The Power of Baseball

When we consider “power” in baseball, it usually involves a Ruthian swing and that special sound off the bat. Or it could mean a sizzling fastball nearing triple digits that pounds the catcher’s mitt. The power I’m thinking of is much more understated, more subtle, and plays out over time.

I wanted to treat my father-in-law to baseball, which he loved all his life. What I didn’t count on when we got to our seats for the first time were the folks surrounding us just beyond first base at the Harrisburg Senators ballpark on City Island. We all became fast friends. After a season or two, we became more like a family — a family brought together through the power of baseball.

What became “our section” was lost to the park upgrades a decade ago or more. However, our group of fans became so close that we all decided we wanted to move to the same new section so we could continue to sit together.

One of those fans was Barb Thomas. Although “fanatic” isn’t strong enough a word to describe Barb’s love for the Senators.

I mean, who else remains in her seat through blistering cold winds, torrential downpours, and searing heat? Who else, upon retirement, drives to Spring Training and stays at the players’ hotel for a month? Who else has been to every Eastern League ballpark multiple times … including some no longer used by Eastern League teams?

She even hosted a player in her home. That player and his wife kept in touch with Barb since that unique season. And, yes, Barb was there for Milton Bradley’s rainy walk-off grand slam to bring a fourth consecutive EL championship to Harrisburg in 1999.

Barb wasn’t at the game to predict a 3-2 slider or second guess a decision. Barb loved the Senators as people. She cheered their successes and offered standing ovations for home runs and victories.

More so, Barb became everyone’s friend. Staunchly independent, Barb could make everyone feel welcome in any situation. She got to know many of those players during spring training. She became friends with a Washington Nationals usher and visited with her whenever we took in a game at Nats Park.

Barb had a smile for everyone. She always reminded me of the Colonel Potter line from M*A*S*H: Barb had a drawer full of them. And she was great at letting you borrow one whenever you needed it.

Her soft-spoken demeanor never changed. In the two decades I knew Barb, she never raised her voice nor spoke negatively about anyone.

I could show up at the ballpark stressed over a project or traffic, and Barb could easily make me forget about whatever it was. She had the same calming effect over Senators Fan Club business. I would pick up Barb to attend a meeting with a thousand loose ends on my mind. By the time we arrived, everything seemed better.

Over the years, Barb became a regular guest at our home whenever Mindy made spaghetti, Barb’s favorite dinner. She would always arrive in a red top (very practical) with a bouquet of flowers for the table (very appreciative).

She also became a regular at our family birthdays, holidays (whenever she wasn’t visiting her family), ABC Mug Club events, and sometimes just a relaxing dinner with friends.

Barb’s social calendar never seemed to pump the brakes. She enjoyed bus trips, former work friends, family events in Pittsburgh, Penn State home games, and Senators road series to the far reaches of the Eastern League. Barb would cheerfully participate wherever her calendar took her.

That was the way Barb was. She could brighten any situation without any effort. That was just her nature.

Section 105 isn’t the same without Barb. She was so woven into our baseball and friendship landscape that we weren’t ready to let go. I’m thankful that we’ve gotten to know her family and that we have so many fond memories. As Barb would have wanted, we laughed much more than shed tears at her visitation.

As we toasted an empty pint glass at last Monday’s Mug Club gathering, here’s to you, Barb. Through the power of the baseball diamond, thank you for letting us into your circle.

Less Than 30 Minutes

Once upon a time a young broadcaster is hired as a member of the team to take an automated FM station (licensed to Harrisburg) live for the first time. He now needs a place to live that’s close by.

Someone else on that new on-air staff informs the young man that an air personality from another Harrisburg station is seeking a new roommate. (His former roomie left the area for a radio gig in another state.)

That air personality is 29-year-old Chris Andree from WKBO. I’m that immature 20-year-old, yet had already pulled shifts on four different stations.

We meet for the first time in the parking lot of Rock 99 in Wormleysburg. As we talk for less than 30 minutes in Andree’s car, we decide to sign a lease together on a townhouse right down the hill on Third Street.

First of all, that’s a commute to make anyone envious. Secondly and much more importantly, that’s how friendly Andree is.

That quality comes across on the air in the Harrisburg market for more than 40 years. It also creates an unmatched continuity and fun feeling during his 15 year stint as the Harrisburg Senators PA announcer.

We share a townhouse for two years before I take a position at Q106 and rent a house south of York. But the broadcasting community is close-knit. Andree and I see each other occasionally at area events and just to get together.

Fast-forward a few years. I’m hired as program director to take 97.3 FM live for the first time. I’ll handle afternoon drive. The midday shift will be covered by a current employee.

Who can we hire for morning drive and to help me with music? Andree agrees to bring his passion for music and enthusiasm behind the mic to Broadcast Center!

My contract ends after three years. New management doesn’t renew it. However, Andree continues to thrive through several position, format, management and even ownership changes into 2017.

He also continues to make his mark on the Harrisburg market through regional commercial production and ABC-27 News bumpers. And, of course, the magic he creates during Senators games. Since the millennium no voice has been heard more in this area.

During games we text each other suggesting clever walk-up music for opposing batters. We meet after games and continue to share in each others’ lives. The same Andree smile. The same signature, “Yeah.”

We attend out-of-town baseball games together: Reading, Philly, DC. I see my only NBA game ever … with Andree. Andree meets me downtown at the Harrisburg Brewfest last June.

That same month I schedule our mutual friend Dan Steele as guest speaker to the Senators Fan Club. Andree shows up. Dan hired Andree away from his hometown radio station in Bellefonte 42 years earlier. We all enjoy dinner and laugh over radio and baseball memories after the meeting adjourns.

I receive a call from Dan two weeks later on July 4th. Not a happy holiday call, but a shocking Andree-has-big-health-related-challenges-ahead-of-him call.

I get to play one-hit-wonder music trivia with Andree around his birthday. He beats Todd Matthews and me a number of times by quickly naming an artist after Randy Whitaker calls out a title.

The same Andree smile. The same passion for music. They’re still there.

Three months later there’s suddenly worse health news.

Two weeks later I’m notified that Andree’s fight has ended.

No more smile.

When I was very young and very immature, I still knew within 30 minutes that I not only was compatible with Andree, but that I’d found a lifelong friend.

Dan brilliantly conducts the Harrisburg Senators tribute to Andree at FNB Field. Surrounded by his family, his friends, the broadcasting community, the Senators front office, his favorite music over the PA and great photos on the big screen, I can see that Andree affected more than just me within the first 30 minutes of meeting him.

That was reiterated at his memorial service in Bellefonte yesterday. Andree is still radiating positively … just as he did to his listeners over several decades behind the mic. In fact you can still enjoy hearing his unmistakable voice on recorded messages prior to any Senators home game. I have to smile every time I hear them.