Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Harry the K is Outta Here

"Once there was a silly old ant, who thought he could move a rubber tree plant. Everyone knows an ant can't move a rubber tree plant. But he had high hopes. He had high hopes. He had high apple pie in the sky hopes." There is perhaps no more wonderful, in-character moment in the adult life of Harry Kalas than that of him standing in a beer and champagne-drenched Phillies locker room in the fall of 1993. The Phils had just accomplished what many thought impossible. What is still perhaps the most beloved group of Phillies in the franchise' long history, a team that featured such characters as John Kruk, Mitch Williams, Lenny Dykstra, Curt Schilling and Darren Daulton, had just defeated the powerful and favored Atlanta Braves to win the National League pennant one year after finishing in last place. Harry stood in the middle of the trainer's room with the players all gathered around, everyone soaked with that bubbly and brew, and led them in a rousing version of the song "High Hopes" that someone had the great vision to actually record for posterity. The scene in the bowels of Veteran's Stadium can be viewed on any number of video products released from that magical season. It is my absolute favorite Harry Kalas moment of all-time. The pure joy in Harry, the obvious love that he had for the Phillies organization, and the particular affection that he had for that group of players was on full display. Last week, Harry Kalas began his 39th season as the lead broadcaster for the Philadelphia Phillies radio and television broadcasts. It all started with a game in April of 1971 that christened the shiny new Veteran's Memorial Stadium in South Philadelphia. On Monday afternoon it ended fittingly at a ballpark. Harry was prepping for last night's broadcast of the Phillies game at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. when he collapsed in the press box. At the age of 73, the man who had become known affectionately as 'Harry the K' and respectfully as 'The Voice' had reached the end of his days. My own love affair with the team traces back to that very 1971 season. As a 9-year old, I began to be infatuated with the game and the team that had just moved from North Philly down to almost being in the shadow of my own home in South Philly. My friends and I would ride our bikes that spring up on to the nearly completed but not yet opened Delaware Expressway, now known simply as 'I-95', from our homes in the Two Street neighborhood and around to the shining new jewel of towering white columns that was 'The Vet'. We would ride around the concourse of the stadium, hitting full speed before exiting off one of the many long, sloping ramps that would lead tens of thousands of fans up to the entrances just weeks from then. The thrill of those rides was as great a rush as any 9-year old could ever hope for, or so I thought in the days just before my Phillies affair would begin. My dad took my brother and I to the Opening Day festivities for the Vet, and there we got to see the magical dancing water fountain in centerfield, the gigantic unfurling American colonial flag, the fan-friendly baseline picnic areas, and the huge, smiling faces of a couple of characters, Phil and Phyllis, who would fire off a cannon to celebrate every Phillies homerun in those early Vet days. I was hooked, and I began to listen to Phils games on the radio, something that for every year of my life growing up I had already heard my own grandfather and many of the older men of the neighborhood doing while sitting out on their porches on almost every summer evening. These men had listened to the games as they were broadcast from old Connie Mack Stadium by the legendary By Saam and Bill Campbell, and a relatively young, recently retired, and popular former Phillie named Richie Ashburn. But for the new era now opening at The Vet, the team wanted a new fresh face and voice, and so they lured the 35-year old Harry Kalas away from the Houston Astros organization where he had been the on-air voice since 1963. When I turned on my little transistor radio that April and began to follow the Phils, it was Harry's voice that greeted me, as it would for every single Phillies season over nearly four more decades. In those early years the Phillies quickly began to become strong competitors in the National League, culminating in the club winning three straight Eastern Division titles from 1976-78. They had some veteran pitchers such as Steve Carlton and Tug McGraw, and talented young players like Larry Bowa, Bob Boone, Greg Luzinski, and most importantly a young, slugging 3rd baseman named Mike Schmidt. Over nearly two decades, Harry Kalas would develop a strong relationship with the Phillies Hall of Famer and greatest-ever player, highlighted by the development of a legendary and iconic homerun call that Phils fans would hear across two generations: "Swing, and a long drive, deep left field....Outta Here! Homerun, Michael Jack Schmidt!" It was a call that every Phillies fan would learn to imitate as well. You can stick a microphone in the face of almost any Phillies fan and get them to do their 'Harry homerun call' impression. Harry also developed an intense friendship with the man with whom he shared the broadcast booth for 28 seasons, the man who he simply called "His Whiteness", Rich Ashburn. The on-air chemistry that the two men had rivaled their off-field friendship, and this came out clearly in their banter and game-calling. When 'Whitey' passed away following the calling of a game late in the 1997 season, no one mourned more deeply than Harry, and for the rest of his career there would be fond, sentimental references to Whitey woven into many Phils' broadcasts. As many fans did, I had my own moment with Harry Kalas. It came during a late-90's season bus trip that some of my