NEW YORK - The great ones are supposed to live forever.

As I walked into the Citi Field press box for the Mets' home opener, I could hear people whispering. They were echoing the same question that my friends and family back in Philly asked when they phoned after hearing the terrible, heartbreaking news:

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Did you hear about Harry?

Harry Kalas died yesterday in Washington as he prepared to do what he's done consistently and well for the last 38 years - call a Phillies game. He was 73 and in poor health, but everyone was stunned when he passed. The reaction was a mixture of sorrow and disbelief. How could it be anything else?

The mind tries to prepare you, to tell you that it's sad but also unavoidable, even for the legends. But the heart is never ready. Maybe it's supposed to happen, but not to the people closest to us - at least not for a long time. Not until some far-off tomorrow. But then tomorrow becomes today and today becomes yesterday and you still can't believe it's real. Shock is death's cruel companion.

Did you hear about Harry?

"There are no words to express the sadness that the entire Phillies organization is feeling with the news about Harry's passing," said Phillies president and CEO David Montgomery. "Harry was the voice of the Phillies, but he was also our heart and soul."

When he first came to town in 1971, he was Harry Kalas, the Phillies' new broadcaster. And then, before anyone knew it or realized it, he was just Harry - no last name or formal title necessary. Loved ones don't need those. That's what happens when you invite a person into your home year after year after year. He becomes part of your family, even if you've never met him face-to-face.

Back in 1987, I watched the Phillies play the Pirates on a tiny television in my bedroom. It had rabbit ears that worked poorly, and the picture was dreadful. But Harry, as usual, sounded great.

"Swing and a long drive, there it is, number 500!" Harry cried, making a special moment that much better. "The career 500th home run for Michael Jack Schmidt!"

That was my first real memory of Harry. I was 10 years old.

It took 21 more years before I finally got to meet Harry in person. By then, it was almost as if I had known him forever. There were so many nights when it felt as though he was sitting on the couch next to me as he delivered his famous, trademark lines - "struck him out" and, better still, "Watch this baby . . . outta here."

It was during the NL Championship Series last year when he introduced himself. I was talking to Fox baseball analyst Tim McCarver in the press box hallway when Harry came over and said hello in his singular voice - the one that made him sound cooler than Frank Sinatra on the chairman of the board's best day. Before long, a mischievous, little-boy smile spread across Harry's face.

"Did he tell you about Pat the Bait?" Harry asked as he nodded at McCarver.

That's how I learned that Pat Burrell - otherwise known as Pat the Bat - was called Pat the Bait during his first few years with the club. Kalas said that before Burrell was married, the older players used to drag him out to the bars - OK, so maybe they didn't drag him, but you get the idea - so they could dangle him as bait to attract women.

"Can you imagine how many hearts Burrell has broken?" Kalas said. And we all had a good laugh.

It's impossible to explain how much that meant to me - standing there with Harry while he took the time to tell a story. It was like getting a gift that I never expected and wasn't worthy to receive.

After that, Harry would stop and chat for a second or say hi when we passed each other in the hallway. The last time I talked to him was after the Phils beat the Rays and won the World Series. He and thousands of merry, tone-deaf backup singers had just finished singing "High Hopes" at Citizens Bank Park.

Harry was standing on the field with the players and front office personnel and press. It was such a special night, and I just wanted to share it with him for a quick second. I went over and repeated the same thing I'd said to about 50 other people that evening: I waited my whole life to see a championship in the city, and I couldn't believe - after 25 long years - that it actually happened.

Harry nodded. His eyes looked a little red.

"It's a great feeling," he said. "You'll never forget this."

We'll never forget you either, Harry. You were wonderful and you were ours and you will be deeply missed.

Contact columnist John Gonzalez at 215-854-2813 or gonzalez@phillynews.com.