Bringing the game to Harry the K

PHILADELPHIA -- Far from Citizens Bank Park the other night, on a grassy slope that rises above the Schuylkill River, I brought a flashlight, pen, paper, an old boom box stuffed with D-sized batteries, and climbed down toward a large headstone flanked by four seats from the old Veterans Stadium.

It was Sunday evening. The Phillies had taken the opener against the Cardinals in their National League Division Series that had begun the night before. First pitch of Game 2 was minutes away, at 8:37 p.m. I placed the radio on an elegant block of Vermont granite that forms the base of a towering stone microphone that reaches toward the heavens.

Here, amid the chirping crickets and distant roar of the Schuylkill Expressway, rests Harry the K. Not many know he is here. But the few who do? They take a treacherous stroll down a long stairwell to the steep hill where Harry looks over the city to which he gave voice. Touching the granite, sitting in those old seats bolted into concrete, pilgrim-fans ask Harry for luck, or thank Harry for everything. Still.

For nearly 40 years, until he collapsed in the broadcast booth and died in April 2009, Harry Kalas brought Phillies games to millions of strangers, day after day, night after night, through steamy or stormy seasons that always began in April but seldom ended in October. With his arresting baritone and hallmark play-calling, the best-known broadcaster on the East Coast became everyone's best friend, through a Philly career that began at the Vet in 1971 and spanned generations.

And so here, in a terraced corner of historic Laurel Hill Cemetery, a 175-year-old burial ground deemed suitably symbolic by his family for a man possibly adored more than anyone else in this metropolis of millions, it was time to return the favor.

I brought the playoffs to Harry.

I flipped open one of the blue seats and brushed off rainwater until my bare fingers felt like chilled sausages. Stepping back toward the Panasonic 5-Band and aiming my flashlight toward its black knobs, I flicked a switch and found 1210 -- Harry's old spot on the AM dial. I took a seat.

Scott Franzke was rattling off the lineups. Larry Andersen was talking up the man on the mound that night, Cliff Lee. Their voices wafted over the grave like a warm, worn blanket. For a moment, it was overwhelming: the crickets, the roaring car sounds, Franzke, the headstone, the dark, Harry right there, somewhere close, yet mysteriously out of reach.

In no time, the radio crackled with urgency. A leadoff triple! Pence can't get it in the outfield!

"It just kept goin' and goin' and goin'," Andersen said. "Unbelievable. ... That was close to a home run."

"Fifty-five degrees tonight," Franzke added, the home crowd quiet. No breeze, Franzke pointed out. That meant no excuses. A strong hit, fair and square, off Lee.

"Next pitch," Franzke continued, "just missed."

The crowd groaned.

"That didn't miss," snorted Andersen, who was a very colorful Phillies pitcher before taking on color commentary and, fittingly, delivering it with a pull-no-punches style you earn from having been there.

On the next pitch came an out. The crowd roared. And jubilant cheers filled this mournful place with a burst of baseball ecstasy.

Tens of thousands of Phillies fans packed into the ballpark in April 2009 for a memorial service unlike anything seen in this town in decades.

When it ended, though, the curtain swiftly came down, and the public spectacle of tears and remembrances turned very private.

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

The Phillies unveiled a statue of Kalas outside the ballpark in August 2011.

A police motorcade, charged with keeping everything secret, drove Kalas' body across town to a location deliberately withheld from most everyone but family. The motorcade pulled off of Kelly Drive -- the road that winds along a river renowned for rowing and sculling -- and sneaked into a side entrance of Laurel Hill. It snaked its way through the old cemetery's impossibly narrow streets to a once-overgrown corner known only as "Section S."

"The most expensive part of the cemetery," grounds superintendent Bill Doran explained, after unlocking the gates Sunday night and escorting me in his truck to Kalas' grave.

Plots in Section S, he said, are special. They cost $5,000 apiece -- among the most expensive in the City of Brotherly Love. It has been that way for only a few years, after Doran, a cemetery man with a poetic vision, cleared it of once-impassable brush and laid down a nearly imperceptible gravel path. The path gives hearses access to a small clearing below a craggy terrace shaped like an amphitheater and facing the river. Old gravestones from another era dot the grounds far above.

Like so many of the post-industrial neighborhoods that gobble up much of Philadelphia's sprawling acreage, historic Laurel Hill is a bit tattered, a bit frayed, hemmed in by the Schuylkill on one side, the aging crust of North Philadelphia on the other. The cemetery is overseen by a nonprofit organization for which fundraising is, unsurprisingly, a constant preoccupation and challenge.

And yet, when the Kalas family asked their undertaker what cemetery most embodied Philadelphia, that man pointed them to historic Laurel Hill. And Doran pointed them all to Section S.

"It was their wish and Harry's wish to be buried in the city of Philadelphia, to give back to the fans," said Doran, a 55-year-old immigrant who, with an Irish brogue, explained how a Chicago-area native had come to be buried in Philadelphia as a favorite son.

