Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Hard to Believe It's Been a Year

April 13, 2009. It was a chilly, overcast day after Easter. I had the day off from work, so I was looking forward to some family time, lunch, then settle in at 3:00 to watch the Phillies take on the Washington Nationals. The season was still very young, and we Phillies fans were all still basking in the glow of the team's 2008 World Series triumph. The previous day, the Phils had pulled out a dramatic 7-5 win over the Colorado Rockies, with '08 playoff folk hero Matt Stairs delivering a two-run, pinch-hit home run in the ninth inning to provide the winning margin. The opener of the Washington series was to be followed by an off day in which the team would make the traditional White House visit as a reward for their World Championship. Little did anyone know we would soon be receiving news that would turn our world upside down.

I was on my way home from the park at approximately 1:15 P.M. when I received a haunting text message. It stated that Harry Kalas had been found unconscious and unresponsive in the broadcast booth at Nationals Park. I won't name names, but the original source of the message was someone close to the situation. My heart immediately sunk and a million thoughts raced through my mind. Although deep down I knew there was no way this was going to have anything but a devastating conclusion, I tried to deny it. Maybe there was some bad information passed along, or maybe the circumstances weren't quite as dire as they seemed. I mean, this was HARRY KALAS, for crying out loud! There's no Philadelphia Phillies without Harry, right? He has to be OK. All the while, I was hoping against hope to hear some kind of good news, because there was no way I could handle the announcement that was about to be made.

At 2:00, the announcement that I never wanted to hear was officially made. Harry Kalas had died at approximately 1:20 P.M. on April 13, 2009 at the age of 73. Upon hearing the news, I broke down and sobbed uncontrollably for several minutes. It was like losing a family member. I kept saying how it would never be the same anymore. When I was finally able to somewhat compose myself, I looked at my daughter (seven years old then, now eight), smiled halfheartedly and noted that I believed it was the first time she'd ever seen me cry. The Nationals offered to postpone that day's game, but the Phillies declined, as they knew Harry would want the game to be played. Like so many other Phillies fans, I watched the game in a daze. The Phils held off the Nats, 9-8. Four days later, I was in attendance as the Phillies played their first home game since Harry's passing, and more tears were shed. Then, on April 18, a public memorial was held at Citizens Bank Park. Work commitments prevented me from attending, but I was able to watch on TV. Let's just say that as the service drew to its conclusion, I had to close the door and shut the blinds in the office. And I can never, ever hear Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" in the same way again. Just the thought of it puts a lump in my throat.

I was born in 1980, so if you're in my general age group, you know it wasn't easy to grow up a Phillies fan. When the team won its first World Series title, I was all of two months old. Three years later, the Phils returned to the World Series, but then the wheels came off. Between 1984 and 2000, the Phillies managed just two winning seasons. Yes, they'd win the NL Pennant in 1993, but there was much more thin than thick during that time. Year after year of bad baseball without much hope of getting better. You better believe I faced a lot of ridicule for continually putting my faith in the Phightin' Phils, and there absolutely were times when I wondered if it was ever going to pay off. But loyalty always won out, and the Phillies remained my team. I think a lot of that had to do with Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn. No matter how bad things got on the field, there was always that level of comfort Harry and Whitey could provide. Growing up on Howland Street in the Juniata section of Philadelphia, we'd spend many a summer night gathered around a transistor radio on the front steps listening to Harry and Whitey call the action. The losses outnumbered the wins, but they kept us coming back night after night, year after year. They became part of our family. To me, they were like a six-month security blanket, a perfect way to end the day. On good days, I could turn on the radio and let the good times roll. On bad days, I could turn to Harry and Whitey to take my mind off things for a couple hours. When all was said and done, I'd often forgotten about what was bothering me in the first place.

When Whitey passed away in 1997, that security blanket was ripped in half. We needed Harry to comfort us in a time of despair, and we in turn had to help Harry get through a most shattering loss. While Harry may have never been quite the same after Whitey's passing, we made it known just how much we loved Harry and how much we cared. Players came and went, but we felt Harry was going to be with us forever. During every team ceremony that he emceed, Harry was the one who got the biggest ovation. As much as we love certain players, I think we can all envision the day when they're no longer wearing a Phillies uniform. But when it came to Harry Kalas, did anyone ever envision a day when he was no longer behind the microphone?

