Note: This is a first-person account written and published on CSNPhilly.com, Monday, April 13, 2009 after a long day in Washington D.C. hours after broadcasting legend Harry Kalas died.
WASHINGTON -- So, yeah... Monday was a crazy day. It's not every day when you are one of the last handful of people to see a man alive, let alone a baseball Hall of Famer like Harry Kalas. Strangely, had I not stopped at a Best Buy south of Baltimore off I-695 to replace the laptop power cord I accidentally left at home, I never would have stepped onto the elevator with Larry Andersen, Rob Brooks and Harry.
I also would never have taken the elevator all the way up to the top floor if we hadn't been talking about the Mets opener at their new ballpark instead of the scribes' floor one below.
And finally, if I hadn't been for my forgetfulness I never would have walked along with Harry, L.A. and Rob to their respective booths before realizing I was on the wrong floor. I would not have been one of the last handful of people to see the legend as he breathed his last breaths.
Crazy day all around.
I think everyone had the sense something wasn't right when David Montgomery gathered all of the traveling media outside of the visitors' clubhouse door at Nationals Park. Montgomery usually doesn't address the press unless it's really a big deal so by the look on the gathered faces and Monty's demeanor meant something extraordinary had occurred.
Of course another tip off could have been that the clubhouse was closed up as soon as Cole Hamels, Rich Dubee and Lou Marson returned from the lefty's bullpen session. A few of us were waiting out the pitcher for the latest on his progress as he prepares for Thursday night's start. Initially, when we were summoned by the PR staff to the clubhouse, I thought Hamels was going to be brought into one of the side conference rooms for us.
Then I saw Monty and those faces.
When the events were explained to us - about how Brooks found Harry collapsed in the booth, alerted the emergency medics and then rushed him to George Washington University Hospital, there was a bad sense.
Unfortunately it proved to be correct.
So yeah, it wasn't the typical day at the ballpark and I never did find out how Hamels felt after his bullpen session. It also struck me that it must have been remarkably difficult for Harry's partners in the booth to call today's game. How do they block that out and focus? How did they not want to copy the famous "Outta Here!" call when Ryan Howard hit that clutch three-run homer in the seventh inning?
How does baseball sound without Harry Kalas? I ask because I don't know... I never heard it.
Gen Xers or kids born in the '70s are prone to navel gazing and introspection. We love that "remember when" game. We love to talk about the first time we did this or heard that or what the air smelled like on a particular day something poignant happened. Maybe me more so than others, but damn, all those memories are flooding back.
I think I knew Harry Kalas' voice before I knew what his name was or even before I knew I liked baseball. All I remember was being 4 or 5 years old and running around on a visit to my grandparents house in Lancaster, Pa. I remember a baseball game was on TV and how riveting it was - especially the part where a ball was hit and a fielder threw it to the first baseman.
I was hooked. I also thought the infielders were actually throwing the ball at the runner.
More than anything, I remember that voice and the excitement. Since then I've learned that baseball can be pretty mundane and rather dull from time to time. Not every game feels important - sometimes they just happen and that's that. They don't feel like a big deal.
But Harry Kalas never acted that way. To him, every game and every broadcast was important. Yeah, he lost a little off the ol' fastball in the last few years. He missed a few here and there, but so what. Whose voice would you prefer to hear on a home run or a big victory?
There is only one I can think of.
My grandfather, Robert Johnson, was my hero. He died in 1986 when he was just 67 from cancer. Everything worth knowing, my grandfather taught me. He taught me how to tip, how to drink coffee, how to order off the menu, how to swing a golf club, how to throw a curve, how to spit, how properly use swear words, how to tell jokes and how to read the racing form. But, most importantly, he taught me how to treat other people. Sometimes I live up to the standard, other times I fall short... though with the swearing and the horse wagering is always pitch perfect.
The point is Harry was cut from the same cloth as my grandfather. In fact, they knew each other. One time at one of those sportswriters banquets at the Host in Lancaster, my grandfather walked over to Harry and said, "Hi Harry, how have you been?"
"Great, Bob. It's good to see you..."
How did my grandfather know Harry Kalas? Needless to say, he went up a few notches in my book that day - if there were any more a mere mortal could climb.
But what made them the same was that they both knew how to treat people. The word, "no," was not in their vocabulary. If Harry was ever annoyed, he never showed it and if he thought doing something was a drag, he never said anything. Ask him anything and he had a story to go with it. Ask him about his white shoes and he'll tell you about Pat Boone. His favorite day in baseball? Anything with Mickey Vernon or his dearly departed pal, Richie Ashburn.
Too many stories and not enough time to tell them all.
As Scott Franzke said this afternoon:
"He never turned down an autograph. He never turned down a photo. He never turned down a request to record someone's out-going voicemail message," Franzke said. "As someone new in the game, he showed me that we do this for the fans. The fans are why we are here.
"The players come and go, but, 'Outta here,' lasts forever."
Harry truly enjoyed his celebrity. He truly enjoyed the fans. It was never put on or phony. To him, he had the greatest job in the world and there is something romantic about a guy who has a calling and gets to do it until his very last breath.
Perfect. Just like one of Harry's home run calls.