Monday, April 13, 2009

Zen Dayley: Harry and the Bird ...

Ball fans were still absorbing the news about Nick Adenhart — and now comes word about Mark Fidrych, of mid-1970s Detroit Tigers fame, and Harry Kalas, the longtime Philadelphia Phillies play-by-play voice, have left us on the same day.

The form calls, as a unreformed baseball nut, to try to do justice to both men.

Firstly, Fidrych. (Joe Posnanski, who had benefit of actually being alive in 1976, will have more later, so you can skip reading from this point forward and wait for his take). One way of summing up The Bird if that if he hadn't existed, Richard Linklater might have had to invent him for the generation which wishes it had been young in the free-spirited '70s, instead of the nervous 1990s, where just saying hello could get you charged with a hate crime.

The timing and tide was right for Fidrych, "with his Framptonian nest of hair." (Steve Rushin, Sports Illustrated, July 2, 2001). From this vantage point, he stands as the last folk-hero American athlete, who barely got paid more than the people sitting in the stands (the stage ledge in Michigan even passed a resolution to try to get his salary raised above the major-league minimum, $16,500). The state of Michigan, then as as now, was down on its luck on its 1976, the auto industry leaking oil three lanes wide. He provided some very necessary solace, so maybe it's not for nothing he would go when the city and state which embraced him so is up against it once again. It's a reminder that whatever comes up, we've been there before.

Meantime, as the story went, he was without airs to the extent that he lived in an apartment with no telephone. Perhaps there was some lesson in there, an argument that modesty is overrated.
"He was almost too down to earth. "He was just a wonderful guy to be around. I think the antics on the field were never an act. I think it was his true feelings. He was just a simple guy, lived a simple lifestyle and just brought that lunchpail mentality to the pitcher's mound every four or five days."
— Pawtucket Red Sox president Mike Tamburro, via The Associated Press
Fidrych was also kind of a poster child for the abuse of young arms. The double edge of his runaway success was that the Detroit Tigers allowed a pitcher just two years out of high school to throw 24 complete games — a career for some pitchers — in 29 starts, including five extra-inning games. Using Tom Tango's pitch count estimator, one can guesstimate that Fidrych had several games where he threw 150 to 175 pitches. For instance, in his fourth career start, he pitched an 11-inning, 5-4 win, with four bases on balls; he probably threw in the area of 176 pitches.

That would never happen today. These days, a smart organization would probably have shut Fidrych down in September once his team was out of the hunt (the '76 Tigers finished 74-87, fifth in a six-team AL East). Really, every time you hear some sports-talk radio reactionary going on about pitchers being babied, you should be entitled to find him and staple a printout of Mark Fidrych's career stats to his forehead.

Fidrych represented the innocence of youth. Well, innocence has a down side. Be that as it may, he'll always be the answer to a great question, what would you do if you were told you would be a major sports star for a year, but only for a year? By most accounts, he handled that question with his own goofy kind of aplomb.

Harry Kalas

Greater minds have already commented on the relationship which forms between a good baseball radio play-by-play voice and her/his audience, so spare a thought for Phillies fans today. They've lost two good ones in just more than a decade, since Kalas' analyst, the Hall of Fame leadoff hitter Richie Ashburn, died unexpectedly in 1997.

Kalas was known for his work with NFL Films, but he was Philadelphia's guy through and through.

Bill Baer of Crashburn Alley, a fine Phils blog, said it best about Kalas several weeks ago.
"I could listen to Kalas talk about anything — knitting, different types of leaves, flossing techniques — for hours on end. His voice and delivery are incredibly captivating, no doubt why he is a legend among legends in the broadcast booth. To boot, he is one of the most genuinely humble people you will ever have the privilege of hearing."
Harry Kalas, according to his Wiki, was actually a catalyst for a change in MLB broadcasting policy. In those days, the hometown radio broadcasters were always shunted aside for the national guys during the World Series. There was such a stink over Kalas being bounced off the broadcast in 1980 that starting the next year, the locals were able to call the game. That speaks to what Philly had with Harry Kalas and what Harry Kalas had in Philly.

R.I.P., Harry. R.I.P., Bird.

Kalas: 'His substance was his style' (Pro Football Talk)
Goodbye, Harry (Brian Joseph, Baseball Daily Digest)
In 1976 the Bird flew into baseball, free of guile, a little bit gullible and absolutely lovable. Twenty-five years later he's the same rare Bird. (Sports Illustrated, July 2, 2001)

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