Sunday, May 3, 2015

Thousands pay tribute to Kalas

Former Phillies great Mike Schmidt smiles as he tells a story about Harry Kalas today at Citizens Bank Park. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer )
Former Phillies great Mike Schmidt smiles as he tells a story about Harry Kalas today at Citizens Bank Park. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer )
Former Phillies great Mike Schmidt smiles as he tells a story about Harry Kalas today at Citizens Bank Park. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer ) Gallery: Honoring Harry

By the time the on-field tribute to Harry Kalas began in the afternoon, about five thousand fans had turned Citizens Bank Park into a church, an open-air church, with the Phillies flag flying at half mast out in center field.

These fans sat in silence, stillness, in sections 113 through 125, along the first baseline, No screaming, no beer man, not even a cell phone rang.

Fans did cheer when their beloved Phillies past and present paid respects to Kalas, walking past his casket, or when special guests rose to speak. They loved it when Governor Rendell reminded them how we all would duck out of wedding receptions to catch Harry and the game, or listen from beach chairs at the Jersey Shore. They nodded in agreement, and cheered, when Michael Jack Schmidt, the greatest of all Phillies, said the best word to describe Harry's life was "bountiful." They smiled when Mayor Michael Nutter called them out, all of them, and told them to admit it, we've all tried to imitate Harry Kalas. 

When the Phillies lined up, and passed the casket down the line, finally loading it into the hearse, fans like Bob Thomas, 41, of Secane, openly cried. Hundreds, if not thousands, waved their ballcaps as the hearse drove away, down the right field line. Thomas had a hard time getting the words out as the ceremony ended. "Harry taught me as much about baseball as my dad did," he said. "Say what you want about the Phillies, but they can say goodbye with class and style."

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And then Harry was gone and soon the ballpark was empty.

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Earlier today, the sun swept down the third base line, and shined brightly on Kalas’s casket by 8 a.m., warming the skin and the spirits of Phillies fans who came by the thousands to pay respects to Philadelphia’s beloved Hall of Fame broadcaster.

Many wept as they passed by the casket, placed just behind home plate and topped with four dozen red roses. They kissed it, or touched it with their Phillies caps, or their fingertips, or put their hats over their hearts, and just said goodbye in their own special ways.

Sean O’Brien of Philadelphia left a cigarette on top of the white steel coffin, as a tribute to the heavy smoker with the smoky voice who died Monday from heart disease at age 73. “I knew his voice better than my father’s,” said O’Brien, whose father died when he was 11. “He was the dad I never had.”

Appropriate for the solemn occasion, O’Brien wore his black Phillies hat.

The stadium was solemn, with soft Mozart flute concertos being played over the public address. Nearly a hundred fans waited all night, and by 7:15, when the gates opened, there were thousands who entered through the third base gate, and were greeted by club president Dave Montgomery, who shook many hands and thanked the fans for coming.

By 11 a.m., mourners could walk right into the park, down to the field, The line to the casket was only a couple minutes long. The Phillies were giving away bottles of water and donuts to fans.

The beautiful weather either kept people away -- off to the shore, or into their gardens -- or perhaps helped the turnout, it was hard to say. Phillies front office personnel just weren't sure how many to expect, but it seemed by 11:15 a.m. that fears of overcrowding, or having to turn people away, wouldn't materialize.

Ed James, 59, lives in walking distance of the ballpark in South Philadelphia, and walked in with his grandchildren. When he reached the casket, he gave it a little fist bump, like he does with his sons and grandchildren. "Summer won't be the same," he said. "I feel like I lost my best friend, even though we never met." 

Benjamin Thomas, 36, came from West Philly, where as a boy he’d play waffle ball in the streets all night, to the endless complaints of noise from neighbors. But he was undeterred, because he loved baseball, and the Phillies, and Harry Kalas. “He’s just a fan, like I am,” said Thomas, who arrived in line by midnight. He and others kept themselves warm during the night by singing High Hopes, Harry’s favorite song, which the broadcaster would sing whenever prompted.

