a phone and the sports section. A man obsessively pondering the fate of the Yanks, Jets and Knicks. His is a dimension of sight, of sound - but of no mind. There's a rubber room up ahead. You're entering ... The Jerome Zone."

Although WFAN maintains that it does not keep recordings of its programs, some of Jerome's classic calls give station employees such pleasure that they have kept them on their computers. In one much-replayed cut he screams with guttural, apocalyptic fervor that the Yankees are "done! D-O-E-N: DONE!"

On occasion, his molten ire has erupted into profanity, causing the station to ban him temporarily from its airwaves. "Then what Jerome does is call the newsroom constantly to talk sports," as often as eight times a day, Mr. Chernoff said.

"It almost doesn't matter if he's on the air or not," added Eddie Scozzare, a WFAN producer.

Rooting avidly for the Yankees provides Mr. Mittelman an escape from his day-to-day cares, said Sara Mittelman, a WFAN caller known as "Sara from the Bronx" who is a first cousin of Jerome from Manhattan. "It gives him something other than his own illnesses and his mom's illness to look forward to and to rally around," Ms. Mittelman explained. "He's a really good son and basically a really good, sweet person who loves sports."

Mr. Mittelman - who is about 5-foot-7 and balding, according to WFAN staffers who met him at a special broadcast from a Midtown bar last year - also possesses a raw, unaffected honesty that many find refreshing in an age of polished media personalities. "There is such a vulnerability there with him that you want to care about him," said Mr. Somers, who once sent Mr. Mittelman $60 to finance an imminent blind date.

"But he never had the date and never returned the $60," Mr. Somers recalled, laughing. "And I said, 'Jerome, what about my 60 bucks?' He said: 'No more!' ''

WFAN is such a big part of Mr. Mittelman's life that he has phoned even when hospitalized. On one such call, he interrupted himself to tell a nurse - and all New York - ''I need a gown, another gown, 'cause it's wet, and I'll put it on myself."

Given Mr. Mittelman's chattiness, his on-air silence during this fall's playoffs may underscore the severity of his health problems. Especially frustrating for such a die-hard fan, Mr. Mittelman said, was his doctor's decision to treat his epilepsy with a drug that hinders his watching the games on television. "I have to listen on the radio," Mr. Mittelman explained morosely. "Stupid doctor gave me a medicine. Making me see double. So stupid."

But after the Yankees bolted to a two-games-to-none series lead over the Sox, Mr. Mittelman's spirits perked up, even as he griped that the superintendent - the "stupid super" - was sending up heat into his mother's apartment. "I think the Yankees are gonna sweep 'em," he predicted.

Still, the long games seemed to take a toll on Mr. Mittelman. "I'm not feeling good," he groaned the day following the 12-inning Game 4. And finally, on Thursday, the day after the Yankees dropped their fourth straight game to cap the most colossal postseason collapse in baseball history, Mr. Mittelman grew downright bellicose. "The Yankees stink!'' he howled. "Get rid of Giambi! Get rid of the second baseman! Get rid of the whole team!'' Then, overhearing his mother talking on the telephone about his Social Security disability payments, he hollered: "Don't give me the check! Send it to the Yankees! Get more players!''

Despite Mr. Mittelman's animation at home, however, his on-air silence at WFAN has grown deafening. "We need Jerome here at the Fan because in the last 12 months we lost Doris from Rego Park," said Mr. McDonald, referring to the death of another well-known caller.

Indeed, Mr. Mittelman's caustic, top-of-the-lungs voice is as much a part of the aural texture of New York baseball history as the former Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto yelling "Holy cow!" after a home run or Russ Hodges, the New York Giants radio announcer, shouting in 1951: "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!"

"There are probably a few hundred thousand listeners who know who Jerome is, and maybe some tens of thousands of those will remember him years from now," Mr. Scozzare said. "A small sample of humanity, but still, probably more than most of us are remembered by."





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