“Cold beer here!” yelled by a distant vendor is heard.
There’s a slight humming. Is it from the TV? Is it from your window unit air
Some nut yells out, “Everybody hits, wooooo!”
The loud smack of a 92-mph fastball against leather after it misses
the corner of the plate.
Then that smooth baritone voice. “Utley takes a fastball outside for ball one.”
The humming is actually a buzz emanating from the crowd at
the baseball game on your TV.
“Here’s the pitch.”
The crack of the bat.
“Swing and a long drive….”
Harry Kalas’ home-run calls were legendary but those silences, those magnificent moments when you felt like you were there at the stadium, when you could feel the heavy humid summer’s night air, or the swirling winds of an approaching storm, were as much of what made Harry Kalas the greatest sports broadcaster in Philadelphia history as his voice, his charisma, his personality and those home-run calls.
You could soak up the atmosphere of a Phillies game, when the games were carried locally which was virtually impossible when the national announcers yammered and anecdoted their way through a network telecast; barely mentioning the action on the field instead regaling the audience with a story about Mike Piazza’s college roommate’s best friend spilling a drink on Reggie Jackson.
Those pauses that Kalas brought, his not needing to constantly hear his own voice, sucked you into the action. It didn’t matter if you were sitting in your living room on Tasker Avenue, lying on the beach at the Jersey Shore with a radio by your blanket, eating a burger in your backyard at a barbecue in Delaware County, sitting on your front step in Southwest Philly, drinking beers with strangers in a bar in Center City or driving your car along the Roosevelt Boulevard after working late, you were there at the game and you could almost smell the roasted peanuts and taste the stadium hot dogs.
It was because of that silence; that graciousness of a man who let the game be in the spotlight instead of himself.
There was no silence on that wonderful, fateful night of Oct. 29, 2008. On the television broadcast the Fox announcers blathered on about player’s stats, historical anecdotes, scenarios that would make the World Series go longer, the rain delay and the Philadelphia Championship drought.
You name it, it was discussed. On the radio there was no silence like before as the crowd was roaring. It was the top of the ninth and a city was prepared to break a drought; a city who had witnessed 100 seasons divided by its four major sports teams over the past 25 years come and go with no championship. None. Not one.
All four had come close, so agonizingly close. The 1985 and 87 Flyers who tried valiantly to defeat the Goliath Edmonton Oilers only to find they did not have a large enough stone for their sling shot.
The 1993 Phillies, probably the city’s most beloved team, who drank, spit, smoked, grew scraggly beards and long mullet haircuts and also played their asses off only to have their season come down to a pitcher who was out of gas but bravely took the ball anyway and found himself going up against one of the game’s greatest home run hitters who launched a World Series’ winning home run over the left field wall.
The 2001 Sixers, who had a genius head coach who found a way to make a team of four defensive minded players work alongside a six-foot guard who routinely held the ball for 20 seconds a possession and then saw their logic defying run end when they ran into the era’s best player, Kobe Bryant, and an unstoppable force of nature named Shaquille O’Neal.
The 2004 Eagles who went 13–1 before shutting it down for the last two meaningless games of the season, who went up against two time Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots with their best receiver playing his first game back in over a month from a broken ankle, a starting tight end who was working for a construction site the week before and a defense that kept asking themselves in the second half, “Why does it seem like the Patriots’ offense knows exactly what our plays are?”
Heartbreak and disappointment coursed through the veins of every Philadelphia fan born after 1976 and crept into the subconscious of older fans that were having trouble remembering those good old days of the late sixties, seventies and early eighties, but not on that night in October 2008.
There was electricity in the air. It almost felt like New Year’s Eve as during the day people made runs to liquor stores to stock up on champagne.
A cruel teasing of the fates pushed Game 5, the soon to be clinching game, to technically last Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night thanks to a ridiculous weather pattern that stopped directly over the Delaware Valley.
The Phillies were up 4–3 in Game 5 and three games to one in the Series with their season perfect closer, Brad Lidge, taking the mound. The stadium was rocking; the noise of the crowd bleeding through the radio microphones.
In the booth, the regular radio team turned the mics over to Harry Kalas and Chris Wheeler who normally did the television broadcasts during the ninth inning but thanks to National Television coverage in the playoffs could not.
This was Kalas’ moment as much as the fans', more so even. He had been with the team since 1971. He loved the team, he loved the fans and he had seen great moments and moments of utter despair.
When the fans tuned out and stayed away from the stadium in droves during those awful years in the mid-'90s through the early 21st century, Kalas was there in the booth.
