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The Voice of My Childhood Is Hall-of-Fame-Bound

8 December 2010

A thousand plagues of locusts couldn’t wipe the smile off my face today. Not after the news that Dave Van Horne, the voice of the Montreal Expos for the first 32 years of their existence and the radio voice of the Florida Marlins for a decade since, is headed to the Hall of Fame:

Dave Van Horne, who has spent the last 42 years calling Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins games, was named the 2011 recipient of the Ford C. Frick Award by the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Van Horne was an Expos radio and television announcer from their inaugural 1969 season until he moved to Florida for the 2001 season. The Marlins were the opponent for the Expos’ final game in Montreal in 2004, giving Van Horne the opportunity to call the first and last games for the franchise there.

Even people with mere passing knowledge of my Expos mania know about my love for the great Tim Raines, and the tireless campaign launched by Tom Tango and carried out by myself and other true believers, to back Rock’s case for the Hall of Fame. Players like Raines and Andre Dawson and Gary Carter and Larry Walker and Pedro Martinez and Vladimir Guerrero are the reason you hoard whatever money you’ve scraped together from your weekend burger flipping to go to the ballpark. They’re the protagonists on your TV, the ones whose jerseys you buy and whose stats you can recite by rote.

But a player’s ability – even a superstar player’s ability – is fleeting. Even an old warhorse like Raines, who gave 23 years of his life to the major leagues, battling through substance abuse, collusion and a debilitating case of lupus, will eventually hang up his spikes. He’s far more likely to leave your favorite team for any number of reasons long before that ever happens.

Not so for the men behind the microphone. Think of Dodgers fans and their relationship with Vin Scully. Tigers fans and Ernie Harwell. Phillies fans and Harry Kalas. Scully called Jackie Robinson’s games. And Duke Snider’s. Sandy Koufax’s no-hitters and Fernando Valenzuela’s unforgettable rookie season (though Rock should have won in ’81, just sayin’). He’s still with us, telling Matt Kemp stories, seamlessly flipping through eras to recount an Eric Gagne or Don Drysdale anecdote when the mood strikes him. Men like Scully, Harwell and Kalas fill multiple roles for fans. They’re team historians, time travelers, narrators, and eventually cherished friends – even if you never get the pleasure to shake their hand.

This was my relationship with Dave Van Horne. For as long as I can remember, I had a little radio by my bed. Nearly every night from age 8 through the end of high school, the voice coming out of that radio belonged to Dave. He called the game like a master, showing just the right amount of excitement when a big play happened (take note, Joe Buck) and the right amount of healthy skepticism when a player, manager, umpire or anyone else failed in their duties. He was exciting and informative all at once, the perfect blend for a play-by-play man. Dave’s voice carried with it the nightly rhythms of the season, his measured pace carrying me off to sleep even as the Expos toiled deep into the night at Candlestick or Jack Murphy. As hard as it is to do catchphrases well, Dave’s were seamless and comforting, like the warm blanket I slid over my shoulders on a cold Montreal April night. “Hi again, everybody. Glad to have you aboard for this game,” he’d say at the start of every telecast. Dave wasn’t just describing the action. He was inviting us into the booth to sit with him for a few hours, even when he was 2,000 miles away.

As I’ve recounted many times in the past, my grandfathers were my early conduits into baseball. My Papa Max would sit me down on his chesterfield and explain the nuances of the game, which often consisted of choice swear words for “The Woodchopper,” light-hitting Expos second baseman Rodney Scott. Papa Alec would take me on the Metro to the Big O as often as he could. He knew I couldn’t get enough of baseball, not just the games themselves, but all the surrounding sights and sounds. It makes me sad to think that MLB will never again have a bilingual public address announcer. It makes me sadder that my Papas are no longer with us, unable to play with my children and teach them about the game’s new Woodchoppers, even if the Expos no longer exist.

