CLEARWATER, Fla. - On black-armband days like this, you think dark thoughts of loss, the sudden taking of comrades with whom you shared days, weeks, months, years, decades and generations, traveling with a ballclub as many intertwined lives were weathered like driftwood on a tropical beach that suddenly became storm-tossed and gray.
Rich Ashburn was taken from us after a Phillies victory in Shea Stadium Sept. 9, 1997. We all know where we were and what we were doing when news of his death in a Manhattan hotel room broke on Angelo Cataldi's WIP morning show.
Harry Kalas was taken from us after collapsing in the broadcast booth of a ballpark, Nationals Park, hours before the Phillies he loved so much for so many years were to oppose the Nats in their home opener. We will remember where we were and what we were doing when the news he had been rushed to George Washington University Hospital was overridden by club president Dave Montgomery's announcement of his death.
I am certain that Rich Ashburn was lining up a putt on the 18th green of some perfect golf course, muttering over the cruel injustices of the only game to ever beat him when his best friend materialized, still wearing the windbreaker the broadcast crew was issued for raw, windy days.
"Hard to believe, Harry . . . "
"Believe, Whitey, believe . . . Hard to believe you were gone almost 12 years. And I missed you terribly, pal, every day of those years . . .
"Well, now we're back together. Think you've got nine holes in you?"
Two imperfect men, so perfect together for 26 years. Two Hall of Famers.
One a brilliant athlete ravaged by diabetes.
The other a brilliant oral poet ravaged by the two Surgeon General warnings he chose to ignore.
Both socially scarred by the heavy imposition of taking on a major league baseball team as a surrogate wife.
"You didn't drink or smoke, Whitey, but you beat me to the finish line."
"Hard to believe, Harry. Shut up and putt . . . "
I heard of Harry's collapse from my son, Bill, who is approaching middle age. He was a little boy so long ago when the Conlins and Kalases were spring-training neighbors . . .
Suddenly, it was 1974. My wife, Irma, was helping Harry's first wife, Jasmine, with plans for Harry's 38th birthday celebration. "Braddy, you get back home and do your homework," Jasmine would yell every 5 minutes or so. But Brad Kalas, now an actor in California, would sneak back out and join older brother Todd, now on the Rays' broadcast team, and my kids in an early Space Age experiment.
Bill had captured a lizard and had placed him in a space capsule composed of a zip-lock sandwich bag. They threaded a kite string through a hole in the "capsule" and after several aborts that bounced the unfortunate reptile off the sand, the kite rose majestically and Belleair Beach had its first space traveler. The Kalas and Conlin kids were joined by Scott and Stevie Carlton, and Danny, Johnny and Theresa Shore, the children of Reds superscout Ray "Snacks" Shore, who later defected to the Phillies and became a member of the Bill Giles "Gang of Six."
When the kite re-entered the tropicsphere, the chameleonaut was dead and accorded a burial at sea. While ground control manipulated the kite, Harry sat at poolside, diligently studying the program for that night's races at Derby Lane, the puppy palace on the shores of Tampa Bay. "I gave Harry $2 to play a trifecta for me," Bill reminded me yesterday. "And it hit for $297.50 - the 7-5-1, Lorraine Whiz, Oversize and Monty Python."
There is nothing like the favor of a famous person to hermetically seal a special moment in memory.
Pete Conlin extricated another day trapped in the permafrost of 35 years.
"The Phillies were either off or there was no broadcast," my youngest son recalled yesterday. He recently became 2 years older than Harry was on his birthday in 1974. "Harry - we called him Mr. Kalas - took Todd, Brad, Bill and myself to River Country. I was in my carsick stage. There was a plastic cup that had half a dog-track 'walker' in the cup holder. I threw up into it and it really smelled. Harry put an Astros media guide over the cup and said, "Boys, we've had a little setback, but we're pressing on."
High Hopes at work . . .
I was a rookie beat writer in 1966 when a slender kid in a golf outfit approached me at the Astrodome batting cage. "Hi, I'm Harry Kalas, one of the broadcast crew," he said. I shook hands and told him who I was. He looked no more than 16 years old, so I figured he had won one of those high-school broadcast competitions and was there to do his inning. Harry was actually 30. I'm afraid I big-timed him a little that day.
Who knew that 5 years later, I would be conducting a Daily News reader poll asking who fans wanted in the radio booth, By Saam or Bill Campbell. Soupy had been unceremoniously dumped when Harry's good friend from Houston, Phils veep Bill Giles, persuaded Bob Carpenter to replace Campbell with this young voice from the Astros.
Campbell won in a landslide. But it was one of those hissing-up-a-rope deals that reflected public opinion while ignoring reality. And the reality was, By Saam and Atlantic Refining, the Phillies' major sponsor, were in a death-do-us-part arrangement.
So Harry had the anvil of being a total unknown replacing an extremely popular broadcaster. It took him about two mellifluous sentences to turn it around. And about two hilarious exchanges with His Whiteness.
One classic from among hundreds - this one in St. Louis on a postcard Sunday afternoon. The night before, after a long dinner hour at a riverboat restaurant moored adjacent to the famed Gateway Arch, Harry found it necessary to take a brief nap in the grass against one of the massive pillars of Saarinen's masterpiece. He was wearing a white suit, which became so grass-stained it had to be trashed.
(Harry, talking as the camera pans to a wide shot of the Arch beyond the Busch Stadium stands:) "There's the famed Saarinen Arch, the Gateway to the West." (Whitey comments:) "Harry, I know you've never been up in that Arch." (Long pause) "But have you ever been under it?" It was a long time before Harry could stop laughing enough to force out something like, "Not recently . . . "
There is a small landscaped tribute to Rich Ashburn at the Shipwatch Yacht and Tennis Club, where he was a condo owner from 1986 until his death. He was a fixture at the tennis club and the members planted a small palm tree surrounded by beds of bright flowers with a simple engraved tablet in front. It simply said "Rich Ashburn, Member" with the date of his death. Another recently deceased member, Richard Havener, shared the simple memorial.
On Whitey's birthday, March 19, Harry would come to Shipwatch each year to lead some of his friends and colleagues in a brief prayer.
And I think he might have said this yesterday when Harry took him by a stroke, curling in a 20- footer. After muttering, "Golden Years, my ass," of course:
"Thanks for all the kind words on my birthday every year. But do you mean to tell me a man who has his own plaque in Cooperstown didn't rate his own monument at Shipwatch?"
And Harry would have laughed the mellow laugh that punctuated millions of words spoken to you - and only you - during a hectic life he turned into an oasis for millions of his closest friends. *
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