Monday, April 13, 2009

"The Voice" Is Gone...

I was saddened upon hearing the news this afternoon that longtime Philadelphia Phillies radio announcer and NFL Films narrator Harry Kalas died in the pressbox prior to today's Phillies/Nationals game in Washington.

Kalas was not only the voice of the Phillies, he was also the voice of my childhood. Growing up in Northern Virginia as a Phillies fan and someone who wanted to grow up and announce sports, I spent many, many summer nights in the 1970s and 1980s tweaking my radio dial to 1210 AM to catch a few static-filled innings of the baritone vocals of Harry Kalas. While my friends had childhood heroes like Julius Erving, Tony Dorsett, and Johnny Bench, my idols were baseball announcers like Kalas and Dodgers announcer Vin Scully.

During my senior year in high school and freshman year in college as I started my career path in broadcasting, I established a relationship with Kalas, who could not have been any more friendly, generous, or encouraging. He shared many of his professional experiences with me, including his legendary game preparation and in-game note taking. I was able to meet with him in July 1987 and actually spent a few innings in the booth with him during a game. Later that year, he recorded several show bumpers for my sports radio show in college, which made me "Big Man at the Station".

The next year, I needed to interview Kalas for a college paper and he took the time during a Phillies game when he was off the air between innings to call me to answer my questions. My college housemates were blown away when they answered the phone and heard THAT voice.

My latest Kalas experience took place one night last fall. I had just finished up a meeting in rural Virginia around 10:00 p.m. and had about a 30-minute drive back home ahead of me. Knowing the Phillies were playing in the World Series, my first thought was to flip the dial to 1210 and there was "The Voice".
Although now in his 70s, it was still classic Kalas. I soon realized that it was the 9th inning and the Phillies were only three outs away from capturing a World Championship. The 30-minute drive seemed like five minutes as I listened to Kalas call the Phillies first title since 1980. The team, its players, and the city of Philadelphia always meant so much to him and you could hear the childlike excitement in his voice as he joyously announced, "The Philadelphia Phillies are 2008 World Champions of baseball!"

Today, the game of baseball lost one of its greatest voices of all time and one of its nicest people.

ESPN's Jayson Stark was one of Kalas' closest friends and wrote a terrific piece for shortly after the news was announced:
PHILADELPHIA -- He was so much more than the voice of the Phillies. Harry Kalas was the Phillies.

He didn't just describe the games. His voice took hold of those games and made them his personal amphitheater.

The home runs weren't officially home runs until Harry Kalas told you they were outta here.

The long outs didn't make Philadelphia's hearts flutter unless the volume on every speaker suddenly quadrupled and Harry announced they've got … a … chance.

Strike three wasn't strike three until Harry The K gave it that little chuckle and reported some Phillies pitcher had just struck some poor, overmatched schmoe with a bat "right on outta there."

And when the impossible happened, when a Word Series title run erupted in front of his eyes, his town couldn't be totally sure this mind-warping event had actually happened until the great Harry Kalas' golden voice exploded with the words: "The Philadelphia Phillies are 2008 world champions of baseball."

So here is what people like me, people who have lived most of our lives in Philadelphia, are wondering on this sad and tragic day:

How are we going to do this?

How are we going to go on in a world with no more "outta heres?"

How do we fill the unfillable void that will hang over us forever now as we try to contemplate life, and baseball, without Kalas?

Can't be done. Can it?

The games will go on. The sport will go on. Voices will crackle out of our TV speakers. That's the way it has to work. That's the way it has always worked.

But we don't have to pretend it will ever be the same, because when you've spent 6,000 nights, over four decades, listening to Harry Kalas put his inimitable stamp on a baseball game, it's way too simple to say baseball will never sound the same.

Baseball in Philadelphia will never be the same.

I'm one of the lucky ones. I got to know one of the special human beings on this planet. It was one of the great thrills of my career.

Once, I was just one of the fortunate hordes who had the pleasure of listening to Harry Kalas. Next thing I knew, I was working alongside him.

Back when I was a rookie beat reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and something memorable would happen on the emerald field below me, I'd often find myself thinking: I wonder how Harry called that one?

His voice, his presence, was that powerful. Even when you were witnessing something live, with your very own eyes, you still felt as if you were missing something -- because you hadn't heard Harry describe it.

If it had been only me thinking those thoughts, I'd have gotten therapy and tried to get that little voice out of my head. But it wasn't just me. Ohhhhh no.

Those players down there were way more addicted to that voice than I was.

