Wednesday, March 26, 2014

May 9, 2009: Phillies vs. Atlanta Braves

Two months after moving back to the east coast, I got another sports writing gig, this time in the historical town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This new job permitted me the freedom to write about the Phillies, and it was a Philly-focused column I penned in April 2009 that earned me my first Pennsylvania press award, but I can’t take credit. Harry Kalas basically wrote the piece for me.
My dad and I went to our first meaningful Phillies game together in nearly five years that May. Our first live look at the World Series champions in action fared worse than we hoped. The Atlanta Braves jumped all over starting pitcher Joe Blanton en route to a 6-2 victory. The only Philly runs came on two solo shots, one by Chase Utley and the other by new Phillies acquisition, Raul Ibanez, who took over for the departed Pat Burrell in left field.

Those home runs gave us two chances to hear Kalas’ “outta here” call ringing through the loudspeakers at Citizens Bank Park. My dad and I smiled each time, though our hearts hung heavy. It was just one of many ways the Philly organization honored a team icon who left us all so suddenly the month before.

My dad and I caught a glimpse of Kalas during the World Series parade in October 2008, but we had no way of knowing he was less than six months from his death. Even as his health deteriorated, a fact kept hidden from the public, nothing could keep Kalas from the broadcast booth, which was eventually where his heart gave out just prior to a Phillies road game against the Washington Nationals on April 13.

Later that afternoon, I was informed of Kalas’ death by my friend Bill Gribble, my first college roommate and fellow Phillies fan who also attended the parade with my dad and I. We both struggled to put our grief into words as we expressed how much this man meant to us. We felt like we had lost a family member.

It seemed like fate intervened when the high school sporting event I was scheduled to cover that evening was canceled, and I wrote the aforementioned column instead. It’s not like I could get my mind to focus on anything else anyway.

After moving to Gettysburg, I tried to make it back to Wilmington at least one Sunday per month to watch the Phillies with my dad, but watching them would never be the same. We knew that our love for the Phils stemmed just as much from how Harry called the team’s games than the team itself.

Kalas had long been considered an honorary Phillie, and the players dedicated the rest of the 2009 season to him, wearing an ‘HK’ patch on the front of their uniforms. Shane Victorino also came up with the idea to hang a pale blue suit jacket of Kalas’ in the dugout, along with his trademark white shoes.

My dad and I enjoyed the good fortune of meeting Kalas once in May 2006. He was invited to the Wilmington Flower Market as a guest of WDEL 1150 AM, the radio station that broadcasted Phillies games in Delaware. Kalas was there to sign autographs of his picture for any fans in attendance, an opportunity the announcer rarely turned down.

At the most, I would say there 40 of us there to see Kalas, probably because his appearance wasn’t well advertised. I preferred the intimate feel, even though I would have gladly stood in line for six hours to see him.

Before sitting down to sign autographs, Kalas took the mic and spoke to us about how much he appreciated our support of the Phightin’ Phils, particularly during a recent winning streak that pulled them to within a game of first place. As his velvety voice rang out all over Rockford Park, I couldn’t believe I was this close to it, and I was about to get a lot closer.

The anticipation burned like fire in the pit of our stomachs as my dad and I waited in line with our photos. When it was my turn, I scurried up to the table and showing a nervous grin, I placed my photo in front of Kalas. I hadn’t met very many famous people in my life, so I wasn’t sure what to say. I finally blurted out something to the effect of, “I’ve been listening to you call games since I was a little kid.” He had probably already heard that from the 10 people before me, but he smiled warmly and said, “Thank you,” as he handed back my freshly-signed photo.

In the end, my words to him were appropriate. Part of the thrill of watching Phillies games growing up was tuning in 10 minutes before first pitch to hear Kalas welcome the fans to the telecast. I remember Harry and Whitey's pre-game acting as the soundtrack to my 11th birthday as my mother lit the candles on the cake. Though my Phillies fandom was still in its infancy at that point, Harry's unofficial presence at my party just felt right. It’s the wish of anyone who puts him or herself out there for the public’s consumption that their product keeps people coming back. Kalas was the best in his field at that.

As we left Rockford Park, my dad and I kept glancing down at Kalas’ autograph to make sure we hadn’t dreamt the whole thing. We were blown away that we got to hear that classic voice in person, and it was actually speaking to us. I’m embarrassed to admit that my dad and I lost our autographed photos after only a few weeks, but they were merely secondary to the experience of meeting one of our idols. It’s a meeting I treasure over any Phillies player. That is what he meant to the fans and to the art of broadcasting.

