Wednesday, April 15, 2009

For those of you keeping score at home.

There has been damn little joy in Mudville these past few days. Until Monday, I'd been enjoying the nascent baseball season. The Phillies were off to an only okay start, but they usually start slow, so they actually were ahead of the curve. More surprisingly, the Detroit Tigers, the official team of my childhood, were not already stinking up the basement of the AL Central Division. They didn't get off to a great start, but after going 0-7 last year, this was a plesant turn of events. At 160 games, the baseball season is long. A slow start is no guarantee of a bad season, nor is starting fast an indicator of where a team will be in October. Winter was over, the season had started, and that was good enough.

Monday afternoon, when the word came down that Harry Kalas passed away at 73, it was sad, but not a shock. In recent years it was obvious he was slowing down, though that was easy to forget when listening to him call last year's World Series, or watching him throw out this year's first pitch. Kalas, the voice of the Phillies for 38 years, collapsed in the broadcast booth, preparing to call the series opener with the Washington Nationals.

In the days since, much has been said about how we have lost a great voice. It's all true--Harry Kalas was blessed with a magnificent voice. After the Legendary John Facenda's death, Kalas was NFL Film's choice as The Voice of God. Kalas was to sport what Don LaFontaine was to movie trailers.

While I will miss hearing how he used that voice, ironically, it is perhaps how he didn't use it I will miss most. More than any other broadcaster, Kalas knew when not to talk. Baseball has it's own special rhythm. It ebbs and flows. Tension builds slowly, and releases quickly. Sometimes you have to shut up and listen to appreciate that. Harry got that. He knew when to talk, and when not to. He wasn't afraid of what so many would confuse for dead air. Harry could tell you more about a game with a few well chosen seconds of silence than most can with a lifetime of clever cliches.

Here in Philadelphia the passing of Kalas had such impact, the death of another baseball great almost went unnoticed.

In stark contrast to the long career of Kalas, Mark Fidrych's tenure in Major League Baseball was over almost as soon as it began. After a brilliant 1976, a series of injuries prevented Fidrych from ever achieving his potential. One year, but damn, what a year it was.

Coming off a abysmal 57-102 1975 season, `76 offered little hope of change for the Detroit Tigers . With a roster of aging stars the Tigers were lacking in offensive firepower. To counter the lack of run production, Detroit had only two promising starting pitchers, Dave Roberts and Joe Coleman. In a sport where hope springs eternal, and the overriding theme seems to be, "wait `til next year" it was a team totally lacking in promise. This was next year, and it started off a whole lot like last year.

Everything changed on May 15th. Fidrych wasn't scheduled to start, but got the call when the regular pitcher in the rotation came down with flu. In his debut, Fidrych threw a two hit complete game. The Tigers won 2-1. The response was phenomenal.

It wasn't the substance of Fidrych that was the attraction. Yes, he had incredible control. He gave up few walks and fewer runs. That was all good, but what attracted most fans to Fidrych was his style. He ran to the mound, which he would then meticulously groom on hands and knees. He talked to the ball. When an infielder made a good play, Flidrych would go shake his hand. Cynical opposing batters, used to head games from pitchers, came to accept these antics and respected his genunie uniqueness. The fans loved him. Typically 90% of the seats at Tiger Stadium were empty. When Fidrych pitched, it was to sellout crowds. Beyond Detroit, everywhere he pitched, attendance soared. People only remotely interested in baseball loved The Bird.

A little history is in order here. Despite being the Bicentennial Year, 1976 wasn't a happy time in these United States. Inflation, though down from previous levels, was still high. Unemployment was high, and on the rise. In the wake of 1973's oil crisis domestic auto sales were on a steep decline, and the ascendency of japanese manufacturers had begun. The wakes of Vietnam and Watergate had left America deeply divided. There were deep racial divisions as well. Though Jimmy Carter never actually used the word "malaise," it was an apt description of the mood of the US in the last half of the 1970s.

We needed a distraction. A gangly, long-haired, strage acting kid with a magic arm would provide it. More than his skill on the mound, or his on-field antics, it was the man himself we admired. Though he only made the league-minimum $16,500 while generating revenues of over a million, he never complained. He drove a compact car, lived modestly and loved his life. He loved baseball, and we loved him for it.

This wasn't the first time events at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull provided much needed distration. The World Championship run of the 1968 Tigers is widely acknowledged to be the major factor that kept Detroit from burning in the civil unrest that swept the rest of the nation that summer.

The beauty of baseball--the game Harry Kalas and Mark Fidrych loved and enriched--is that it can change in an instant. One swing of the bat, and it's a whole new ballgame. If you listen closely enough, you can hear it coming. If you can just relax and be in the moment, it can happen.

America could use a good distraction right about now. Some unexpected joy would be welcome. The Tigers are off to a good start....let's hope that's a sign.

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