But after 42 years calling major league games, the kid from Easton, Pennsylvania is still with us, as strong and accomplished and brilliant and comforting as ever, the link between the present and those days as a kid following baseball with my Papas.

A couple years into Dave’s new gig with the Marlins, I found myself in Miami for the night. My friend Boog Sciambi, Dave’s broadcast partner at the time, invited me up to say hi and chat with Dave. Not just me. Bring the wife up to the booth, and your buddy Andrew too, the one who like me considered Dave the voice of his childhood. We got up there, expecting a quick handshake and a “Gotta work now, thanks for coming.” Nope. There we stayed for nine innings, watching and listening to Dave and Boog call the action. Between innings, Dave would sidle over to us. He’d tell stories from the old days in Montreal, talk about baseball, talk about life.

A couple innings in, he turned to me and said, “Can I show you something?” Dave reached into his wallet and pulled out a laminated index card. On it was the entire 25-man roster of the 1994 Expos.

This was nearly a decade later. Dave had watched the core of that great team get stripped away. Worse, the Expos’ status had eroded so badly in the years that followed that the team ended up without an English-language radio or TV deal for 2001, which prompted Dave to pick up and move – after 32 years in the same job, living in the same place, having married a French-Canadian girl, learned as many key phrases as he could pick up, and absorbed all of the traits that made Montreal unique. Yet here he was, a world away from la belle province, beaming as he talked about the greatness of Alou and Walker and Pedro, plus Randy Milligan’s timely hits, and the underappreciated contributions of Tim Scott, Gil Heredia and the rest of that lights-out bullpen. If there’s such thing as being a fan of the team you cover, but not a homer, Dave was it.

And yet, none of that – not the childhood memories, not Dave’s friendly hospitality or his fondness for Lenny Webster – none of that is what makes me happiest to see him earn his rightful place in Cooperstown. That honor belongs to the first time I ever met Dave, 14 years ago, the same weekend that came to be known as “The Cincinnati Incident.”

That weekend, my buddies and I had made the long drive to see the Expos play the Reds at Riverfront Stadium. Still in college, we were prolific drinkers and shit disturbers, bereft of any social skills. The first night there, we found out where the Expos were staying. Emboldened by more than a few beers, we sauntered into the hotel lobby, and found half the team throwing down cold ones. Only we didn’t go up to any of the players. Our natural instincts pulled us over to Dave Van Horne, engaged in a friendly conversation with Expos pitching coach Joe Kerrigan. Here were six 21-year-old lunatics from Montreal, drunk and uninvited, about to interrupt his conversation. He could have blown us off. He should have blown us off. Instead…

Me: “Ummm…uhhh….(burp)…HI! We’re ummm…from Montreal, and we drove down here to see the Expos. We ummm…we’re big fans!”

Dave: “Gentlemen, so happy to see you here!”

We all introduced ourselves. After politely excusing himself from his chat with Kerrigan, Dave spent a good 10 minutes asking us how our trip was going (we’d been to other games in other cities before going to Cincy), which players were our favorites, and more. We asked him what he thought of the team’s chances that year (Dave thought the ‘Spos had a great chance – three months later he’d be vindicated, as the post-fire sale Expos went down to the final weekend of the season before narrowly missing the playoffs).

We were nobodies. Worse than nobodies. Drunk, rude, irritating kids, the kind of people that anyone else would have brushed off.

Not Dave. Not the voice of my childhood. Not one of the nicest men I’ve ever met. Not one of the most deserving inductees the Hall of Fame has ever invited in.

Congratulations, Dave. We salute you.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. ejb514416905 permalink
    8 December 2010 11:04 pm

    Nice tribute Mr.Keri

    Happy to seeDVH win this honour. Like you I enjoyed listening and watching him; His work with Duke Snider was his best.
    A lot to deal with on such a historic day; the HOF, John Lennon’s death and my 43rd birthday(cant forget the Lizard Kings birthday also).

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