Kalas, Fidrych: So Long, Friends
Everybody talks about how every spring baseball can make you feel young. What we often forget is how baseball can also make you feel old. If you're a fan of the game, you'll mark important points in your life by the passing of those you followed when you were young. To Mets fans, Harry Kalas, who died April 13, was almost as familiar a voice as their own announcers. If you were going down to Philadelphia for a Mets-Philllies weekend, you started listening for Kalas's voice -- as Jesus Diaz once put it, "Somewhere around Exit 9." If you were a football fan, you were even more familiar with Kalas's work from his years doing Notre Dame broadcasts and voiceovers for NFL Films. In the words of NFL Films president Steve Sabol, "John Facenda [who narrated the weekend updates] was the voice of God. Harry Kalas was the voice of the people."
Kalas went the way every baseball announcer wants to go -- in the booth before a game (with the Washington Nationals) -- and it happened just the way he would have wanted it to -- the year after the Phillies won the World Series. As longtime Mets fan and former Voice employee Joseph Jeselli put it to me, "I wish he had been ours." We pause to ask every Mets fan to dunk a Tasty Kake in a cup of chocolate milk in his honor.
Like Harry Kalas, Mark Fidrych went the way he would have wanted to go -- on his farm. Fidrych's major league record was just 29-19 (all for the Detroit Tigers) over his five major league seasons, most of that coming in 1976 when he was 19-9, won the Rookie of the Year Award, and came within one game or two of beating out Jim Palmer for the Cy Young. The two injuries he suffered early in 1977 (a torn cartilage in his knee and a rotator cuff injury that wasn't properly diagnosed until 1986) were baseball's equivaent of tragedy -- The Bird was a contender and could have been a champion.
But was any player less bitter over such rotten luck? Was any guy happier just to have been given the opporunity to pitch in the major leagues? And has anyone make a bigger impact on the sport in so few games? In 1978 I was in Birmingham, Alabama, interviewing Patti Smith for Creem magazine, and I asked her why she was wearing a Detroit Tigers cap. She replied by wordlessly doing a letter-perfect imitation of Fidrych talking to a baseball and, on her hands and knees, arranging the dirt around the pitching mound. "BIG bird fan," she replied. And so were we all.
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