Monday, April 13, 2009

"Holly, this is Harry Kalas with the Phillies."

I stared dumbly at the Motorola, crackling on speaker mode. She had just come home Monday evening, dialed her voice mailbox and handed me the phone.

I had been home only a few minutes longer but I was already in pajamas. Putting on pajamas usually signifies, "I've had enough of this particular day." And so it was on Monday, overwhelmingly so.


It was 1:14 p.m. Monday when I visited at my work computer. A small breaking-news item posted at 1:09 said, "Kalas found passed out in booth, taken to hospital." I alerted my bosses, went out for lunch and soon got a text from a friend: "harry died :("

Harry Kalas and I never met or spoke on the phone. Hell, I never even got a voice-mail message from him. And he was 73 -- not terribly old these days, but with a history of drinking and smoking that perhaps took a little extra tread off the tires.

No rational reason I should feel so sad, even nauseous, at his death. But he described Phillies baseball games to me all my life, and I'm not the only sports fan who has blithely abandoned rational thought.

I craved listening to Harry and Richie Ashburn, his best friend and broadcast partner. I saw every game in 1993, the year the Phillies beat the Braves for the league pennant. I was shellshocked in '97 when Ashburn died and I remember reading an Inquirer interview of a numb Kalas the next day: "I've lost my best friend."

His home run calls, his strikeout calls, his impeccable sense of how and when to interject drama still remained after his partner died, but it was hard not to think Kalas had forever gotten a little sadder, less mischievous and fun-loving. His public criticism of Ashburn's successor, Chris Wheeler, was especially disappointing in a man I considered the epitome of class. In recent years, his eyesight and memory dulled, too, though not so much or so frequently that the Phillies had to consider ushering him off the stage.

What remained intact after Ashburn's death was Kalas's ardent love of the team and the game, and in the past half-dozen years, as the Phillies built a championship-caliber club, he was clearly thirsty for them to return to the October stage.


After near misses in 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006, the Phillies had the lead in the final inning on the final day of 2007, an out away from ending a 14-year postseason drought.

"Fans are on their feet ... I'M going to be on my feet ... this is truly exciting!" Kalas hollered, seconds before Brett Myers flung a perfect knee-bender at Wily Mo Pena and the park erupted.

In 2008, I saw my first walk-off home run in person. Duc and I were at the park in early May. Phils were down one in the ninth with a man on base. Two outs, full count to Pat Burrell, and the poor Giants reliever poured a fastball down the middle. Minutes later, even as I jogged, grinning, to my car, I distinctly remember wondering how Harry had called it. I found out via DVD months later.

Harry had to be quick, because Burrell hit a laser-beam line drive over the wall: "Long drive ... it is OUTTA HERE! ... Pat Burrell! PAT BURRELL! Phillies win!"

I can say without exaggerating that one day this winter I watched that clip seven consecutive times. That's how invigorating Harry Kalas's voice was.

I was taking the Atlantic City Expressway to the shore during the penultimate regular-season game, and Harry and Larry Andersen were with me on the radio, since Fox was doing the TV broadcast. A win would make it back-to-back division titles, but heretofore-perfect Brad Lidge was dicking around in the ninth inning, loading bases and so forth. Harry and Larry were concerned, and then Ryan Zimmerman connected with a one-out pitch.

Harry: "Ground ball up the MID-dle, J-Roll DIVES, to Utley, ONE, relay--"
Larry: "YEAH! YEAH! YEAH!"
Harry: "--DOUBLE PLAY!!! The Phillies are the National League Eastern Division champions, on a specTACular DOUBLLLE PLAYYY, turned J-Roll, to Utley, to Howard! WHAT a play by J-ROLL!"
Larry: "Ohhh my word..."

I didn't hear much of Harry through most of the playoffs. I watched almost all the games on TV, with the national feed, and Harry was on the radio. But near the end of World Series Game 5, my best friends desperately tried to sync up a clock radio to a muted television, and I desperately tried not to go berserk as both transmissions cut in and out.

It worked eventually, though, and when Lidge struck out Eric Hinske to win the World Series, I dove face-first into the carpet and heard this:

"SWING and a MISS! STRUCK HIM OUT! The Philadelphia Phillies are 2008--"

--and he clearly savored these next words, each one like a fine drink--


And again, as with Burrell's walk-off, even as I was processing what the moment meant, I thought about the man who told us about it.

"That was an awesome call, an awesome turn of phrase," I thought. Then I laughed at my own surplus of emotion, and I went to the fridge for a beer.


It was the dead of winter when Holly wrote to Harry, hoping he could record wedding-party introductions for her and her fiance's reception in May. He called back, and my hair stood up as I listened to his long-saved message.

"I got your letter, and I would be happy to introduce your wedding party when you're going to get married in May," Harry Kalas told my future wife. "The way to go about that would be to contact a Mr. Rob Brooks--"

Rob Brooks the head of broadcasting Rob Brooks, the Rob Brooks who found Harry unconscious in the booth in Washington. I pictured the blood draining from Rob Brooks' face Monday, as Harry told Holly the phone number, etc.

"--you can fax or e-mail a script, and then we'd be able to get it done before the nuptials." Harry says, peaking cheerfully on that last word. "I'd be happy to do it, and my very best wishes to you and yours. Thanks."

She sent the script, but we'll probably never know whether he'd gotten to it. Doesn't matter. She thought of it, and he agreed to it. Both those things mean an enormous amount to me.


I wasn't really looking forward to Opening Day this year. I was still trying to savor the championship season, and then when the Phillies came out flat I was frustrated that they seemed to be doing the same thing. I tuned into the first couple of games here and there, but with less than the usual mania. "After all," I reasoned, "I can get fired up later. It's a long season."

Boy, will it be a long season.

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