Thursday, September 17, 2009

Harwell's influence will still thrive in Michigan

by Jon Paul Morosi

DETROIT - Ernie Harwell is 91 years old. He has an incurable form of cancer. He knows that he will leave us soon.

And yet there he was Wednesday night, arms thrust into the air as he walked onto the field, face glowing with a smile, an entire ballpark cheering and crying for him.

For a moment, he didn't appear sick at all.

"It's a wonderful night for me," he said. "I really feel lucky to be here. And I want to thank you."

More applause. More tears. More emotional than any of us imagined.

Harwell came to Comerica Park, perhaps for the final time, to thank the fans. But I think we needed this more than he did. And by "we," I mean anyone who grew up in Michigan listening to his Tigers broadcasts, anyone fortunate enough to call him a friend, anyone whose ear has turned toward the sound of That Voice.

Harwell's tenure with the Tigers spanned more than 40 years, he's in the Hall of Fame, and that doesn't begin to describe why this night was so special, so essential, so unique. It's been seven years since his final game as the team's play-by-play man, and I believe he would outrank most (if not all) of the active roster in a popularity poll among people in this state.

If Walter Cronkite was the Most Trusted Man in America, Ernie Harwell has been the Most Trusted Man in Michigan for the better part of five decades. When he said something on the air — whether it was about Alan Trammell or health insurance — you took it as gospel.

"I heard him broadcast Baltimore games when I was in Little League in Pennsylvania," said Jim Price, 67, the former Tigers catcher and current radio broadcaster. "Then he broadcast my games. Then I worked with him in television and was his last on-air broadcast partner in radio.

"We had such a great time. ... He's always in a good mood. The best thing about Ernie is he's everybody's best friend. He really is."

Harwell has said he has a year to live, maybe less. When he thanked the local media for their support before the game — "It's wonderful to see so many friends here, so many smiling faces" — he also acknowledged to feeling "a little shaky." We're being reminded that the voice behind so many fond memories is a mortal one.

Time may be short, and there certainly isn't enough of it for every well-wisher. So, we had Wednesday's celebration, a collective hug and almost-goodbye. The crowd was 5,000 fans larger than it was the night before — and not because of the pennant race.

Harwell has had a great life, made greater by the fact that he's never taken it for granted. As he told the crowd: "The Lord has blessed me with a great journey."

"If we're all at peace with ourselves as much as he is," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, "that's pretty good."

A familiar feature of Harwell's broadcasts came when foul balls disappeared into the stands. He would say, "A fan from Marquette" — or another out-of-the-way place — "will take that one home."

When I was a kid, I wondered how Ernie knew the hometown of every person at Tiger Stadium. Eventually, I realized that this was a way of acknowledging that the team's fan base spread far away from Detroit, that many Tigers fans weren't able to see the team play in person more than once each year.

I was one of them. I grew up in Bay City, about two hours north of Detroit. The Tigers weren't very good for most my childhood, so I was probably more attached to Ernie than anyone on the field. If the team wasn't going to win, at least I could rely on the voice from Georgia that told me about Ti-guh baseball.

I finally met him in 2002, his final year as the team's broadcaster. I remember being awestruck, in a way that journalists are trained not to be. But I couldn't help it. Wow. Ernie Harwell just said my name and shook my hand. I think I called my mom.

And it's funny: My current job requires me to converse with All-Star players and well-known figures, and I've never felt as overwhelmed after meeting someone as I did that day.

I'm honored to say that Ernie has become a friend of mine in the years since, granting me membership in a club that is neither small nor exclusive. I hang up after our conversations in disbelief, that a voice heard by millions was suddenly in the earpiece of my very own telephone.

So, yes, I felt the stitch in my throat, too, on Wednesday night, along with everyone else at the ballpark. But we didn't come to mourn prematurely. We didn't come to soak in our sorrows over a great man's grave diagnosis.

We came to thank him, as he thanked us. We came because we wanted to hear that voice, and see that smile, one more time. He didn't disappoint. He never has. He never will.


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