Monday, April 13, 2009

Baseball's Start Gets Worse: Farewell to Harry and The Bird

A bad start for baseball got much worse today. We lost Harry Kalas.

One of the great baseball announcers of all time, he called games for the Phillies from the Veterans Stadium opener in 1971, through the near-misses of the late 1970s, to the 1980 World Championship that brought the Phils to the top of the baseball world after 98 years, Steve Carlton's 300th win and 3,000 strikeout, all 548 of Mike Schmidt's home runs including his 500th, no-hitters by Rick Wise, Tommy Greene and Kevin Millwood, the 1983 and 1993 Pennants, the Vet finale, the opening of Citizens Bank Park, and the 2008 World Championship that ended a 25-year drought for the entire city, to the start of the defense of that title.

Harry also narrated most of the Phillies' promotional videos and DVD, including a recent tribute to former partner Richie Ashburn, and some NFL Films work.

Once, happiness was sitting on a bench on a boardwalk overlooking the Jersey Shore, with a slice of pizza in one hand and a bottle of Pepsi in the other, listening to John Sterling and Michael Kay broadcast the Yankees on 770 WABC, then Bob Murphy and Gary Cohen with the Mets on 660 WFAN, and then spinning to 1210 (by whatever call letters) to hear Harry Kalas and Whitey (as Ashburn was known), later Harry and Larry Anderson, call the Phils.

Unlike Ashburn, the Hall of Fame center fielder who died in a New York hotel between games of a Phils-Mets series in 1997, Harry was found where he was happiest, in the broadcast booth, preparing for tonight's game in Washington against the Nationals.

Now, as the man himself might say, Harry the K is... outta here. Rest in peace, old friend.

*

And if that wasn't bad enough, we lost The Bird, Mark Fidrych.
He took the American League by storm in 1976, and when he pitched, the Detroit Tigers, then an awful team in a suffering city, went from an average attendance of 14,000 at already-creaky Tiger Stadium to 40,000. His start on ABC's Monday Night Baseball on June 28 was a national phenomenon, and he beat the soon-to-be-Pennant-winning Yankees 5-1.

He was just 21 years old, and he was as amazed by it as anyone else. He went 19-9 that year, led the AL in earned run average, and started for it in the All-Star Game. But it wasn't just that he was talented. He was also a big character.

He tried to explain that he would talk to himself on the mound, saying things like, "Settle down, you're getting too nervous." But somehow, it got around that he was "talking to the ball," telling it where he wanted it to go. He would smooth out the mound. He would walk over to an infielder who'd made a great play and shake his hand.

You see, in baseball, which has so often been culturally behind the times -- the world's 1970s were baseball's "Sixties" -- this was considered weird. What's wrong with thanking your fielder for making a great play, or fixing the mound the way you want it?

In spring training the next season, Fidrych, known as "the Bird" because his curly blond hair reminded someone of the Sesame Street character Big Bird -- hurt his knee. Trying to favor it, he hurt his shoulder, tearing his rotator cuff. The amazing thing is -- forgive me if this sounds like a Yogi Berra line -- when he could pitch, he could still pitch. He had a nine-strikeout, no-walk 2-1 win over the Yankees that season. But he couldn't pitch without pain often enough, and that was his last season of any productiveness. After 1980, he was done, a nobody at 21, a superstar at 22, a has-been at 24.

The amazing thing about Fidrych is that he didn't look at his career as tragic. Even though he got hurt and left baseball before salaries really took off, he had the attitude of, "So what, it's not the end of the world, I've got another life." And for about 30 years, he did have another life, running a farm and a gas station in western Massachusetts. He thought it was a good life, and who are we to doubt him?

Still, he accepted that baseball fans liked him, and participated in old-timers' games, the Tiger Stadium finale in 1999, things like that. I know this is going to sound like another Yogi-ism -- so what, Yogi was a character, too, and still is -- but it was good that the good things that happened to him happened to him.
Fidrych at the Tiger Stadium finale in 1999.

Things like this often happen in threes. If anyone knows Ken Harrelson, or Bill Lee, or Jimmy Piersall, or anybody who is (or was) an announcer or a colorful ex-player (or both), tell him to be careful!

So long, gentlemen. Harold Norbert Kalas, 1936-2009. Mark Steven Fidrych, 1954-2009.

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