A Devastating Quiet

The New York Times

April 16, 2009

By Doug Glanville

The silence that covered the city of Philadelphia seemed out of place, given how passionate these citizens usually are. But the broadcasting voice of Phillies baseball (and NFL Films) left us on Monday, and all we have to hang onto is the memory of all those moments Harry Kalas brought to life in just a few sentences.

I had the distinct pleasure of performing under his voice for six years in Philadelphia, mostly as the centerfielder who roamed the AstroTurf in Veterans Stadium, the place where Harry’s relationship with the Phillies began in 1971. It also was the place where I would get my first major league hit.

To know Harry was to know baseball in all its wonder, grace and frailty. Our plane rides traversing the United States were anchored by Harry’s seat in the back section, where he could always be found weaving a story or two about the 1977 season or Mike Schmidt’s race to home run number 500. His voice mesmerized you behind the lingering smoke from his cigar.

An airplane chartered to a major league baseball team often has a specific seating chart. People cannot just sit anywhere. It depends on seniority, rank, job description, sobriety and maybe even a twist of good luck. The back of the team plane was invariably the den of experience, each seat holding years of wisdom. But it was for the players only, a safe haven where censorship had no place.

Nevertheless, Harry’s seating assignment was no mistake. In a sense, he was one of the players. He was our expression; he conveyed everything we wished we could show about those moments on the field, but that our bravado wouldn’t allow us to show. He intuitively translated every emotion, making it real and accessible to those who were not the ones rounding third on the way to an inside-the-park home run, or spraying champagne after clinching a division title.

But then again, Harry was the people’s voice, connecting everyone to everything in a game he loved unabashedly. For rookies and veterans, for bat boys and the PR department, he always had time — he always had a story to tell to make sure you didn’t forget what a gift it is to live around the game of baseball.

When I hit my only career inside-the-park home run, I knew as I rounded those bases that the moment was being immortalized by Harry’s description — even if I couldn’t hear it live. Players could go their entire careers without ever experiencing Harry’s calling their great moments, and that is a great loss for them. But I knew that my home run story was being told so that anyone listening would not only understand what was happening, but feel every spike hit the turf as I rounded second.

Harry also gave meaning to these events. And I found meaning in some of my achievements not so much by looking at my trophy collection, but because I could step back to watch the video (this was part of our game preparation) and so I got to hear Harry conveying something I’d done on the field to our fans. Harry didn’t provide just a walk-through of a great play, he embodied a convergence of perspective and emotion and approached it all as if it was his duty to share every morsel of it.

One season, after an alleged back-of-the-plane incident had violated the rule that states “what happens in the back of the plane, stays in the back of the plane,” the team became divided. The jury of Phillies debated whether all non-players should be banished from the back of the plane. But that would lump Harry into the realm of the guilty, which he was not. Day in and day out we discussed the implications: could we really remove a legend (and virtual teammate) who had grandfathered into the players’ zone out of sheer respect?

The debate went painfully on, even though under normal circumstances the transgression would have almost certainly ended in harsh baseball justice. But Harry’s immunity was so powerful that our manager had to step in and end the dialogue on the issue, which was rapidly becoming more of a topic of discussion than the team we were about to play. I think we had more Harry meetings than we had defensive meetings that week. Because whichever side of the matter a player came down on, no one wanted to offend or hurt Harry in any way.
Harry’s signature white jacket and white shoes would light up the lobby after those 3:00 a.m. arrivals that began West Coast trips. And no matter where in the country we were, he would take the time to lend his golden voice to whatever we asked — announce the team’s annual fantasy football draft, or be on call to deliver his signature “struck him out” just because Bobby Abreu wanted to hear it one more time.

I don’t know how the game goes on without his input and, more importantly, the way he provided his input. There was no emotion left on the table with Harry Kalas — you heard, you felt, you understood everything that was happening on the field. If there was ever someone who could relay to the fans what it is like to be a major league baseball player, it was “H.K.”
Harry framed my connection to the Philadelphia Phillies, from my childhood excitement when the Phillies won the 1980 World Series to my game-winning, walk-off home run to beat the Expos in the first year at Citizens Bank Park. He was my full circle, and I suppose his circle became complete, in a way, when the Phillies won the 2008 World Series.

My friend, the baseball expert Jayson Stark, said it well: when Harry didn’t get that chance to put his signature on a play, it was “as if it never happened.” He was the most important bridge to the player experience for a fan of this game. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a word from Harry Kalas painted a thousand pictures.

New York Times 04/16/2009


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