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April 14, 2009

Prospectus Today

Losses

by Joe Sheehan

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Yesterday:

Here are some other things on my mind after the first week of what is going to be a highly entertaining season:

Twenty-four hours ago, that was something of a throwaway sentiment. Now, it's a plea. We need baseball to be entertaining, need it to be great, need it to rise up and remind us why we get so very invested in a game. We need baseball to show us something, because right now, all it's doing is breaking hearts.

In the span of five days, this extended family of ours has lost a promising young pitcher, a legend of the broadcast booth, and one of its all-time most entertaining stars. It's the kind of week that makes you hesitate to check your Blackberry, answer the phone, or download e-mail, because every time you do you get kicked in the teeth. Load a scoreboard page, as I did yesterday afternoon, and a line at the top tells you that it's time to be sad again, time to mourn, time to tell your friends the bad news.

I didn't know Harry Kalas except by his voice and his reputation, both of which were deep, rich, and unassailable. My one specific memory of him was created on July 3, 1993, when up late listening to Jody McDonald on WFAN, I was fascinated by the idea that the Phillies and Padres were still playing baseball at 4:00 a.m. With meticulous turning of the dial on my stereo, I managed to locate the Phillies' broadcast, and listened to the last few innings of a legendary doubleheader, one that ended not long before the sun came up over Veterans Stadium. I don't remember the specifics of Kalas' call, and I was certainly more focused on the game and the strangeness of it all, but the man's voice, its unique timbre, stood out as memorable. Even though 22 years old at the time, I really didn't know who Kalas was, and it would be a while before I connected the legend with the voice that came into my bedroom in Inwood that night, but thinking back on it yesterday, I can still remember the game, still remember the thrill of hearing baseball at four in the morning, and it's Harry Kalas who narrates that memory for me.

Broadcasters, in many ways, are more real to us than the players are. They're not athletic specimens blessed by gods to do amazing things, but more like you and I, often a little too short or a little too round or a step too slow to make a life on the field, channeling that passion for the game into a microphone instead. As kids, we set our days by theirs, often falling asleep not to a lullaby or a bedtime story, but to a single to right field or a double play turned, inspiration for our own baseball dreams. As much as we imitate our uniformed heroes in our actions, we ape the descriptions of their acts with our voices. Think about how many times you peppered your baseball as a kid with an ad hoc play-by-play... "Sheehan rocks and deals the 2-1... it's in there for a strike!" In St. Louis, those kids sound like Jack Buck. In LA, Vin Scully. In Kansas City, Denny Matthews.

And in Philadelphia, when a nine-year-old whacks a Wiffle ball over a fence, he cries, "That's outta here!" because those words, Harry Kalas' words, are baseball to him.

For Yankee fans, what Phil Rizzuto did on the field for the dynasty of the 1950s mattered, but it was during his broadcast career that we came to know Scooter, came to love him, came to think of him as one of our own, our family. For Eric Seidman or Jeff Gambino or Jeff Hildebrand, yesterday was hard, and I feel for them, because I remember how it felt when Rizzuto died. He was well out of the broadcast booth by then, years removed from wishing pop-ups into homers or missing plays or devouring cannoli in the press box or listening to the ninth inning on the George Washington Bridge. But he was a part of my youth, part of my baseball-loving life, and a piece of that died the day Scooter did. Two generations of Phillies fans feel that pain today, and my heart goes out to them all.

My memories of Mark Fidrych are even more limited. Just five years old in the summer of 1976, I would have ranked him the second-most notable Bird on that famous Sports Illustrated cover; I loved me some Sesame Street. Catching the last few innings of a game on MLB Network last month, I was struck by how little I remembered of that season, of even my hometown Yankees. Carlos May was on that team? Jim Mason? Fidrych, of course, mowed down the Yankees on that nationally televised Monday night in Detroit, striking out nine and walking none against a lineup that would go on to win the AL pennant.

The box score doesn't do Fidrych justice, as the broadcast was The Bird's introduction to a national audience, his close-up in a time when those came less often and meant more. After that night, Fidrych was baseball in 1976, more than the Big Red Machine, more than the resurgent Yankees in their redesigned park. A nation turning 200 years old focused its attentions on a quirky, enthusiastic, wildly talented boy just 21, and was rewarded with as much fun as the game would ever allow.

In retrospect, we can cringe at 24 complete games and 249 1/3 innings in 141 days for a 21-year-old arm. We can wince at the four "11.0s" in his game log. We can see 97 strikeouts in 250 1/3 innings total and realize this was destined to be a short ride, paralleling the rise and fall of the Starland Vocal Band that same summer. We can tut-tut over Ralph Houk's treatment of the kid, who would pitch more between mid-May and October of '76 than he would the entire rest of his career. We can wonder what might have happened had Fidrych come along just a little later, had his torn rotator cuff been diagnosed just a little sooner, had he gotten just a slightly better draw.

Like Kalas, though, The Bird made memories. He made our world, the one with the red laces and the commissioner's signature and that particular smell of leather and dirt, that much better. That the two would pass on the same day had a symmetry to it. Kalas was the steady, self-effacing voice talking about other people, shifting the focus away from him over a long career, slowly becoming a part of everyone's day, everyone's season. Fidrych came on like a shot, a legend before anyone even had the spelling of his name down, and he was off the scene just as quickly. When he pitched, you had to watch, and when he spoke, you had to listen, and all the better that you did because the show wasn't going to go on for very long.

We can only hope that the season gets better from here.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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