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.”

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