Monday, April 13, 2009
There are peaks and valleys. He was a peak. A tall one. Mighty tall.
KARMA. The game goes on. T'was ever so. The audio file is of today's Phillies game. You'd never know that the greatest Phillies play-by-play announcer in the club's history had died earlier in the day. I'm not accusing. I'm too old to get maudlin for mere effect. I know Harry Kalas will be honored and that the announcers who are routinely calling today's game are merely doing their professional duty, that they will wax as eloquent as they can about what his death means to them when the occasion calls for it. In the interim, well, there's no crying in baseball.
But I can't help experiencing tons of emotion, even though I never once met or saw Harry Kalas in person or the player I most closely associate him with, Mike Schmidt, the greatest third baseman in the whole history of baseball. What I'm remembering right now is a magical season -- no, not 2008, the World Series Championship that made Harry's exit today somehow elegant and timely -- but a pair of careers that somehow seemed to soar together in a joint eloquence that the City of Philadelphia has rarely known to an unparalleled triumph in 1980.
My explanation begins with a step back. When I was a teenager I was already a veteran of the most catastrophic collapse ever suffered by a major league team on the verge of a pennant. I went away to school and ran immediately into fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Very opinionated fans, some of whom played baseball as avidly as I followed it. I heard ad nauseam about The Great One, Roberto Clemente, about the greatest World Series victory in history, weak-hitting shortstop Bill Mazeroski's decisive homerun in the seventh game of the 1960 World Series (after the most lopsided scoring against the ultimate winner ever), and worse than that, the unkindest throwaway cut of all -- the dismissive judgment that the Phillies, apart from all their other failings, failures, and weaknesses of the day, had the worst play-by-play announcers in major league baseball. Pittsburgh, of course, had the best -- Bob Prince.
I, too, came to admire Roberto Clemente, and to appreciate the miracle win in the 1960 World Series, but I never understood why Bob Prince was better than By Saam of the Phillies. In fact, I still don't think he was. But what had been impressed on me was the idea of considering the play-by-play announcer as part of the team, its personality, its character, its greatness. The Pirate lunatics prepared me to appreciate the coming of Harry Kalas.
Have I mentioned that the Phillies remained an obsession with me? That even after high school and college, I still burned for the World Series shot that had been denied in '64? Before the Phillies became contenders in the mid-seventies, I remember the arrival of an outlander named Harry Kalas, who was now calling balls and strikes for my home team. I regarded him as suspiciously as I did the supposedly hotshot young third baseman who repeatedly struck out with the game on the line. He couldn't hit for average, he seemed sullen, and after several disappointing visits to the uncomfortable new replacement for Connie Mack Stadium, I confess I began to call him by my private nickname, Mike Schidt. Same old Phillies. One more savior power hitter who would always let you down. Another Richie Allen.
I stopped going to games. I tried to stop paying attention. But you can't ignore your parents. Mine were from a generation that could still listen to baseball on the radio. They'd sit on their screened-in porch at night with the radio on and listen to the ballgame. And much as I didn't want to listen or care anymore, it was Harry Kalas who sucked me back in.
To this day, I can't listen to radio broadcasts of basketball or hockey. It's just a bunch of machinegun rat-a-tattery. I can listen to Merrill Reese doing Eagles play-by-play, but chiefly because he reminds me of Leonard Graves narrating Victory at Sea; the enormity of events bulges in his voice and he conveys a sense of momentum on individual plays, the sheer martial spirit of the proceedings. He's on your side. You'd prefer to hear his version of the narration while watching, if only you could synchronize it with the television feed.
But baseball play-by-play is a different discipline altogether. (Although I know Harry took over from John Facenda at NFL Films, the only appropriate heir.) In baseball, on the radio, the announcer creates the game for the listeners. The still of the time between pitches, the gathering suspense as the pitcher goes into his windup, the drama of the umpire's call -- or the sudden electricity of contact with the ball, base-running, fielding, or HOMERUN.
Two things I'd never heard on the radio before Harry Kalas came along. He knew instantly when a batter had hit a homerun. I never heard him make a mistake about it. When his voice barked "long drive," it was leaving the park. Think about that on the radio. It's like being there. Second, only Harry Kalas could make you see the brilliance of infield play on the radio. I learned from Harry Kalas that Mike Schmidt was a better third baseman than he was a hitter -- by listening to him call the games.