Back on May 10, 2002, Phillies center fielder Doug Glanville hit an inside-the-park home run, the only inside-the-parker of his career. You know what he remembers about it now? Kalas' call of that magic moment.

The second he crossed home plate, Glanville said, "I wanted to hear him announce it. That was every bit as important to me as running around the bases."

Wait. Hold on here. You mean this man had just done something very few human beings have ever done, and all he could think of was the sound of That Voice? How can that be, you ask? Because it was Harry. That's how.

"Harry had that special gift," Glanville said Monday. "Just with his words and the emotion in his voice, he could take you to that game and put you right in that moment. If I was trying to explain to somebody what it's like to hit an inside-the-park homer, I'd say, 'Just listen to Harry call it.'"

But it wasn't only Glanville. When something big -- especially something really, really big -- came along, Kalas' voice towered over the event like a thunderclap from the heavens.

Let me transport you back to April 18, 1987. It's a day I'll never forget. I got to see Mike Schmidt hit his 500th home run that day. But that's not the part I'll never forget.

The scene that is lodged in my brain forever was a scene that took place long after Schmidt's emotional home run trot. The interviews were over. The players were all dressed. The bus to the airport was almost ready to leave.

Then Harry Kalas entered the room.

It just so happened that he and his broadcast buddies had brought with them a tape of Kalas' still-indelible call. And so, right then, right there, life in that room screeched to a halt. Everything stopped. The bus could wait.

All 25 players gathered around the tape recorder. The "play" button was pushed. And here came That Voice:

"There it isssss. Nummmmmber 500. The career 500th home run for Michael Jack Schmidt. And the Phillies have regained the lead in Pittsburgh, 8-6."

They listened to it once, and they roared so loudly the walls shook. So then they listened to it again. And again. And again. And again. Screaming just as loudly every time.

That's when it hit me: Even they didn't realize what had just happened here -- not until they'd heard Harry The K put it into words.

Well, you know what? At least those words live. Still.

I heard them all over the airwaves Monday. It's the one consolation on days like this. Because Kalas did what he did, because he uttered his special brand of poetry into a microphone, the words live on.

We need them now. We need to hear those words again. And again. And again. And again.

We need That Voice because it has been such a constant in all our lives for as long as most of us can remember. And not just at game time.

When I heard the sad news Monday, I called my daughter Hali -- one of the great Harry The K fans on earth. Through the tears, she told me she had just changed the ring tone on her cell phone -- to the sound of Harry Kalas calling the final pitch of the 2008 World Series.

Later, my wife, Lisa, tried calling our neighbors, Bob and Karen Scheur, because we knew they'd want to know. They weren't in. But their answering machine clicked on -- and there was Harry Kalas' voice informing us that Bob and Karen had just gone on a lonnnnnng drive, and they were outta here … so please leave a message at the sound of the beep.

"The funny thing is," Bob told me later, "that in November, Karen finally said, 'It's time to change the tape.' So we did. But as soon as we did, my friends would call and say, 'Hey, what happened to Harry?' So when it was time for pitchers and catchers, we changed it back. It's one of the rites of spring. Harry's back."

I could relate to that feeling -- totally. In fact, my last conversation with Harry came just a couple of weeks ago, in Florida. Pitchers and catchers had reported weeks earlier. The games had been going on for nearly a month. But for the first time ever, those games were going on without Harry.

He'd had some medical issues, described as nothing serious. So the Phillies were muddling along without him as best they could. And then, one day, I was walking down a ballpark hallway and there he was.

"It's a Harry The K sighting," I said. "Now we can finally get this season started."

He laughed. We shook hands. We talked a little baseball. He was ready to go. And now, so was I.

But I was only half kidding. It wasn't baseball season without Harry Kalas -- not for me. And not for millions like me.

So now what?

There will be a season. And in time, I'm sure, we'll be grateful there's a season.

But it will take some getting used to -- because, for millions of Philadelphians, Harry was what baseball sounded like.

If there's a rhythm to the heavens, if there's a script to every life, then we can take some solace in knowing there was an amazing finish to Harry Kalas' script.

In the final game he ever called, on Sunday in Denver, Matt Stairs gave him one final, dramatic, game-winning outta here.

Before the final home game Harry ever called -- on Wednesday, when the Phillies received their World Series rings -- he was handpicked by team president Dave Montgomery to throw out the first pitch.

And in the final postseason game he ever called, he got to tell all those people who loved him that the Phillies -- his Phillies -- were "2008 world champions of baseball."

That was their moment. But he made it his moment. And that's only fitting because, for the people of Philadelphia, Harry Kalas didn't just describe their moments. He made their moments real.

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