We won’t see another like Kalas again, but I’m so glad that my dad and I got to meet him, and I’m glad that he was alive to both see and call their second world championship. The Phillies made it back to the Fall Classic in October 2009, but lost in six games to the New York Yankees. I think the greatest moment of another Series win would’ve been when the players hoisted that trophy over their heads and said in perfect unison, “This one’s for Harry.”

Monday, March 17, 2014

April 30, 2011: Phillies vs. New York Mets

In 2011, I became more of an involved Phillies fan than ever before.

I wrote about them on an almost-daily basis for a startup sports website that unfortunately never got off the ground. Colleen received a major promotion at work that allowed me the financial freedom to attend six Phillies games that season, including trips to Pittsburgh and Washington (my first time ever seeing them on the road).

By now, I had a small group of people on my Phillies game invite list, but I still planned a game with my dad before anyone else.

I entered Citizens Bank Park that Saturday afternoon with more confidence about a Phillies win than at any previous game since 1993, and for once, I wasn’t looking for a Phillies blowout. The reason? His name was Roy “Doc” Halladay.

The Phillies struck fear in the hearts and minds of every other batting lineup in the National League prior to the season when they magically brought back Cliff Lee after losing him in 2009 – second sweetest Christmas gift ever behind the signed Cal Ripken ball Colleen gave me. The deck was now stacked in the Phillies’ favor with a rotation that included Lee, Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt.

But Halladay was an ace among aces. Not only did he run away with the Cy Young Award in 2010, his first year with Philadelphia, he tossed a perfect game in May and threw just the second postseason no-hitter in major league history that October against the Cincinnati Reds. He displayed a full arsenal of pitches that he could throw with absolute precision in any count. I had never seen a pitcher who looked in complete control every time he toed the rubber. Halladay was one of those rare hurlers who became even more unhittable with runners on base.

The New York Mets lineup looked befuddled against Doc over the first three innings. He retired nine of the first 10 men he faced on just 23 pitches, 21 of which were strikes. The Mets got to Halladay in the fourth, leading off with three straight singles to take a 1-0 lead, but he stopped the bleeding there. He bounced back quickly, collecting five of his eight strikeouts in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings.

The Philly offense finally rewarded Halladay’s strong outing in the bottom of the seventh with a pair of runs. Home plate became a harder destination to reach for the Phillies by 2011 – 4.4 runs per game, compared with 5.1 in 2009 – but scoring wasn’t as pressing of an issue when their starters were going seven or eight innings every night.

Even guys like Halladay tire toward the end of a game, and Doc made things interesting in the ninth before tying down the 2-1 victory. He threw six straight balls to start the inning, and Carlos Beltran nearly took him deep on a fly ball for the first out. After Halladay struck Jason Bay out, the game ended on an unlikely flash of the leather by well-below-average first baseman Ryan Howard. He made a diving stop on a sizzling ground ball by Ike Davis, and then flipped to his pitcher for the 27th out. Similar to 1993, it seemed like no matter how they got it done, the Phillies were going to win.

It was Halladay’s second complete game of the young season, and he also owned five of the team’s 18 wins in April. My dad and I agreed Halladay’s gem was one of the best games we had ever seen together.

Prior to 2011, my dad and I were convinced we were bad luck for the Phillies. Of the nine games we went to between 1994 and 2010, our boys had won just three of them, and one of those was with backup players. The Phillies lost the three additional games I went to with friends over the same period.

Now that the Phightins boasted one of the best pitching rotations in baseball history, my luck suddenly changed. They won all six games that I saw from the stands in 2011, and three of those wins were the team’s only victory in that particular series. The icing on the cake came in September at Citizens Bank Park. I was there with my friend, Bill Paulino*, to witness the Phillies clinch their fifth straight NL East title. They would go on to post the best regular-season record (102-60) in team history.

That magical rotation made it all possible. Halladay, Lee and Hamels all finished in the top 6 in Cy Young voting after the season. More importantly, they helped me truly discover the beautiful art of pitching and to appreciate the 2-1 pitchers duels like my dad.


*Bill and I became friends through our love of the Phillies. How we met was stuff of legends. It was May 29, 2010, and we were gathered with mutual friends at a sports bar in New Castle, Delaware. We were there to watch the Philadelphia Flyers play in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals, but we wound up watching Halladay throw a perfect game against the Florida Marlins.

