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SAGA 04-13-09 09:25 PM

Cluster of deaths send shockwaves through baseball
Cluster of deaths send shockwaves through baseball
By Gordon Edes, Yahoo! Sports
33 minutes ago

NEW YORK – It feels so out of place here, in this sport that begins each new season with hope and promise and dreams as fresh as the return of spring.

And yet, just one week into the 2009 season, a death rattle has drowned out the joyous sound of “play ball.”

Last Thursday it was Nick Adenhart, the 22-year-old Los Angeles Angels pitcher killed in a car accident that also claimed the lives of two friends. Three days earlier, on opening day, it was Brian Powers, a 27-year-old Angels fan, found bleeding and unconscious in an Angels Stadium stairwell after a fatal altercation with other spectators.

Monday came the news that Harry Kalas, the legendary broadcaster of the Philadelphia Phillies since 1971, was found dead at age 73 in a broadcast booth in Washington, preparing for an afternoon game against the Nationals.

And then, just hours later, one more shock: Mark “the Bird” Fidrych, one of the game’s purest characters, was found under his 10-wheel truck on his Massachusetts farm, dead of an apparent accident at age 54.

A promising player. A hometown fan. An unforgettable voice. A baseball original. All gone in the season’s first week.

Moments of silence, like the one they held for Kalas here Monday night, where the New York Mets were opening their new ballpark, Citi Field, have become as commonplace this misbegotten spring as the seventh-inning stretch.

It was another legendary broadcaster, Vin Scully, who made this observation while reflecting on the death of Adenhart during a Dodgers game last week.

“If there is one thing I’ve learned in all my years, and I haven’t learned much,” the 81-year-old Scully told his listeners, “but the one thing I’ve learned, don’t even waste your time trying to figure out life.”

Before the Phillies took the field for Monday’s game, several Phillies took a puff of a cigarette, as much a Kalas trademark as his “Outta Here” call.

“I asked for it and a couple of other guys thought it would be cool to do,” Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino told the Philadelphia Daily News. “It was like, why not? So we called who we could – I forgot who had ‘em, but we got ‘em. I just thought, what did you always see him doing, other than broadcasting or being with his family? It’s an HK thing, you know? It’s so sad. Just sad.”

Kalas, a native of Naperville, Ill., who did his first significant broadcasts while a student at the University of Iowa, was with the Phillies when they won the World Series in 1980, the first in franchise history, but his voice was not heard on that occasion. Major League Baseball did not allow local broadcasters to call World Series games at that time, a policy soon changed because of the outcry of Phillies fans denied the chance to hear Kalas.

Voted into the broadcasters’ wing of the Hall of Fame in 2002, Kalas fulfilled a life’s dream last October, when he was behind the microphone for the final out of the second Phillies World Series title, which came against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Here was Kalas’ call: “The 0-2 pitch. Swing and a miss! Struck him out! The Philadelphia Phillies are 2008 world champions of baseballllll! Brad Lidge does it again and stays perfect for the 2008 season. Forty-eight for 48 in save opportunities, and let the city celebrate.”

A measure of the affection Philadelphia had for Kalas came last Wednesday, when he was asked to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before that day’s Phillies game.

On Monday, team president Dave Montgomery was inconsolable.

“We lost Harry,” he said. “We lost our voice.”

Fidrych, meanwhile, was found dead in the same town, Northborough, Mass., where he pumped gas after his senior year in high school until learning that he’d been drafted by the Detroit Tigers. On his way to the majors, a minor league coach dubbed him “The Birdman” because the curly-haired, gangly Fidrych reminded him of Big Bird on “Sesame Street.”

By the time he made it to Tiger Stadium, the nickname had been shortened to “The Bird,” and in one magical rookie season, 1976, a phenomenon was born. Fidrych sprinted to the mound. When he got there, he did some landscaping, patting down the dirt. And most famously of all, he talked to the baseball, a one-way conversation in which he reminded himself of what he needed to do. None of it was done for effect; Fidrych was too disarmingly genuine for that.

Just the other day, the MLB Network rebroadcast the game that enabled a nation to see for itself why Detroit was crazy about The Bird. It was a nationally televised game against the Yankees and Fidrych went all nine innings in a 5-1 victory, after which the fans refused to leave, chanting “We want the Bird,” until Tigers teammate Rusty Staub dragged him out of the clubhouse for a curtain call.

Fidrych won 19 games that season, losing only nine, and started the All-Star Game in Philadelphia for the American League.

He would win just 10 more games in his career, and was out of baseball by 1980 at the age of 25. The spring training after his rookie season, he tore cartilage in his knee while leaping after a flyball in practice, moments after ignoring an admonition from Staub to be careful. He then injured his arm after altering his motion because of the knee injury – it was later discovered, too late, that he’d torn his rotator cuff.

So he went back home, to Northborough, bought a 107-acre farm he worked to restore, and worked as a subcontractor and later owned a trucking company. A friend reportedly found him under a dump truck Monday afternoon.

“I got a good life now,” he once told an interviewer, refusing to bemoan the briefness of his brush with fame. “I got a family. I got a house. I got a dog. I would like my career to have been longer, but you can’t look back. You have to look to the future.”

And so, too, will baseball – through the tears.

Gordon Edes is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports

Cluster of deaths send shockwaves through baseball - MLB - Yahoo! Sports

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