Bill Conlin | CRITICS CALLOUS ON HARRY

Phillies broadcaster should make call when his Hall of Fame career ends

Posted: June 26, 2007

TWO DINOSAURS were sitting on a park bench. One was a cranky sports columnist; the other a beloved baseball broadcaster.

"I don't hear you as much," the columnist said.

"Well, we've got this new format with three in the booth at the start and finish of the ballgame," the Hall of Fame broadcast legend said. "Then I do a solo inning on radio. Radio play-by-play has always been my first love. I want to keep a hand in that."

"No offense," the curmudgeon said, "but the three in the booth for TV sounds like lunch hour at the Tower of Babel. I really don't need a dissertation on why a bunt rolled foul. And I really don't need that 'Keys to the Game' graphic when the key is to 'Score first and keep adding on.' When did Phillies fans become so brain dead they need constant reminding that the object of the game is to score more runs than the other team?"

The dinosaur with the voice that began to deepen just after Lucky Strike Green got back from war shrugged. "Sarge is trying," he said.

"Trying is the correct word," the columnist grumped. "A lot of patiences are being tried. But it's not Sarge; it's the clutter of too many experts trying to trump each other during a game where the picture evidently is no longer worth a thousand words. It's annoying as hell."

The broadcast dinosaur stood and began to walk in the direction of the shiny, new ballpark where the Phillies play, the one Rich Ashburn, his longtime partner and best friend, never lived to see. He sighed and the columnist swore he heard him mutter, "Hard to believe, Whitey."

The end game is never pretty for men who make their living describing the unfolding drama of major league baseball games. It is difficult work requiring great skill, and sooner or later the skills fade for most of them. The eyesight blurs. The instant recall of names and numbers become encapsulated in a fuzzy cocoon of hesitation.

When the Pirates "retired" the wonderfully irreverent and shamelessly partisan Bob Prince, thousands marched in a rally protesting The Gunner's departure.

Harry Caray's death in February of 1998 sent the fans of both Chicago baseball teams into a depth of mourning reserved for heads of state. And after overmatched Tigers president Bo Schembechler pastured iconic Ernie Harwell, the fan reaction took on economic overtones that led to his swift restoration.

No public death in this town's history matched the outpouring of grief and affection that swept us when Rich Ashburn passed away in September of 1997. Just a year earlier, Whitey was in the office of Phillies president Dave Montgomery, an intensely proud man pleading to keep the prized ninth inning as Harry's color man, a trophy that was being handed to Chris Wheeler.

Ashburn told those closest to him that he might retire after the 1997 season. He never lived to make that call.

The July issue of Philadelphia magazine asks under the headline, "The Trouble With Harry," if it is time for him to make one final "Outta here" call - as an overdue exit line. The short piece focuses on a missed call in the Giants series where he attributed an Aaron Rowand homer to Ryan Howard, who had just made an out.

Hell, Ashburn used to make gaffes like that at his broadcast peak. One night in Montreal, he had an Expo pinch-running who had been traded some days before. When Harry said, "Rich, he no longer plays here," Ashburn sputtered, "Well, why doesn't he?"

The subtle knifing quotes one "sports analyst" as saying, "Harry's a shell of himself." Knowing all the sports analysts in this town, be assured that not one of them could carry Harry's current baritone or the skill and passion driving it on their best broadcasting day.

Harry is 71. Twenty-five years ago, we used to go three excruciating sets in 100-degree heat in the sunken center court of Houston's Rice University tennis complex. Then we'd skate our shifts in the Astrodome, knock back a few adult beverages afterward and be back out on the court at high noon the next day. We did that in every city in the National League just about every day for more than a decade.

And, no, we can't do that anymore. The work comes harder, as well, but we can still do what is required. Kalas might stumble on names and facts, but he makes graceful recoveries and is still a great "listen." Hey, if Google charged by the hit, I would be obliged to retire.

Chris Wheeler is now the undisputed lead Phillies TV broadcaster. Finally, Dave Montgomery has come up with somebody who can go nine innings.

Harry Kalas has 2 more years on his contract. I hope he walks away from the love of his life on his terms, not Monty's. Any decision that is not his would be an empty, unfulfilling end to a Hall of Fame career.

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Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/conlin.

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