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Life After Harry the K

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By Jacob Lambert

When Phillies announcer Harry Kalas died in April 2009, it seemed that the team, its fans, and its city would never recover.  "We lost our voice today," Phillies president David Montgomery famously said. It was a voice, according to the Inquirer's Bill Lyon, that evoked "Moroccan leather, say, or polished mahogany."  Lyon added an opinion that became eulogistic fact: "He was the Phillies." 

Yet a year and a half later, the team still plays; we've managed to move on.  And though polished mahogany no longer wafts from our speakers, the Phillies have not gone silent. As happens on the field, legends can be replaced.  Mantle replaced DiMaggio; Brock succeeded Musial; Williams gave way to Yastrzemski.  And while some believe that Kalas' Mike Schmidt has ceded to a middling Charlie Hayes, the future of Phillies broadcasting is actually fairly bright.

On radio, where facility is crucial, the team is at its strongest.  In 2006, Scott Franzke, then 34, was hired as a utility man, working pre- and post-game shows and filling in as needed.  His experience included similar duty for the Texas Rangers and play-by-play for the Class-A Kane County (Illinois) Cougars.  Fans could be forgiven if they didn't see Kalas' heir apparent in Franzke, whose chin-beard and glasses lent him the air of a Portland architect. 

Thumbnail image for harry-kalas.jpgYet four years on, Franzke, now calling the games, has become the best of the Phillies' crew, and after the Eagles' Merrill Reese, the best announcer in the city.  "Professional" is often broadcasting code for "boring"--adept but unmoving, sturdy but forgettable.  In an April Inquirer piece on the post-Kalas era, Curt Smith, a broadcast historian, was quoted as saying that teams, wary of angering sponsors, "want a more homogenous, Broadcasting 101 kind of announcer.  The silver lining is it's safe.  But the bottom line is it's dull." 

At first blush, Franzke falls into this category; he's crisp and polished.  But upon closer listening, his depth of talent emerges.  Whereas Kalas was Muddy Waters, soulful and open, Franzke is a Slowhand-era Clapton, dropping each note into place.  Not as lovable, perhaps, but every bit as skilled--albeit in a wholly different way.  Franzke's steady, unspooling lines are a study in rhythm: "He's on the track...in front of the wall...he makes the catch."  "One-two pitch...down and in...blocked by Ianetta."  His summary of Roy Halladay's perfect game exemplifies this balance: "Twenty-seven up and twenty-seven down."       

Given this metered poise, Franzke's pairing with Larry Andersen might seem an awkward combination.  After all, the ex-pitcher has made a career of rumpled skepticism; he's the opposite of Smith's new-media cyborg.  Nonetheless, the teaming has worked.  Andersen's laconic style meshes with Franzke's patter to produce an ebb and flow that matches the game's rhythm. Nine innings of The Odd Couple.  And as with Lemmon and Matthau, the two seem to like each other--and we, in turn, like them for it. 

While L.A. is far from perfect--his ump-bashing has become tired ("I'm glad you're working today and not the other guy," Franzke recently joked to Gary Matthews, filling in on a day of plate-squeezing) and his attention often drifts. Laconic can turn into zoned-out.  But his strengths--self-deprecation, a willingness to criticize, and, most importantly, an understanding of how pitchers think--are underrated.  He might forget to announce the Daily News Home Run Payoff Inning, but it's all a part of the act.

On television, the outlook is much more Hayes-for-Schmidt.  Chris Wheeler, Comcast's drab color man, got his start as a traffic reporter in the late 1960's.  If his subsequent baseball work is any indication, those reports must have teemed with observations on the causes of congestion, the intricacies of engines, and the subtleties of merging.  Listeners would've frowned at their radios as Wheeler, above merely relating what was happening on the ground, drowned in his need to exude omnipotence: "See this driver down here?  What he needs to do is change lanes--but you can't do that in this situation, especially when the other guy accelerates like that.  What he should do is sit tight and look for something middle in."  Forty years on, Wheeler's continued presence on our airwaves is maddening; proof of an angry God.  There's no other way to explain it.

Matthews, like Wheeler, need not dust a shelf for the Ford C. Frick award.  Despite a long career as a player and coach, Sarge has lately become known as a fount of the bizarre.  While his missteps are legendary--last August, his masturbatory description of a Jayson Werth at-bat ran on Jimmy Kimmel Live--his delivery is what puzzles. There is, for instance, his frequent insertion of the word "there," used as a verbal period. "Howard got a good piece of the ball there." "He popped out there." "That was a good swing there."  An annoying verbal tick there.

 Matthews' speech is marked by odd emphases that don't suggest excitement so much as quiet attempts to shake a bee from his shirt: "Didn't miss by much"; "A long toss to first."  When applied to misguided catch phrases ("He's looking to reach out and touch somebody") or outdated references ("Kind of reminds you a bit of that JR Richard"), Matthews becomes, while not exactly listenable, at least endearing in his madness. 

Play-by-play man Tom McCarthy rounds out the crew, the epitome of on-air "professionalism."  He's upbeat and competent, smart and efficient--yet he barely leaves a mark.  McCarthy is often criticized for being a rosy-eyed homer, which is a problem--no amount of finesse can improve a Blanton meatball--but his biggest deficit is his flatness, his utter lack of affect.  He could as easily sell insurance as describe a double play.  Such critique might seem petty were it not for the importance of the baseball announcer's presence.  Drifting lulls in the action, filled unremarkably, render the game unremarkable.  When they're filled with Moroccan leather, they become the attraction itself.

There will never be another Harry Kalas, but there doesn't necessarily need to be.  As the years pass, his true successor will weave himself into our fabric as ably as Harry had.  That successor may well be Franzke.  I'm aware that a goateed 38-year-old may not seem fit to fill Kalas' wingtips.  But Kalas was once himself an outsider tasked with replacing a titan.  He was soon deemed worthy of Bill Campbell's seat, and forged his own legend besides.  It could very well happen again.  If baseball teaches us anything, it's a forward-thinking patience: the understanding that if you just let the games play out, the best will rise to the top.

 

Jacob Lambert prefers to listen to the Phils on radio from his South Philly home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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