Monday, April 13, 2009

And so the World Becomes a Little Less Magical. Remembering Harry Kalas

Last night, I checked on the score of the Phillies-Rockies game before bed, and read where Matt Stairs had hit a game-winning home run in the 9th inning. I went to the Phillies website, hoping to see the clip and hear Harry’s call. They had a clip of the hit, but it was the Rockies broadcasters making the call. I shook my head, hoping that they would have changed it by the time I woke up this morning. I really felt like I needed a dose of Harry. Living in Hawaii has it’s pleasures, but proximity to local Philadelphia telecasts and radio signals aren’t among them.

I got the news this morning when I logged onto my computer just seconds before my phone rang with confirmation of the news. At once, a very significant aspect of my life as a Philadelphia sports fan was forever changed.

Harry Kalas has died.

I am certain that in the coming days, writers of far greater skill than I will remember him and memorialize him. I am certain that the Philadelphia Phillies, for whom he was not only the voice, but in many ways the heart, will honor him appropriately. His family and friends will mourn and celebrate him. His fans will tell stories about where they were when they heard him call the 1980 World Series, or the 1993 National League Championship, or Mike Schmidt’s 500th Home Run, or even the Phillies winning the World Series this past year. They might even recall the night that the Phillies and Padres played until almost 5am, and the pitcher Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams had the game winning hit, as there were no players left to hit for him. They’ll remember how they felt when Harry’s longtime broadcast partner Richie Ashburn passed away, and now he and “Whitey” can watch the team from the best seats in the house. They’ll talk about how Harry died at work, getting ready to call today’s game with the Washington Nationals. Some might even say that his final call was a Phils win in which the team staged a 9th inning comeback, and how that is fitting.

But we will all do it in a world that is a little less magical than it was yesterday.

If you are not a sports fan, you may not understand. If you are not a Philadelphia fan, you may not understand. Harry Kalas was Philadelphia baseball to pretty much everyone to whom such things matter. Beyond that, of course, he was a husband, a father, a friend. But to millions of rabid sports fans, to whom the every minute detail of their teams is vital, Harry was the voice. He was the great constant of my life as a baseball fan, which much like the team we both loved, had some ups and downs.

The Phillies had some horrible seasons during my life as a fan. I’ve written in this space before about the joy in my house when the team won the World Championship in 1980. Along the way, through both the highs, like the 1983 and 1993 World Series teams, and of course last years Series win, and the lows, like finishing the season under .500 for the six years leading up to ‘93, twice coming within inches of loosing 100 games in a season…those were bad years. One might have been tempted to turn the game off.

But you didn’t. Because of Harry Kalas. It would have seemed rude to turn the radio off on a hot July day while Harry and Whitey were talking. They tried their best to make dreadful teams interesting during most of the 80’s and much of the 90’s. And we listened. And we watched. And we relished moments of success all the more when we heard how Harry called it. It was as though the moments weren’t real until we heard Harry tell us how it happened. That voice, now silent, permeated the malaise of whatever dreck was on the field. He was in the room with you, and a friend. Even during those drowsy summer afternoons, when the Phils were playing the Cubs, and it was the 7th inning of a 10-3 drubbing, Harry’s voice had the power to wake you up out of a sound sleep when you heard the crack of a bat, followed by “It’s a long drive, deep to left field…that ball is ‘outta here!”

You got jealous when you heard his voice calling NFL games during the Winter. Harry was our voice, and it just didn’t sound right to hear him calling a Lions-Seahawks game in December. But, you could allow him his small indiscretion, as you knew that once Spring Training started, it was just a matter of time until you’d have a chance to hear him again. He was our guy, no matter how many NFL Films shows he narrated.

The voice of Harry Kalas was Summer at the Jersey shore. It was sitting on the big orange couch with my dad, and dozing off in between innings, though we both pretended we weren’t. It was mowing the lawn with headphones on, and doing the last bit real slow so you didn’t have to go inside until the game was over. It was at times, the only reason to pay attention to the often dreadful Philadelphia Phillies. To hear him get caught up in the emotion of a moment, whether it be a title win, a dramatic homerun, or an amazing performance by a pitcher, it was simply all so genuine because he was not just an announcer. He was a fan. He was a friend. He was a Hall of Famer.

He was Philadelphia.

Take a look at this clip if you’d like to see him in one of his best moments.

I’m sure there is more I could say, but I’m no Harry Kalas. I’ve found this column difficult to write.

My little girl gave me a hug this morning right after I found out. She saw I was sad, and asked me why. When I told her that I was sad because Harry had died, she said that she wanted to draw an angel. And so she did, and I included the picture here. Suitable for framing...

The Phillies won today 9-8 in Washington. God Speed, Harry.