Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Homers, But Honest

Most American boys I know pass through a phase of passionate devotion to some sports team. Most grow out of it; some never do. "American" and "boys" because I haven't talked enough about it to people outside those categories to extend the generalization.

For me, a teenager on the edge of Philly in the early 1970s, it was the Philadelphia Flyers of the National Hockey League. I don't want to get into the whole Broad Street Bullies debate, or whether they degraded the sport (probably, but it was headed that way anyhow and there was more to the team than the goons).

I followed the team, as did most of my peers, mostly on the radio. This seems impossibly quaint now, but that's how it was. I remember playing in a jazz band concert on one of the nights of a Stanley Cup finals game and one of the trombone players smuggling a transistor radio onstage so we could follow the score at very low volume between numbers.

Which meant the Flyers were, for the youthful me, the voice of Gene Hart, the team's indomitable play-calling radio announcer.

He worked for the team. There never was any secret about that. He celebrated their goals with a characteristic call that still brings a smile when I hear anyone imitate it well (Hart died in 1999). But he described the action accurately. He called the goals for the other teams, too, with an equally characteristic, but totally different voice. A quick, crestfallen word, not the euphoric call of the home-team's goal.

If the Flyers were scrambling, or someone made a bad pass, he'd point that out at once. If it cost them a game, he made no bones about it. But you never doubted whose side he was on.

In the '80s, when I was rattling around in the cellars of journalism, having fun and freelancing, I spent a few seasons covering the Flyers and got to watch Gene Hart at close range, and made a passing acquaintance with him. He was a big man -- actually a teacher by profession -- with a voluminous knowledge and fine tastes that he never got to show in the broadcast booth. When he was there, he was not there to spout about opera; he was there to call a hockey game for the team in a blue-collar city for the sake of the fans. He never forgot that.

It won him respect, even, in a sense, from some of the team's most hated enemies. One of the last memories I have of him is when his health problems started to pile up and he actually began to miss games for the first time in two decades. I remember Hart chuckling merrily about a card he'd gotten that read, "Get well soon, you fat sack of shit. Love, Rangers fans."

When I think of my ideal of a journalist, he's actually one of the men who come to mind. Not all the time, but especially in times of crisis or war. I want him to call it straight, tell me when it goes right, when it goes wrong. But I don't ever want to have to spend a lot of time trying to figure out if he and I are rooting for the same side to win.