Bill Clancy, 49, from Port Richmond, came with his Harry Kalas cloth doll, given away on Harry Kalas tribute night, July 29, 2000, marking Kalas’s 30th years with the Phillies. The doll used to say, “outta here,” but just as Harry himself did, the doll wore out and was now silent.

Ann Knopka, 38, of Quakertown, touched the coffin with her pink Phillies hat. “One last goodbye,” she said.

Tim Mallon, 51, came by on his crutches. “I just wanted to repay him in the smallest way for all the joy he brought me,” said the longtime season ticket holder.

Ben Lentz, 20, from Tinicum Township, pointed at the casket as he walked past, and said, “Harry Kalas, you are the man.”

Roger Watson, 65, wiped the tears from the corners of his eyes as he passed the casket with his son, Justin, 28. The father lives in Burlington, but spent the night with his son in Washington Township, watching the Phillies game on television, and getting up by 5 a.m. to come to Citizens Bank Park together for the Kalas memorial tribute. Roger Watson was suffering from clinical depression when his son bought him season tickets in 2007. Coming to the games together brought the father out of his depression, turned him around, and Roger always listened to Harry Kalas on the radio at home and at the ballpark.

“We came to pay respects to a man who brought us closer together as father and son,” Roger Watson said. “Listening to the game really turned him around,” said the son, Justin. “I hate to say this, I was more upset losing Harry than my grandfather. I mean my grandfather was a great guy. But I listened to Harry every day for 28 years.” Justin kissed his fingers, and touched them to the casket as he passed.

Lois Fishera, 67, from southwest Philly, also had tears welling in her eyes as she passed the casket. She was wearing a Phillies t-shirt, on which she’d written in marker, “Outta Here.”

“I just got the shivers,” she said, as she passed.

Josy Davey, 76, a season ticket holder from Clifton Heights, who got to know Harry at spring training, stopped and just cried in front of the casket. "He and I had the same birthday," she said. "I feel filled up." She had an "Outta here," pin on the lapel of her pink jacket, and she brought sunscreen and a sun visor, and snacks, and planed to stay for the afternoon service and the evening game. "I'll be here 'til midnight," she said. But there was no place else she would rather have been.

Kevin Thompson, 51, of Havertown, hobbled past the casket on crutches. "To me he was baseball, " said Thompson. "I wasn't going to let surgery slow me down." The man had a knee replaced, but infection set in and the artificial knee was removed. He now had a cement spacer where his knee used to be. "I wouldn't miss this," he said.

Jim Graham, 71, a former Philadelphia police officer, drove up from Ocean City, and stopped to have his friend take his photo in front of the casket.

“This guy is Philly,” said Graham. “You don’t realize what you got. You just get so used to it.”

Michael Brennan, 30, of Clifton Heights, dropped to a knee, said an "Our Father," and wiped away the tears as he walked away. The Phillies are always on in his home, and in his father's home, and in his uncles' homes, either on television or on the radio. "You have to understand," he said, "That's how I was brought up. It was so strange coming into the ballpark. This is the first time I've ever come in when I wasn't excited or pumped."

Nick Stoyer, 27, stopped when he reached the infield ribbon by third base, reached under the yellow rope restricting access to the actual field, and pulled out several blades of perfectly pruned grass. He put them in a plastic bag, and tucked it into his jacket pocket. When he got to the casket, he placed a tulip on it. "He was just part of my life," said Stoyer, who lives in South Philadelphia.,

Michael Aldridge, 45, from Blackwood, N.J., was the second man in line. He proposed to his wife at Veterans stadium in 1992 on Fanavision. He proposed with a poem, which he’d written on signs:

“Happy Birthday Kelly.

You mean the world to me.

That is why I’m asking,

Will you Marry Me?”

Harry Kalas saw the signs and the proposal from the press box, and came down into the stands to find Aldridge and buy him a beer. Aldridge couldn’t believe it, and Kalas had made a special day even more special. That’s why Aldridge spent the night in line, and was the second to pass by Harry’s casket by 7:15 a.m. Aldridge carried another sign with him this morning. It read, “There’s no crying in baseball….until now.” 

Inquirer Staff Writer
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