Rich Hofmann: Harry Kalas had just the right touch for Philly

Harry Kalas gestures that his heart is fluttering on his Hall of Fame day.
Harry Kalas gestures that his heart is fluttering on his Hall of Fame day.
Posted: April 14, 2009

WASHINGTON - The Nationals are ahead of the Phillies by 3-2 in the third inning as this is being typed, or maybe it is the other way around. Yes, it is the other way around. Not that it matters, on the day that Harry Kalas died.

You don't watch. It is there in front of you, but you don't see. It is a couple of hours after Kalas collapsed in the television booth at Nationals Park and you just daydream.

He was on the radio every game, but only for a little while. It has been that way for years. But if you are of a certain age, the Harry memories are all radio memories. Harry and Whitey. Or maybe it just seems that way.

Memory: an amazing capacity, both imperfect and perfecting. Time makes you forget details and still manages to make the story better. Because it always seems like a hot summer night when you think about Harry Kalas, even through the rain. And you are always in your car, for some reason. And you are waiting for the light to change and Rich Ashburn has taken this conversational tangent that neither you nor Harry expected, and you can hear Harry trying to wedge a little play-by-play into the middle of the story, and then Whitey says something that makes you crack up, makes you laugh out loud, all by yourself in the car. And then you look over and become aware that there are three people laughing - you, the guy in the car next to you, and Harry.

Then, now. And in the clubhouse after the game, Ryan Howard said what everyone knew. "He is the Phillies," Howard said. "He is the voice."

There are people who thought he was slipping a little at the end. Hell, Harry thought he was slipping a little at the end. But the people who wondered whether it was time for him to retire did not grow up with the guy. All they heard was somebody who misjudged a few fly balls. They did not hear their youth. You can only feel sorrow for the people who did not get it.

Sports are the last great societal connector today - and a major league baseball announcer, every night for 6 months, has both an opportunity and a responsibility that almost no one else possesses. If you were Harry Kalas, you were the public face of a franchise for nearly 4 decades, but it is more than that. In a city like Philadelphia, to be truly successful, you need to be that face and also a mirror onto the fan base. You need to be emotionally invested and intellectually honest; talk about tightropes.

As former Phillies catcher Bob Boone, now a Nationals executive, said yesterday, "Even though he would call a spade a spade, it was never offensive. You knew his team was the Phillies. He was a Philly guy."

A Philly guy, by way of Illinois, Iowa, Hawaii, Texas and who-knows-where. Cigarette-smoking, cocktail-drinking - and the voice, so smooth and effortless. It was the total package. But Boone got it exactly right. For all of those years, there were two things about Harry Kalas that you never doubted: that he wanted the Phillies to win as badly as the fans did, and that he saw everything they saw when the team didn't win.

Which made the oasis of victory all the more refreshing. Which made Brad Lidge striking out Eric Hinske last October the greatest punctuation.

"I feel incredibly fortunate that I was in that position and that he was the guy that called it," said Lidge, the perfect reliever. "That will obviously be something I'll never forget. Now it's going to be even more important to me, because every time I hear it, I'm going to think about Harry. It's going to have a lot more meaning than it's ever had before . . . To me, that will always be perfection, listening to him call that."

Memory, again. And so, for all of the people who remember the voice and the outta-heres and the big moments in 1980 and 1993 and 2008, there also were the slow Tuesday nights in August, and the 19 1/2-games-out-of-first-place nights, and the times, so many times, when his voice was as familiar in a house as the aroma of a favorite meal making its way up the stairs. There was steady comfort in the voice even when there really wasn't a whole lot going on.

With that, this was the end of his last broadcast on Sunday evening from Denver:

"Stay tuned for 'Two and a Half Men' here on myphl17. Good night, everybody."

That was it, the last words. They are laughingly pedestrian and still, somehow, perfect - because Harry Kalas was the one who said them, and because you know how much Whitey would have gotten a kick out of them. *

Send e-mail to hofmanr@phillynews.com, or read his blog, The Idle Rich, at http://go.philly.com/theidlerich.

For recent columns go to http://go.philly.com/hofmann.

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