During the 2000s, the fortunes of the franchise began to change. After a string of painful near-misses, the Phillies finally broke through in 2007, winning the NL East on the season's final day. A year later, the Philadelphia Phillies became World Champions of Baseball. Network regulations prevented Harry from calling the 1980 World Series (a rule that would be lifted due in no small part to the public outcry from Phillies fans), so at the age of 72, he finally got to make the call of a lifetime when Brad Lidge struck out Tampa Bay's Eric Hinske to end the '08 Series. No victory celebration was complete, however, without hearing Harry belting out Frank Sinatra's "High Hopes." To hear Harry singing that song was a dream come true for many, and the tradition continues today after every single Phillies win at Citizens Bank Park. In retrospect, it's hard to imagine us enjoying the 2008 World Series victory any more than we did, but can you imagine how much more we would've lived it up had we known Harry would be gone less than six months later?

When Harry left us a year ago today, the other half of that security blanket was taken away forever. Outwardly, nothing will ever change in the way I root for the Phillies. I'll still enjoy every win and be disappointed by every loss. I'll still get pumped when Ryan Howard hits a big home run and cringe whenever he chases a breaking ball in the dirt. The adrenaline will still flow whenever Shane Victorino flies around the bases, and my face will still rest in the palm of my hand whenever he pops up the first pitch after the previous hitter has walked on four pitches. I'll still marvel at Cole Hamels baffling a hitter with a Bugs Bunny changeup, but be frustrated whenever he falls victim to a two-out rally. But there will always be something missing. Whenever a great moment occurs, there won't be that voice, that call. But where I'll miss Harry the most is after the tough losses. Harry felt our pain, shared in our disappointment, but he had a way of reminding us tomorrow was another day, so there was no sense dwelling on this one.

I was fortunate enough to meet Harry Kalas twice in my life. The first time was in 1995, when I advanced to the championship round of the Phillies Home Run Derby, which was held at the Vet. The finals took place before a Sunday afternoon game late in the season. I was in the oldest age group, so we were the last ones to hit. We got to hang out in the Phillies' dugout for four hours, the only rules being no autographs and we couldn't go in the clubhouse. Eventually, the players started filing in. After a while, Harry strolls along with a cup of coffee in his hand, humming a tune. We all kind of gravitated to him, but nobody said anything until yours truly blurted out, "Hey, Harry the K!" Very eloquent, I know, but without missing a beat, Harry (as only he could) responded, "You boys gonna hit the ball loooooooooooooooooooong and faaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrr today?" That's the sort of thing you never forget.

My other meeting with Harry was in 2007, at the annual postseason holiday sale at the Majestic Store in Citizens Bank Park. On my way in, I noticed Harry was walking a good bit in front of me. I tried to speed up to hold the door for him, but couldn't quite get there in time. We did eventually make eye contact. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, I said, "Harry the K, my idol! How ya doin'?" To be honest, I'm not even sure what his reply was. It doesn't really matter. It's simply amazing how much of an impact a person you've interacted with for a total of about 30 seconds can have. But then I realize how lucky I am. So many people who never got to meet Harry at all felt the exact same way.

We never thought the day would come that Harry Kalas left us. It truly is hard to believe it's already been a year. As Phillies fans, we must continue to do what Harry would've wanted, and that's to keep cheering on the Phightins. The fact that Harry won't be there to call any more great Phillies moments leaves an infinite amount of sadness. But we can take solace in the fact that through the good times and the bad times, he gave us enough great memories to last a lifetime.

Harry, we remember you every day. On this first anniversary of your passing, I just want to say from the bottom of my heart that we love you, we miss you so much, and we will never, ever forget you. Any time I have a "see through" it will be with you in mind. Have fun with Whitey, keep watching over us and the Phightin' Phils.