He lay witness to those horrid seasons, the mediocre seasons and those seasons from 2003 through 2006 where the Phillies teased the fan base just enough to keep their interest before blowing it the last weekend of the season.
Kalas was a constant. It can be said with no trace of hyperbole that from April to October in the tri-state Philadelphia area Harry Kalas was almost a member of four million families; a constant presence, a soothing comfortable voice, a witness to moments that people shared with their loved ones.
He had a chance to leave, as George Steinbrenner wanted Harry for the YES network to call Yankee games but Kalas would have none of it, not for any price. He loved the fans and the Phillies as much as they loved him and he could never leave them.
In 1980, due to league and network rules, local announcers were not permitted to call the World Series so Kalas didn’t get to call Tug McGraw striking out Willie Wilson to win the 1980 World Series.
Backlash over this lead to that rule being changed and finally 28 years later, Harry Kalas was in the booth calling a game for the Phillies who were just three outs from becoming World Champions.
To his left was his one-time best friend and running buddy, Chris Wheeler; their relationship having soured over the years due to issues far too complex and complicated to get in to here.
Kalas, a man beloved by millions, Wheeler a man unfairly disliked by many, sat next to each other on this glorious night both having loved the organization they served for years and both waiting almost three decades for this chance.
Kalas was seventy-two years old and those were seventy two hard years. He loved life and he sucked every moment he could from it, he lived it to its fullest. Not just socially, his partying and carousing ways were well known, but professionally as well.
He was the voice of the Phillies but also of Notre Dame football, Westwood One radio broadcasts of the NFL, NFL Films, Campbell's Soup, charity functions, team functions, auctions, you name it he did it. His voice was a gift from God and he did not take it for granted nor did he waste it, he shared it with everyone.
But doing so exacts a price and in recent years Harry seemed to be paying that price. There were blown calls, muffed player’s names, lineup confusion, balls that came off the bat that he was sure were home runs as he’d start his beloved, “Swing and long drive…” only to have the ball fall harmlessly into the waiting glove of an outfielder standing comfortably before the warning track.
He didn’t look well, his eyes were bulging a bit, his skin a different, paler color. Though he seemed to have lost a step, he was still great, we still loved him and we still thought he’d be ours forever.
The inning starts. It’s Brad Lidge facing Evan Longoria. Kalas sounds like his nearly perfect self. His voice is strong, his vision crisp, calling the action and setting the scene, “This place is e-lec-tric.” The count goes to two and two.
There are no words from the broadcasters; there is nothing but the expectant, possibly nervous, hum of the crowd. Wheeler does not speak. Longoria pops up just behind second base. “Chase Utley out…he squeezes it,” Kalas’ voice rises with excitement. “That’s one of them.”
Kalas is in fine form; the voice, the energy, the excitement sound like it always has. Wheeler doesn’t speak until after the second batter of the inning, Dioner Navarro and his tongue tying name which Kalas nails, steps into the box.
Navarro gets a broken bat single and that elated buzzing from the crowd turns to a concerned hum. There is silence from the radio booth though. Fernando Perez comes in to pinch run and steals second. The crowd is concerned and quiet and that tension-filled silence hangs in the air like a wrecking ball over a city’s baseball dreams.
The batter is Ben Zobrist. The count is two balls and one strike. There’s a conference on the mound between Lidge and catcher Carlos Ruiz.
There had been much made in local papers, tabloids and magazines over the deterioration
of the relationship between Harry Kalas and Chris Wheeler. It first came to light in a brutal expose in Philadelphia Magazine and the rumblings kept going from there.
There were rumors that Kalas had used Wheeler as leverage in contract negotiations, telling the Phillies he’d take a deal only if he didn’t have to do innings with Wheeler.
There was a fan base hypercritical of Wheeler for stating the obvious in his color commentary and rumors of him badmouthing Kalas and taking opportunities on air to make Kalas look bad by calling attention to any miscues Harry made.
Ruiz returns to his position and Lidge takes his on the mound. In light of the controversy and alleged acrimony between the two broadcasters--two men who were once the best of friends yet were now portrayed in the local media as having detested each other--a touching thing occurs.
Kalas: Two balls and a strike…to Zobrist. (silence) Perez at second base. One out. (silence) Excuse me, the count is one ball and two strikes.
Wheeler: No it’s two and one.
Kalas: Is it?
Wheeler: Isn’t it?
Kalas: It’s what the scoreboard has.
Wheeler: Two balls; one strike. You’re right.
Kalas’ only stumble of the inning, he gets the count right then doubts himself in a slight moment of confusion and Wheeler comes in and corrects him by telling Kalas he was correct all along and then briefly making it sound like Kalas had corrected him. “Two balls; one strike. You’re right.”