Doran had come to know and love Harry. Twenty-six years in this town will do that to a person, make them ditch their childhood sports heroes for newer ones groomed in Billy Penn's shadow. Falling in love with the Phillies was made all that much easier by Kalas himself, whose seductive, steady timbre and delivery was so special, so unique that it had also become the voice of NFL Films, a treasure shared far beyond Philadelphia.

But Doran developed an even deeper appreciation for the man when it came time to bury him. The cemetery's arborist at the time (he's no longer with them) had done his best to school Doran in what loving Harry was all about. The arborist had no choice, really; he was a guy about 40, a father of three, and as such, a Philadelphian with a heart and head overflowing with Harry memories from childhood.

So what did the arborist do when he heard Harry was being laid to rest at Laurel Hill?

"He asked me, can he dig his grave," Doran said. "And he did. He dug his grave and he was crying."

The day before Doran drove me to the grave and shared his own fresh memories of Harry the K being laid to rest, I had made a separate visit to the cemetery. In full daylight -- noon, to be exact.

As I made my way down a long set of stairs to his gravestone, a suburban cyclist had a similar idea in mind.

He pulled off the bike path on Kelly Drive and made his way into the cemetery. He asked a Laurel Hill landscaper, "Where's Harry?" He picked up a map from the front office, right next to a public but little-visited exhibit of Harry memorabilia that has slowly gone up, also with little fanfare, with donations from family and friends of the late broadcaster.

Paul Geppert, 44, had heard somewhere that Harry was at Laurel Hill, so when he spied the cemetery sign on his bike ride, the building supply business owner from Jenkintown, Pa., let his inner child lead him away in search of the shrine. With the Phils' playoff opener just hours away, he figured what better time to visit an old baseball buddy.

Geppert swung his leg off his bike and rested it against a railing. Once down the stairs and in front of Harry, he leaned in and stroked the headstone in that mystical way familiar to anyone who has visited a loved one's grave for the first time. He marveled at the microphone. Inspected the old blue seats from the Vet he had known so well before the concrete stadium was demolished to make way for cozy Citizens. He stood in silence. Then, climbed back up and to his bicycle.

How could Geppert forget all the years Harry was loyally by his side, through the many seasons of heartbreak-bad baseball, which would be most all of them aside from 1980 and 2008. Through good or bad, you could always count on Harry to be yukking it up with Richie Ashburn on the radio. Geppert kept the volume turned down real low so he wouldn't get caught by his mom, hiding in the kitchen with the lights out after bedtime.

He would imitate Harry's trademark calls: "That ball is OUTTA HERE!" or "Home ... run. Michael ... Jack ... Schmidt!" To Geppert, Harry was the very idea of home.

Maybe that's why Geppert still remembers Harry's last call in the final game he worked the day before he died.

"A home run by Matt Stairs," Geppert said. "That's prophetic because the next day they went to Washington and that's when he had a heart attack and passed.

"I looked at that," Geppert said, "like he was going up the stairs of the afterlife."

It was the bottom of the first of Sunday's game. A cricket pounced onto Harry's headstone, next to the radio. The critter paused, tiptoed a few steps, and then paused again, as if inspecting the words below its long legs, an ode by former baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giammatti.

The inscription was etched into Harry's headstone only three months ago, after the family had finally received approval:

    Baseball is about going home,
    And how hard it is to get there, and how driven is our need.
    It tells us how good home is. Its wisdom says you can go home again but that you cannot stay.
    The journey must always start once more, the bat an oar over the shoulder, until there is an end to all journeying.

The Phillies were finding their way on base, one after another, as I watched distant tail lights speed over the twin bridges heading toward Northeast Philadelphia. Radio towers blinked red in the distance.

"They've got two on early with nobody out in the first," Franzke said.

The groundskeeper started his engine, down below. I took that to mean my time was up. But I tried to hang on -- I couldn't leave Harry in the lurch like this. I couldn't leave him on a 3-2 pitch with two on, and just walk away. I suddenly felt pressure to choose between two lovely men in an otherwise surreal moment.

"Back-to-back walks to load the bases, and here comes Ryan Howard," Franzke announced.

The crowd roared. I turned up the volume as I made my way down and away from the grave. I'm trying to help you out, Harry, I thought. Maybe he wouldn't feel shorted this way. I smiled at the absurdity of my whimsy.

I hopped into the truck, the boom box at my feet but still on. We wheeled back down that gravel path, the cemetery steward and I. And I realized: Wait a minute. Harry already knows how this inning will end, how this game will end, and even how this series will end. He's in another place, his journey having already reached its end.

Maria Panaritis is a business news staff writer and occasional columnist with The Philadelphia Inquirer. She can be reached via Twitter at @panaritism. She lives in Philadelphia.

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