Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Kalas and Fidrych: Gone But Not Forgotten

Longtime Philadelphia Phillies baseball announcer Harry Kalas passed away yesterday, and by all reports he was a well-liked individual and apparently a very nice man. He collapsed in the broadcast booth at Nationals Park prior to the Nationals-Phillies game in Washington, D.C.

Death brings a sense of sadness—and an immediate tendency to reflect on the past. Having lived to 73, and having spent 38 years as the “voice of the Phillies,” Kalas was a part of many memories, and the memorializers were quick to tell us how Harry was the “soundtrack” for the lives of so many Philly sports fans.

I think it’s sad that Kalas is gone because if it’s true that he was a good human being, then the world is diminished by his leaving us.

But I don’t understand it when ESPN personnel go all gooey and hyperbolic in their reminiscences—especially about a guy who must have had one of the cushiest career rides in sports media history.

Kalas had a distinctive voice, without doubt, and it’s probable that his work as a narrator for NFL Films is what will live on the longest. In fact, Kalas had a voice made for football—a deeper-than-normal baritone that was gritty and actually rather grating.

So when ESPN’s Jayson Stark, in a video memorial, describes Kalas as delivering “dulcet words” in his Phillies broadcasts—while legacy-like piano music tinkles in the background [think the Master’s theme]—you gotta wonder why people so easily substitute bullshit for reality. Dulcet means “sweet and soothing.” (You could look it up, Jayson; in fact, you should look it up.) Anyone with a brain, and who had ever heard Kalas, could never describe his voice as “dulcet.” (Vin Scully is dulcet, okay?)

Stark also talked of Kalas’ “unmistakable Hall of Fame stamp” (whatever that means, besides the fact that Kalas got into the Hall of Fame) and how he “exuded a love for what he did.” Well, hell, if you got to announce baseball games for about 45 years, plus pick up sweet sidework—Kalas did national commercials occasionally—you’d probably exude a love for what you did, too. Exuding love for what you do is great, but there’s nothing heroic about it.

Who can forget the venal character Noah Cross’ line in the film Chinatown: “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” You could say that about sports announcers, too. Christ, they’re still trying to prop up Yankees PA announcer Bob Sheppard last I heard. Sheppard’s 98 (!!), still exuding love for what he does. That, or he simply won’t go away. And to think Kalas might’ve had 25 more years himself.

I guess I think this: If someone has died, then what they deserve is an honest rundown of what they’ve done and how they did it. Not made-up fantasy crap that doesn’t tell the tale.

Stark also said that he “can’t imagine how the players are going to take the field” upon hearing of Kalas’ passing. Former Phillie and ESPN analyst John Kruk claimed, “we’re going to miss him desperately,” citing Kalas’ “calming voice” (guess Kruk has wax in his ears too) and the “difficult day” ahead.

I dunno. The Phils seemed unmoved. All they did was score a lot of runs and beat the Nats 9-8. Jamie Moyer pitched his typical mediocre game and against the terrible Nationals that’s all you need. Somehow the broadcast booth carried on.

Two seasons ago, I found myself watching a lot of baseball highlights at MLB.com. Every time I checked out the Phillies and heard Kalas’ voice, I winced. Judging his performance strictly on its quality—never mind all the icon stuff—Kalas sounded tired, sometimes slow on the uptake, occasionally groping in mid-sentence to remember a name, and generally hardened of the arteries. Sorry, folks, that’s the truth.

But I think, where Kalas’ life is concerned, it should definitely be celebrated. He had a great ride, and he died in a baseball broadcast booth. Who could ask for more? That oughta spark a cool party—with lots of beer.

Now the sudden passing of 22-year-old Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart? That was sad.

Bird Man

The other big death news from Monday was the report of the demise of Mark Fidrych, known as “The Bird,” whose high-flying 1976 season with the Detroit Tigers remains one of the most colorful and wonderful stories in baseball history. Fidrych came out of nowhere to win the American League Rookie of the Year Award, when he was 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games. (Take note, all you pansy-ass pitch-counters: 24 CGs in 29 starts.) Injuries began to plague Fidrych not long into his very next season—his knee, NOT his arm—and his career was, for all practical purposes, suddenly over. He totaled five seasons in the majors, all with the Tigers, with a lifetime mark of 29-19 and a 3.10 ERA.

The Bird was as idiosyncratic as they come when he was on the mound—landscaping the dirt (sometimes down on all fours!), talking to himself (and the ball!!), high-fiving teammates in the middle of innings—in-between mowing down hitters with his excellent control and inducing a lot of easy ground-ball outs. Fidrych was the real deal: an exuberant, unpretentious and genuine baseball flake. Like Kalas, I guess you could say that The Bird exuded a love for what he did, but truthfully, I don’t think he thought about it that much. I’m sure he was, as they say, just happy to be there.

Fidrych died on his Massachusetts farm, apparently while fixing a truck that he used for road construction work. Details were sketchy, but it sounds like just one of those things.

The Bird was 54. Way too young, and—just think—44 years younger than Bob Sheppard.

But that’s the thing about death. It’s out of our control, and it's as mysterious as life itself.

God bless 'em all.

No comments: