Padres begin their first season in four decades without Jerry Coleman

Radio Broadcaster Jerry Coleman of the San Diego Padres poses for a portrait in the broadcasting booth prior to the game against the San Francisco Giants at Petco Park on August 18, 2012 in San Diego, California.

Jerry Coleman never fielded a ground ball in San Diego. Never slammed a home run. Never teamed with Phil Rizzuto… or Ozzie Smith, or Garry Templeton, or Alan Wiggins… to turn a double play.

Yet as the Padres this week open their first season without him since 1972, I’ll bet you several sackfuls of fish tacos that Padre fans will miss him this summer more than they ever missed Jake Peavy, Adrian Gonzalez or even – and I know this might be sacrilegous – Trevor Hoffman.

I’ve long maintained, in this era of free agency, that certain broadcasters are far more valuable to a franchise than nearly any individual player.

The players, most of them, come and go anymore. Today’s favorite is tomorrow’s July trade bait. Tonight’s giveaway jersey too often is next year’s dust rag.

It is a voice like Jerry Coleman’s that you can grow up with. Grow old to. Develop, solidify and then maintain your relationship with the Padres no matter how angry you were with the owner, how disenchanted you became with a trade or how exasperated you were with another uniform change ("I love the brown! I hate the brown! Love the blue! Hate the blue!").

In a disposable and ever-changing world, it can be emotionally dangerous to fall in love with a player. (Of course, love is blind and sneaks up when we least expect it and, well, by now the Seth Smith Fan Club undoubtedly has sprung up somewhere, right?).

But a beloved radio man? Or television voice?

That’s a different story.

For most of us who will spend a lifetime watching and listening to baseball, it is the voice coming out of that radio or television speaker who helps introduce us to the game. It is that voice who rides shotgun in our cars… who is there all summer when we’re battling with our parents, or arguing with our kids. A voice of calm. A voice of reason. A friend to join us in happy times, a voice to help make sense of things again when life goes off the rails.

In no other sport does an audience develop a relationship with a broadcaster as strongly as in baseball. It is impossible, because no other sport affords us the chance to build that relationship nightly.

The great ones either immediately strike a chord, or they quickly grow on you. And while life happens, they’re always there, at the turn of the dial or click of the remote.

It was Vin Scully who escorted Dodgers fans through the swamp of the Frank McCourt era and back into the light. The late Jack Buck was as much summer in St. Louis for generations as fireworks over the Mississippi River behind the Gateway Arch. Dave Niehaus in Seattle, Harry Caray in Chicago, Jon Miller in San Francisco.

Confession: When I moved to San Diego the first time, in the middle of the 1984 World Series season, I snapped on the radio and wondered who in the world this guy Coleman was. I had moved from, of all places, Michigan, not far from Tiger Stadium, home of the club that would knock off the Padres that October.

I grew up listening to the lyrical, soft-Georgia drawl of Ernie Harwell. When the Tigers clinched the 1972 pennant, the transistor radio was tucked under my pillow. When I worked a job during college summers at a state park and clocked in at 7 a.m. each day, I would set my alarm for about 12:30 a.m. when the Tigers were on the West Coast, wake up, listen to the last inning or two, and then re-set that alarm for six hours later and go back to sleep (hey, there was no Internet then and the score wouldn’t be in the morning paper!).

I once wrote Harwell during those college years, told him I was thinking of going into sports journalism and asked if maybe it would be possible to sit in his booth during a game and watch him work up close. Within a week, his secretary wrote back and asked whether that Sunday’s home game would be OK.

For an eager kid staring at a big world and an unknown future, it was unbelievable, like being invited into the Oval Office.

Years later, working in San Diego and having been among those fortunate to have orbited in Coleman’s world, I often thought back to those days. Especially when my wife and daughter and another mom-daughter friend combo visited me in Arizona a couple of springs ago.

As I was walking them through the Padres’ parking lot to the back fields one morning in Peoria, I stopped to show the security guard my press pass and explain that the four gals were with me.

Suddenly, a familiar, friendly voice I hadn’t seen approach from behind started speaking.

"These pretty ladies are all with me," Coleman told the security guard. "Let them through. But I don’t know who that guy is."

Priceless.

Each of us, in our own way, is going to miss the heck out of this guy all summer, and for many summers to come. And in case that had slipped your mind, I’m sure the point was driven home during Sunday night’s pre-game ceremony honoring our local legend.

It was tasteful, it was touching and the lump stuck in your throat. From Ted Leitner dropping the star out of the radio booth and giving it a wave to emcee Dick Enberg noting that "Jerry’s impact on this community was profound and Padres baseball will not be the same without him," highlights from the 41-year masterpiece Coleman painted went whizzing by all too fast.

Just like, it turns out, real life.

So as another baseball summer moves into focus, here’s a toast to voices past, and to voices present. Voices we’ve loved, voices we’ve listened to, voices we live with in our own homes. Listen to them. Treasure them. Hang a star on them.

They don’t stay with us as long as we’d like. They never do.

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Longtime national baseball columnist, Scott Miller, will be a weekly contributor to FOXSportsSanDiego.com, discussing the San Diego Padres and Major League Baseball. Follow Scott on Twitter at @ScottMillerBbl.