family members had taken to see the Phillies play the Baltimore Orioles at the beautiful new Camden Yards ballpark. We had rented out a party room for some pre-game food and drinks, and at one point I had to use the men's room which was down the hall from our party room. As I exited that men's room, there walking out of the doorway of another party room at the same moment was none other than Harry the K himself. I was startled at seeing the man so closeup, and he seemed startled just from the timing of our entry into the hallway at the same moment. I just blurted out "Hey, Harry!" and his reply was something that I can still hear ringing in my ears today: "Hey, How are ya?" in that typically friendly but signature voice as he ducked into the bathroom that I had just left. Harry Kalas had just personally addressed me with that voice. As stupid as it sounds to some of you, it was one of the most memorable moments of my life. That's how big a Phillies fan, and a Harry Kalas fan, I had become, and still am to this very day. In the fall of 1980, the Phillies gave their fans what they had been waiting for over a century to see, a championship. But for we Phillies fans there was something missing. The rules of Major League Baseball at that time did not allow hometown broadcasters to call the games on radio or television, and so there were no broadcasts of Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn calling those games in a live format for our fans. That lost opportunity made what happened in 1993 with those 'Macho Row' Phillies even more special, hearing Harry and Whitey get to call the World Series games together. But the Phillies lost that series in dramatic fashion thanks to the walkoff homerun by Toronto's Joe Carter, and so Harry still had never called a championship. Through any number of tough seasons in the late 1990's you wondered whether an aging Kalas would ever get that opportunity again. In 2002, Harry was honored with the Ford Frick Award for baseball's immortal broadcasters, and subsequently with enshrinement in the baseball Hall of Fame, joining both his longtime Phillies pals Whitey and Schmitty among the games legends. With a coming new ballpark the Phillies management and ownership began to loosen the purse strings and bring in some new talent like Jim Thome and Billy Wagner, and the team began to win again as one of baseball's most beautiful facilities opened at Citizens Bank Park. After a couple of seasons a group of young homegrown players like Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell, Cole Hamels, Ryan Madson, Ryan Howard, and Chase Utley finally brought the Philadelphia Phillies back to the World Series stage. On the night of October 29th, in the culmination of a game that had taken two days thanks to weather conditions, the Phillies were just one strike away from finally winning another World Series title when Harry finally was able to make the live call: "One strike away; nothing-and-two, the count to Hinske. Fans on the their feet; rally towels are being waved. Brad Lidge stretches. The 0-2 pitch — swing and a miss, struck him out! The Philadelphia Phillies are 2008 World Champions of baseball!" It was a moment long overdue, and a shining moment that Harry Kalas deserved as much as anyone who has ever broadcast any sporting event. This past Sunday afternoon, my wife and I were in our car, driving home from having spent Easter Sunday down the shore with some family members. We are both big Phillies fans, and got to enjoy both that unforgettable 1993 season and World Series heartbreak and the 2008 World Series victory celebration together. On the ride home we were enjoying the 39th season of listening to Harry Kalas call Phillies games, as the Phils put the finishing touches on a victory over the Rockies out in Colorado. As we heard Harry call it: "Bouncing ball to Chase Utley, this should be the game... Chase throws him out, and that will be it as the Phil's win 2 out of 3 here at Coors Field, coming back to take this one by a score of 7 to 5." Little did we know that it would be the final time that we would here Harry close out a Phillies game. There is an old saying that all good things must come to an end. Every one of those 1971 Phillies, the 1980 world champions, and the 1993 NL champs saw the ending of their careers come. Richie 'Whitey' Ashburn saw the end of his life come, as did Phillies legends like John Vukovich and Tug McGraw. This one carries perhaps the deepest sting and hurt, more so than even with the Tugger himself, who was a truly beloved figure in town. For almost four decades, Harry Kalas came into all of our living rooms and our cars, into our places of work, our back yards, our front porches, and down on to the beaches with us. He brought a magical, story-telling quality to Philadelphia Phillies baseball games with a unique signature of a voice, and with a love and passion for both the team and the game that if you listened long enough made you incapable of turning it off before falling in love with it as well. Now, Harry is back reunited with his good friend Whitey, calling games in heaven, which gives me something even more to look forward to in the hereafter. The words 'legend' and 'icon' are tossed around sometimes with too much ease. 'Harry the K' was truly an iconic legend here in Philadelphia that will never, ever be forgotten. And the great thing is that we have so much of it recorded. We will hear that voice at various times over the rest of our lives. Perhaps the best way to end this tribute would be with one personal indulgence. Far from being disrespectful, I believe the man that I met in that Camden Yards hallway a decade ago would love it. One final call, this time for Harry instead of by him: "It's a long life, deep affection left at the field, Harry Kalas is....Outta Here!"

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