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!”

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