Monday, March 3, 2014

August 18, 2002: Harry Kalas Hall of Fame celebration

Major League Baseball offers its fans numerous opportunities during the regular season to honor the most cherished members of their team’s extended family, be they former players, coaches or front office executives. Dad and I made sure we were present for Phillies’ most anticipated of these occasions during the 2002 campaign, and for many in attendance, the celebration recognized not so much a person, but a voice.

The calming baritone to which I refer belonged to none other than Phillies play-by-play announcer Harry Kalas. Despite hailing from the Midwest, Kalas was as Philadelphia as cheesesteaks. He endeared himself to the fans and the players with his easy-going personality and blue-collar devotion to his craft. In the days before he gave up drinking, he could be frequently found at the local watering hole until the wee hours, belting out classic oldies for his listeners, but he always somehow turned up to the broadcast booth on time with a clear head.

And that voice. It carried you to a special place that made baseball an inviting and comforting diversion from life’s daily grind. Kalas also stirred up the adrenalin in just the right doses on every exciting play. Whenever he raised his voice to an enthusiastic yell, particularly on his trademark “outta here” home run calls, he showed his genuine love for the game and his job. I owe my appreciation of baseball to my father, but Kalas played a definite role as well, as he did for multiple generations of Phillies fans.

Now in his 32nd season with the organization, Kalas received baseball’s highest honor for broadcasters, the Ford C. Frick Award. It’s akin to a Hall of Fame induction for players, and a plaque signifying Kalas’ award is displayed in Cooperstown.

The Phillies commemorated this special recognition with Harry Kalas Day, resulting in Veterans Stadium’s only sellout in another disappointing season. Kalas, donning in a white suit jacket and purple lei around his neck, was honored with a touching pre-game ceremony on the field. Hosts Glenn Wilson and Darren Daulton led the crowd through several of Kalas’ most memorable calls, including Mike Schmidt’s 500th home run and the last out of the division-clinching game in 1993. Kalas’ family and several members of the ‘80 and ‘93 Phillies teams joined him on the field, and he received a lap around the edge of the field while perched in the back of a red convertible. At the end of the ceremony, we finally got to hear Harry the K himself when he took the microphone to thank the fans for their support over the last 31 years. Kalas’ words carried a special weight for my dad, who had been watching and listening every one of those years.

One of the most touching moments of the ceremony for me occurred when Scott Rolen, who was traded to the visiting St. Louis Cardinals just three weeks earlier, emerged from the visitors dugout, gave Kalas a hug, and then opened the car door for him just prior to the lap. It’s a shame that Kalas and Rolen’s soundtrack to this moment was a chorus of boos from a majority of the crowd. Rolen’s difficulties with Philadelphia manager Larry Bowa were well documented, and some fans never forgave Rolen for his unceremonious departure, but for this one magical event they should have taken the high road.

Rolen wasn’t the only Cardinal under fire.

J.D. Drew became public enemy No. 1 in 1997 when he rejected the Phillies drafting him second overall because they refused the $10 million signing price that Drew’s evil agent, Scott Boras, demanded. The Cardinals gave into Drew and Boras when they drafted him the following year. During Drew’s first visit to Veterans Stadium in 1999, the fans famously showed their displeasure by throwing countless objects, including D-cell batteries, at him.

When Drew came to the plate in the top of the sixth inning to the usual round of boos, some fans sitting near my dad and I in the upper deck took things too far. I guess they counted on Drew to possess X-Ray vision because they stuck up their middle fingers while screaming obscenities. Other fans seated several rows below began shouting up at them to knock it off in deference to the children trying to enjoy the game. That only encouraged the offenders to scream louder, which prompted security to remove them from the area.

My dad and I and the people immediately around us could only shake our heads and laugh. One guy in the row behind us perfectly summed up the situation. Channeling his inner Rodney King, he pleaded innocently, “Can’t we all just get a Bud Light?” I couldn’t believe fans were still getting this worked up over Drew, but at least they provided me with better entertainment than the Phillies, who lost the game 5-1.

Every fan who attended the game received a special item: a bobblehead of Kalas and his former partner in crime, color commentator and Phillies Hall of Fame centerfielder Richie “Whitey” Ashburn. The two of them worked together in the booth for 26 years until Ashburn’s untimely passing in 1997. Their chemistry and humor on the air remains wonderfully unique.

And what would Ashburn’s response to that day’s celebration be?
As His Whiteness would say, “Great job, Harry. Now, let’s order a pizza!”