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Monday
Apr132009

Summer Nights.

Out back my Uncle Carl's house, the long summer day would draw cool air into its engines, then kill the power to glide like a phantom from out of the sky, over across the cattail reeds and wooden docks and down along avenues of curving lagoon. Around flag-less poles, once popping with afternoon flags now safely lowered and put away by retirees who folded them ever so gently in the old style, the evening would rise up from the baked pebbles of the unfenced yard and spread out into all the places day had been an hour or so ago. Under the seagulls, I would stare across the bay at the twinkling lights of Atlantic City getting turned on.

It was 1981, and the Philadelphia mafia was everywhere over there, killing and gambling. But I didn't know, or care. My fingers smelled like sand shark and flounder from all the fish we'd been catching. My hair was matted with salt and wind. I was away from home, alone without my Mom, for the first time. A week of fishing in my ex-State Trooper uncle's small boat. Of fried fish and lemon. And a week of falling asleep to the gentle voice of summer. Harry Kalas.

After I'd helped with dishes and kissed my Aunt Betty goodnight through her breath of a couple Manhattans, I'd skip steps up to my room, close the door behind me and turn on the radio for the Phils. Baseball was my life, was everything in the universe that could possibly mean anything at all. Well, baseball and baseball cards. There in the dark, I would lay on the cool clean sheets and listen to that distant galaxy I loved.

Harry Kalas and Richie "Whitey" Ashburn were the Phillies announcers. And they were my captains into the boundless night. Their sly war-buddy rapport made me somehow feel more grown-up, kind of like my Uncle Carl made me feel at his house that week; I probably could have mixed myself a Manhattan in front of him and he'd of let me down it. The way they'd poke each other just a bit during long stretches of time when little was happening on the field, I just loved it.

That week, as the Phillies played the Expos or whoever, I listened to every single second of broadcast. At times Whitey would chuckle for no real reason, and you could almost tell that he and Harry were conducting an inside joke. Whitey would laugh at someting unknown to me. Then, some really long moments of the sparse Expo crowd: a lone holler, an airhorn in the upper deck, the peanut vendor's pitch. And finally, Harry would come back in like a jazz genius, a smile on his voice, and say something simple like its Fireworks Night at the Vet in Philly in two weeks...and the whole fuckin' thing played out like the most wonderous American opera ever written. I had a week of that. Of flounder fishing and that. Was one of the greatest of my life.

Later, me and my brother Dave had a friend pull some strings for our band. Next thing you know we were in the bowels of the ballpark where the Phils lived and Harry Kalas was recording some stuff for us for our first record. Just some things we'd written just for him to say. He was really gracious and nice. Me and Dave were in awe of him. All of our lives, his voice had been there. Now here we were together. He told us to go down on the field before the afternoon's game. He made sure it was ok. Then, he invited us into the announcing booth. It was just him and Whitey and us. We stayed a whole half inning. Harry introduced us to people as "the band guys". It felt like a dream.

Anyways, lots of guys like me have baseball memories. We were the last of a kind in a lotta ways, I guess. Still, my guy died today. Harry Kalas. And with him goes something I will never know again. A deep gentle timbre to guide me through the black of space to some brightly lit concrete spaceship landed on the edge of a dirty city. A once-in-a-lifetime voice that brought baseball to my room for many many years. I hope my little daughter experiences something so cool in her lifetime. Maybe not with baseball, but with whatever it is that captures her young heart and mind.

Night, Harry. Thank you.

Reader Comments (13)

Amen to All That.

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Was never a Phillies fan, but this is an amazing tribute.Thanks for your words, Serge.

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

It was a different time, wasn't it? Baseball is just so different nowadays, sigh.

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Great, great prose Serge.

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNick

Thanks for the great post, memory. I kind of hate the Phillies (I'm a Cubs fan, sorry Serge) but loved Harry Kalas. Married a beautiful South Jersey girl and so spend a lot of the summer in my sports-obessed step-father-in-law's house at the shore while the Phillies and Harry are/were always on. I loved the guys voice (and ended up liking him even more because of "Rain Delay"). Made me think of when I was a kid in the 70s listening to Jack Brickhouse say "hey, hey" when Ernie Banks and later on Leon Durham hit one onto Waveland. You Phils fans were lucky to have Harry for so long.

April 14, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterfellowdad

"Hard to believe, Harry"

I've read a lot of post-mortems back here (EAST) over the past 18 hours.

I've heard all the famous "calls."

Nothing made me break down like hearing Harry's 9th inning call of his last game in Colorado. It was supposedly another game to be followed by another game.

But it was the last game. Harry's last game.

Your story was beautifully written and, as is the magic of growing up with baseball; Phillies baseball on the radio, a story shared by millions of us.

Thank you!

April 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

I grew up with the Tigers and Ernie Harwell so I remember many summer nights listening and keeping score on my notebook pad then racing downstairs to tell my Dad details of the game. I would fall asleep listeing to Ernie and Paul when they did the West Coast games.

Anyway, thank you for this beautiful tribute.

April 14, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterhockeychic

Maybe your true calling was as a sports writer?

Seriously, this is the best Kalas piece I've read today.

April 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPete

I did not know of Harry Kalas until recently, it is so cool to hear your memories of him. I love your writing and Monica's and I check both of your blogs daily. Keep it up! :)

April 14, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermizkylie

Will miss "The Bird", too.

April 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCid

Thanks Serge. Couldn't agree more.

April 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTapRoom

jeez, Serge. Gonna make me cry again. The Inquirer shoulda posted that one.

April 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEric

wow, great piece! this from a Yankees fan in Massachusetts... I remember 1981 well, I was ten years old. I knew more of Kalas's work as an announcer for the NFL Films game of the week, what a magnificent voice, it brings me back to those days of old when I hear replays. Anyway, great tribute for a great man.

April 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

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