Paul Hagen: Harry Kalas: A true diamond in baseball

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Joe Rubino of South Philadelphia places flowers on a memorial to Harry Kalas outside Citizens Bank Park. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)

YOU CAN ALMOST count them on the fingers of an old fielder's mitt. There's Vin Scully of the Los Angeles Dodgers, of course. Bob Uecker in Milwaukee. Marty Brennaman in Cincinnati. Baseball broadcasters who have become synonymous with the teams they cover and the cities they work in.

Denny Matthews has been calling games in Kansas City since the Royals franchise was established in 1969. Ditto Dave Niehaus, with the Seattle Mariners since 1977. Milo Hamilton is in his 25th year with the Houston Astros. Jerry Coleman in his 37th year for the San Diego Padres. "You can hang a star on that one!"

But there aren't many left, a select roster that was reduced by one Monday when Hall of Famer Harry Kalas passed away hours before he was about to do what he loved, broadcast a Phillies game.

Harry and Skip Caray, gone. Jack Buck, gone. Ernie Harwell, retired. Bob Murphy, Tom Cheek and Herb Carneal, all gone.

There may be more technically proficient announcers out there, there may be those who will end up spending decades behind the same microphone.

Only a special few somehow manage to connect with their listeners through distance, static and thin air, are able to create a bond stronger than Krazy Glue without ever having actually met most of their congregation.

So here we go again. A dozen years ago, after Richie Ashburn passed away, there was an overwhelming outpouring of civic affection based both on his Phillies playing career and his long years in the booth.

An impromptu shrine was already growing outside Citizens Bank Park yesterday on an appropriately gray and gloomy day.

Phillies president Dave Montgomery hinted Monday that plans to honor Kalas' nearly 4 decades in Philadelphia are under consideration beyond this weekend's observances. Beginning tonight in Washington, players will wear a black, circular patch bearing the initials HK on the front of their jerseys, near the heart.

It would make sense to add Harry the K's name to the Citizens Bank broadcast booth, which now honors Ashburn. After all, they will be forever linked in the minds of Phillies fans who listened to their unique style working games together.

And wouldn't it be a hoot if the players all wore white spikes when they return home to play the Padres on Friday night, a nod to Harry's well-known preference in footwear?

District of Columbia medical examiners confirmed yesterday that Kalas passed away from heart disease. He had surgery in February to implant stents.

Harry is gone, but memories are forever. And a sampling from an avalanche of e-mails that arrived underscore the fact that Kalas existed on that special plane with his listeners.

Mike, like Harry, was the son of a preacher. "His family was eventually everyone he knew and embraced," he wrote.

David never met Kalas, but felt that invisible tug. "I live in Saratoga, N.Y., but grew up in Philly [West Catholic and La Salle] and like so many others learned to love 'the voice' coming through my radio," he wrote. "Now, in my retirement, I have satellite radio and I hear the game while I'm working about the yard. All, and I mean ALL, of my N.Y. neighbors have heard my rendition of 'outta here!!!!' "

Dan wrote that he had to close his office door so nobody would see him wiping away his tears. "I started to get sad thinking that I would never hear Harry Kalas call a Phillies game again," he added. "But then I realized - I'll always hear Harry Kalas calling Phillies games."

Wrote Brian: "I told someone that my life has largely been represented by 4 constants: my mother, sister, Joe Paterno and Harry . . . I realized that I have likely heard Harry's voice more than anyone else's in my lifetime. Hard to imagine that this voice is now silent."

And Larry wrote that, like Kalas, he played the Ethan Allen All-Star Baseball game while growing and up, and like Harry the K, accompanied it by calling his own play-by-play. "But pretended I was Harry Kalas, of course," he added.

There's more, plenty more. But you get the idea.

Harry Kalas was a baseball announcer who somehow transcended the limitations of the booth. He had the rare ability to make millions of strangers think of him as a close friend, a seemingly lost art among the screamers and the stats freaks who seem to dominate the air waves these days.

He was a genuine, largely uncomplicated man who loved baseball and loved people.

Sadly, he is now gone.

Sadly, they don't seem to make them that way very often anymore. *

Send e-mail to hagenp@phillynews.com