Zobrist flies out to right and the left handed hitting Eric Hinske, who looks like he made his Major League debut with the Gashouse Gorillas, steps into the batter’s box with two outs and a man who can fly like the wind on second.
Hinske fouls off the first pitch. The second pitch is called strike two thanks to a more-than-generous call from the umpire saying Hinske did not check his swing. Hey, it’s been 28 years, we’ll take it.
And then The Call:
“Brad Lidge stretches…the 0–2 pitch…swing and a miss, struck him out! The Philadelphia Phillies are 2008 World Champions of Basebaaaalllll!”
A majority of the city didn’t hear that call live as they were tuned to Fox’s coverage, but everyone eventually heard it that night or the following morning. Everyone also eventually saw the footage of Harry making the call, Chris Wheeler to his left pumping his fists in the air like a maniac and high-fiving
people off camera. The look on his face was of someone who wanted to shout his joy to the Heavens but kept his mouth shut respectful of the fact that this moment wasn't really his; it was Harry’s moment.
After all that waiting, after all those close calls, after not getting the chance to call Tug’s strikeout in 1980, after losing his friend and “big brother” Richie Ashburn, after all those awful, awful teams, Kalas had his moment. He had his World Series call. He got to say the words he longed to say, “Philadelphia
Phillies…World Champions of baseball.”
Every Phillies fan knows where they were when Hinske swung and missed. They know the people they were with. They know—in order—the loved ones they called. They remember the first text message they received from a friend, a family member, a loved one and the ones that followed. “Oh Happy Day!” “We Won!!!” “YES!” “Unbelievable!”
They remember the first text message they sent. They remember the joy. They remember the high fives, the hugs and the tears.
They forget the pain of 1964. They forget the pain of Black Friday. They forget the pain of being out of the Pennant Race by the end of July. They forget the pain of Joe Carter, Wayne Gretzky, Tom Brady, Kobe Bryant.
April 13, 2009.
The news spreads. E-mails are sent at work. Text messages are sent and phone calls are made. Sports anchors’ and newscasters’ voices quiver. His fellow broadcasters have trouble talking to reporters. Shane Victorino hits a home run and with a voice that defines bittersweet, Scott Franzke tells the Phillies faithful, “Yes and I guess ‘that’s outta here’.” He signs off the broadcast, “For
Larry Andersen and Harry Kalas...”
There are weeklong tributes, a funeral at the stadium, video montages. There are red, mist filled eyes there are a million lumps in throats.
There are stories of Kalas and Ashburn and their antics in the booth. There are people talking about the rebroadcast of Kalas’ World Series winning call they just heard on the radio.
There is sadness.
There is a sense of loss not so much of a man and a broadcaster, but of a time. When the replay of Harry Kalas calling Mike Schmidt’s 500th home run is shown, people remember where they were, who they were with when that happened.
When Kalas’ call of Mitch Williams’ unlikely game winning extra-inning hit at 4:30 in the morning in 1993 is replayed people remember staying up to see the Phillies win and see the sunrise…and who they were with and how they felt.
They remember all the things that surrounded the games; the people, places, the smells, the food, the drink, the conversations. They remember the man that described it all to them. They remember that voice that was indescribable.
They remember being on the beach and hearing it from a battery powered radio. They remember hearing it as a child on PRISM on a hot July night lying on the living floor as their fathers sat in rocking chairs watching the game. They remember. They are sad that he is gone. Sad that as precious as those memories are there will be no new ones, at least they won’t be the same.
Although Harry Kalas is still with the Philadelphia Phillies and their fans in spirit and as the memories of that magnificent voice and those amazing calls resonate within our collective psyche, and as fitting an ending it was that his last full season calling games for the Phillies ended in that Championship call
he longed to make and the fan base longed to hear, it’s quite ironic that we are now in the Golden Age of Phillies baseball and he’s not here.
It would be great to have him here, physically, with us during this time of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Hunter Pence, Raul Ibanez, Roy Oswalt, Vance Worley and to have him see the players from that 2008 team thrive: Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Ryan Madson, Carlos Ruiz, Brad Lidge.
It’d be great to have him here calling these ho-hum August wins that we now expect as we gear up for yet another run for the World Series. To have him here as that Phillies team who shocked the baseball world by catching the Mets after being so far out of playoff contention in September 2008 and win the World Series became a juggernaut, the best team in baseball.
After all, he had to sit through a ton of crappy baseball in his time, if anyone deserved this, he did.
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