And now we enter the realm of myth. Purists will dispute some of my memories on this, I know, but they're my memories, and who are they to intrude? I would swear, and others would deny, that I could detect a moment or two ahead of time in Harry's voice what was happening in the Phillies' three failed attempts at making the World Series before they finally succeeded in 1980. Let that go. But I will never forget 1980 itself, the year when it seemed the pennant hopes of the Phils were a thing of the past until late in the season, when Mike Schmidt suddenly awoke into one of the hottest streaks any major league power hitter has ever had. I listened to almost all of it on the radio. The Phillies won 22 of 24 games en route to the pennant. I recall the Phils down to the Cubs in that stretch with Schmidt at the plate, two out in the ninth, against baseball's most unhittable sinkerball closer, Bruce Sutter, against whom Schmidt was 0 for 22 lifetime, and then hearing Harry bark, "Long drive..." It still gives me the chills. I stayed up all night during the Phillies-on-Schmidt's-back streak when it culminated in a rain-soaked doubleheader on the west coast and the Phils finished winning both ends of it at something like five in the morning. It was a grueling marathon of waiting, and sharing the game, and Harry chatting during rain delays with Richie Ashburn in their wry way, and we won, and all of us on the other end of the radio were also part of it, and nothing on cable TV can ever compete with it. Al Michaels on Hi-Def TV is, to me, pale compared to Harry Kalas on a staticky transistor radio roaring "long drive" in the thick of an unlikely pennant race.
And I remember the playoff with the Houston Astros that got the Phils to the World Series. The greatest playoff series ever. Two teams who absolutely refused to give up, both scratching and clawing their way back from certain defeat multiple times. Houston's Terry Puhl belongs in the Hall of Fame for that five-game series, regardless of what he did in the rest of his career. Harry Kalas alludes to it here in his final thoughts on the now defunct Veterans Stadium, where the 1980 Phils won the first World Series in their history.
But he's downplaying it, of course, just as Mike Schmidt would if you asked him about it. Kalas was always quiet and conversational until the drama of the situation ran through him like a vocal lightning bolt. Mike Schmidt was always taciturn and self-contained until he uncoiled his deadly bat or equally deadly third-baseman virtuosity. The genius athlete needed that genius voice to complete the masterpiece. (uh, you New Yorkers... at the time you were bleating about the all-time 3rd baseman Graig Nettles. Anybody remember him now? No. You've developed a talent of late for hyping mediocrities. B-Rods, if you will.)
Yes, I know Harry Kalas went on long after Mike Schmidt retired. Which is why I know Mike would belittle the point I'm making here. He was always a modest man. And Harry Kalas would also probably downplay the role he played for thirty-some years in bringing alive a sport many people weren't watching but listening to into technicolor drama.
I always wanted to shake Harry's hand and thank him for bringing me back to baseball. I owe him a debt I can never repay. I hated Veterans Stadium. It was hot, cramped, handicapped by the artificial turf that made playing on it an ordeal for the players, and yet I mourned when I saw this sorry scene. Part of me died that day.
My last remaining hope, now that Harry is gone, is that I can still one day get the opportunity to shake the hand of Mike Schmidt, a player who was even greater than The Great One. (We both have strong connections to Dayton, Ohio. Hey. Shouldn't that get me an audience?) He means more to me than I can ever express, just as Harry Kalas does. But that's a chance I left too long. My loss. (At least Mrs. CP got to meet John Runyon last week.)
Baseball goes on. Philadelphia goes on. But whether anyone admits it or not, we've left the peak and entered a valley. Still. In my dreams, I will hear it again... Schmidt... 0 and 2... two outs... the stretch... the pitch... l-o-o-o-ong drive...
Harry is "Outta here," with his usual homerun finale.
God bless him and keep him safe. I'm going to make a point of watching tomorrow's game. No. Crying. In. Baseball.
UPDATE: In case my memories aren't enough, here's a tribute already posted on YouTube.
Everybody here will miss him. Truth is, there's no one right way to remember him. Everyone will do it in his or her own way. And, I guess I have to admit, sometimes there is crying in baseball.