Monday, April 13, 2009

Remembering Harry Kalas

It's never good news when an anchor breaks in to regularly-scheduled programming with a special report. A major accident, a school shooting, the death of a world leader or a legend. This afternoon, a legend passed away, and of the Phillies organization and it's fans, indeed, the entire Major League Baseball world, took a shot to the stomach that will be difficult - if impossible - to recover from.

Harry Kalas, longtime broadcaster of Phillies games, died in Washington, D.C., after being found collapsed in the broadcast booth before the start of the Washington Nationals home opener against the Phils. For me, it's impossible to write a blog about my memories growing up in Philly and not remember Harry Kalas, as my memories of him and of the Phillies go back almost as long as my lifetime itself.

The year 1971 was a banner year in Philadelphia. It was the year the Phillies moved from their North Philadelphia home of Connie Mack Stadium to their brand-new digs named Veterans Stadium, or The Vet to it's many fans and detractors. Along with their move to the new stadium came the addition of a new broadcaster to the ranks of two other legends in the field, Richie Ashburn and By Saam.

That very same year was the year that I was introduced to the game of baseball, and I've been fascinated with it ever since. Most young boys are made aware of sports by their fathers, but my Dad wasn't a sports fan. The only time he ever got near a game was when someone gave him tickets. Even then, they had to be good seats, no general admission or reserved seating. Dad's only business of going to see the Phils play was just that - business. He'd get tickets from various car dealers and sit an discuss the business of auto loans with them or kick back a few beers, forget that a game was going on before him. When The Vet added deluxe boxes, it was a boom to my brother and I. If Dad got tickets for any other seating, Mark and I would get to see a game and often, those tickets got us down to the Field Box seats along the first base line. That was okay with us, we had no business in the deluxe boxes anyhow. All the action occurred where the regular folks were, down below. So at the age of nine, Mom took us to our first Phillies game, and taught us baseball. Mom's a long-time Phillies fan, and to this day will spend an afternoon telling anyone who will listen about the 1950's Whiz Kids and her experiences at the games. Her favorite still is pitcher Robin Roberts, and it's guaranteed she'll beam a smile whenever she sees him on TV at a Phillies alumni game or some other special event.

I never got to hear Bill Campbell call a game. He was gone just before I started to understand why nine guys on a diamond smacked around a small ball with a wooden stick. I found out later that replacing him was a very unpopular move in this city that treats sports figures as idols, but that man who replaced him, Harry Kalas, didn't take long to endear himself to the fans here. His unmistakable voice and the way he called the games caught on quickly. And that's what hurts, knowing that the news we heard today will impact us forever. No more "struck him out", no more "outta here...!" No one will ever call the games like Harry, but then, that's the way it is with originals. They're sometimes imitated, but never duplicated.

What was great was that Harry called every game with enthusiasm, whether we had a winning team or not. My formative baseball years were during the era of manager Frank Lucchesi, when the home team couldn't seem to buy a win. But Harry kept the fans attention and we saw things improve during the reign of Danny Ozark. It was during his tenure that my brother and I saw the Phils clench their first-ever division title (in our lifetime), and we really started to understand the thrill of baseball. I remember Mark exclaiming, "Hey, Harry Kalas is crying!" when we took the division, not understanding until then how emotional baseball can be, for winners and losers alike. Since that game in 1975, we've shared two World Series victories with Harry and the guys in the booth, and a few attempts as well.

This afternoon, after watching the pre-game show on Comcast SportsNet dedicated to Harry, I watched the first-ever post-Kalas Phillies game. Sure there were other games in the past where he missed broadcasting, like last season when he was out for a few games recovering from eye surgery, but to know that ever game from here on in will be called without him in the booth leaves an awfully big hole that can't be filled. Just like it was eleven years ago with the death of Whitey Ashburn, the Phils lose a legend in broadcasting, and us fans mourn. It was said during the game today that many thought that Harry Kalas never recovered from the loss of Richie Ashburn. Lifelong Phillies fans still miss Whitey. But as much as we do, losing Harry Kalas seems harder still. We know we've been blessed with him calling thirty-eight years worth of games. And we grieve at the thought of him calling them nevermore.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Easter Ducks

Kids have far more fun on holidays than adults do. By the time we've hit our thirties, we've exhausted all of the simple ways of having a good time and we find the burdens of life weighing down on us. Most of you will probably look back on past Christmases, Easters, and other holidays and have a number of memories that will keep you smiling for the rest of your lives.

For a few years, we really looked forward to Easter coming. And that anticipation was for one simple reason - ducks! For a few years, every Easter season, my brother's godmother would bring us a gift of a couple of small ducks for us to have as pets. The birds were past the point of being chicks and were just starting to grow. For not being able to catch a ball or play with certain pet toys, they were really fun to have, especially for kids who still had some time yet before the teen years came upon us, when our interests shifted to different things. Anyway, some kids got rabbit, but we were the only ones who had ducks, which made us unique and all the other kids around the block thought it was cool. They wanted to come by and see them and pet them, and maybe some adults had thoughts of eating them - or not - who knows?

One thing we found out with experience is that ducks get too big for pets when you have only a small concrete patch for a yard and no where to house them. As they grew, the ducks sometimes escaped from the back yard because one of us would leave the gate open and give them their freedom. Once, the lady who ran the variety store around the corner, Mrs. Lenore, came running to our house and had my mom run with her back to the store. The birds made their way down the alley, waddled a few feet down Oregon Avenue, and up the two steps into Mrs. Lenore's store. My mom calmed her down and took the two of them back home and secured them, nervously waiting for us to again leave a gate opened, or give them some other way to get away again.

Because ducks get too big as pets, we never had them longer than mid-summer. As they got too large to keep around, my grandfather would make arrangements for someone to take them "to the farm". We would take my parents word that the birds were going to some nice place to pleasantly live out the rest of their lives, as it would be much better for them than risk seeing them run into traffic or have something else happen to them. What my brother and sister and I wondered secretly is whether they were going to Shady Acres (or whatever nice name you want to give the "farm"), or if they were going to end up as someone's dinner. Probably they did find a nice home, but we had a curious suspicion of things like this.

After maybe three years of having ducks at Easter, my mom asked that my brother's godmother no longer bring them. As much as we were grateful for them, she knew we were heartbroken because the ducks would be gone in just a few months, and she didn't want to see us disappointed again. And so, that ended having any kind of birds as pets. A few years later, we'd get our first dog, but until then, we'd have to enjoy the memories of these waddling birds running around and pecking us.