Monday, April 27, 2009

From My Seat: Of Moments and Memories

When sports heroes pass on, true fans treasure their gifts.

Posted By on Mon, Apr 27, 2009 at 9:14 AM

Sports fans across the country -- particularly baseball fans -- were struck with heavy hearts by the recent passing of Harry Kalas and Mark Fidrych (both men died on April 13th). Neither man was an active athlete, a player in the arena. Neither had won or lost a game in more than a quarter century. But the grief since their death has been substantial, in some respects outweighing the impact Kalas (a broadcaster) or Fidrych (a pitcher washed up before his 30th birthday) had on a playing field. As I've considered my own heavy heart, I've come to see Kalas and Fidrych for the way they embodied two of the fundamental elements in our devotion to sports: the moment and the memories.

My dad and I were in Cooperstown, New York, on July 28, 2002, when Kalas was inducted into the broadcasters' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. As Kalas delivered his speech in the most recognized voice that dais had heard in years, Dad and I chuckled in anticipation of another description of another slow-motion Joe Montana touchdown pass. The longtime narrator for HBO's "Inside the NFL," Kalas' deep, smooth cadence became the soundtrack for football fans well beyond the Philadelphia region Kalas called home. (To me, Kalas was a far more valuable pitchman for the soup commercials he narrated than Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. Consider that: a voice to make you crave soup. That's hard to top.)

I have a brother-in-law raised on Kalas' description of Philadelphia Phillies games, from his childhood in the City of Brotherly Love right up to his days as a husband and father in Seattle (thanks to Internet broadcasts). Sean has done his share of cheering for the likes of Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Ryan Howard, and Jimmy Rollins, but he’d likely tell you there was only one Phillie he considered part of the family, and that was "Harry the K." Kalas's energy behind another one hit “outta here!’ by "Michael Jack Schmidt" was audible joy to Phillies fans, and when seasons went sour, Kalas' voice was the familiar, comforting sound that made nine innings bearable. To lose such a connection is to lose one’s bearings. The moments become different -- and will be remembered differently -- when we switch narrators.

As for Mark Fidrych, has there ever been a one-year wonder like him? As a rookie with the Detroit Tigers in 1976, "The Bird" mesmerized American League hitters -- and an entire country, really -- by winning 19 games for a Detroit Tigers team that finished 74-87. Floppy curls dangling from beneath his hat, Fidrych seemed to talk as much to the baseball he hurled with such precision -- and sometimes, to the pitching rubber -- as he did any teammate. He started the All-Star Game that year, won a nationally televised game in Yankee Stadium ... and won exactly 10 more games before a broken-down arm ended his career at age 25. Fidrych lived the simple life over the next three decades, then died in an accident -- while working on his truck -- that is as tragic for its randomness as the Bird's career was grand for its single summer of heights. Fidrych remains a hero for those memories, now 33 years old. And his passing hurts in that it's a reminder a human being provided the thrills, which certainly seemed immortal at the time.

Here in Memphis, we know about the loss of a voice, be it former Memphis Tiger football announcer Paul Hartlage or the Grizzlies' Don Poier. (How did Poier make those first two Grizzlies' seasons -- teams so dreadful -- seem so fun?) We also know of the sudden loss of our own one-year wonder, at least those of us who remember the 29 home runs Mike Coolbaugh hit for the 2002 Redbirds. Coolbaugh was killed by an errant line drive as he coached first base for the Tulsa Drillers in 2007.

Sports are too often about now(!). What has your team -- your favorite player -- done for you lately? If not, they're about what is to come. Who will win the next Super Bowl? Where will LeBron play in 2010? The losses of Harry Kalas and Mark Fidrych should remind those of us who cheer that each moment matters, and that the memories -- while not immortal in the human sense -- will outlive those who bless us by making them.

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