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Monday, April 13, 2009

So Long, Harry

I'm not the world's biggest Phillies fan, but I grew up outside of Philadelphia, and my formative baseball years were spent listening to Harry Kalas call games in the 1980s -- a stretch of seasons in which there was no other reason to watch Phillies baseball except to hear Harry.

So no, I'm not the biggest Phillies fan, but I'm a huge Harry Kalas fan. He, as much as anyone else, introduced me to baseball.

Calling games in which Ricky Jordan and Von Hayes and Steve Jeltz were the marquee names on the lineup card, Harry taught me more about the game and its history than I could have ever learned reading the backs of baseball cards. And I read a lot of them.

With a voice as distinctive as anyone to ever sit behind a mic, Harry had a way of turning even the mundane into something dramatic, and when something truly monumental happened -- like Mike Schmidt's 500th homer, which I remember like it was yesterday -- Harry provided the perfect soundtrack, the sounds that reside in your memory forever. "Home. Run. Michael. Jack. Schmidt." Each word seemed to hang in the air with as much drama as the moment required. His voice was as essential as actually watching that ball soar over the left-center field fence.

I'll never forget Harry and Richie Ashburn arguing over the answer to the trivia question during a boring Tuesday night broadcast. Or even better, the nights when Harry's was the only voice you heard, because he was carrying the broadcast while Ashburn was eating a pizza he had delivered to the booth. Ah, but the two always managed to thank the elderly female Phillies fans or the grizzled owners of an old Italian eatery looking for free advertisement -- all of whom were happy to deliver something delicious to the city's best announcers.

I remember meeting Harry at Veterans Stadium when I was about 10 years old and thinking I was in the company of the most famous man in the world. And he treated me like he was honestly excited to meet me, too.

A few months ago, I was flipping through the channels on TV and came across a rebroadcast of a Phillies game against the Astros from 1987 on ESPN Classic. There was nothing remotely special about the game, unless a Milt Thompson home run constituted something special.

Still, I stopped what I was doing and watched every inning of the game, partly for the Day-Glo uniforms, partly to have a few Don Carmen jokes to text my friends, but mostly just to hear Harry and remember what it was like watching those games when they happened live. It was like walking down the street and bumping into an old friend you hadn't seen in years.

It's a funny thing for sports fans. The guys who you grow up listening to on the radio or on TV -- from Larry Munson to Harry Kalas -- they're a real part of your lives. They become a part of who you are. They're family.

After Harry died Monday -- at the ballpark, of course -- my first thought was that I was immensely thankful that he had a chance to call the final out of the Phillies' World Series title last year.

But more importantly, I'm thankful I had a chance to hear him call all those otherwise meaningless Tuesday night games against the Pirates or Expos or Padres for so many years.

Those games that meant so little in the standings meant the world to me. They instilled the passion for sports that brought me to where I am today. They're some of my happiest memories of growing up.

Thanks, Harry.

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