When I turned on my computer this morning to ESPN.com, I saw a head line that brought a tear to my eye. As I read the article, the tear slipped out of my eye and down my right cheek. I wiped it away with my thumb but the emotion, the sadness remained. The last time I remember shedding a tear and it having anything to do with sports was in 1993 (but that's a story for another time). This time, I wasn't shedding any tears for my team losing or even a player that I idolized passing away. This had nothing to do with a player. But this had everything to do with baseball.
It was late Spring, 1999. I was in my first season in the front office of the Detroit Tigers. I was 24, very green and unbelievably wet behind the ears. I was still awe struck anytime I met a player or anyone famous that worked for the team at the time. So, when my boss asked if anyone wanted to help out the Tigers' radio guys during a game, I volunteered faster than Usain Bolt runs the 100 yard dash. An opportunity to work in the Press Box for a game with Jim Price and Ernie Harwell? Don't mind if I do!
When I got up to the booth, Price, an ex big-league catcher, was less than friendly. He certainly has more charisma than Kirk Gibson, but then again, so does a sloth. But meeting Price and hanging around him was not the highlight of my night. Not even close. Shortly after I set up the radio booth with the requisite visiting team stats, an elderly gentleman walked into the room. He looked like a grandfather. He was unassuming and polite. He took off his cap, smiled and shook my hand as if it were me who was the celebrity in the room. "Hi, I'm Ernie Harwell. Pleasure to meet you." "Yeah, I know," I responded softly. "It's an honor, sir." He laughed, "You're honored to meet an old man? You need to get out more." And that's how the night went. While Price was busy sulking and being crotchety, Harwell and I exchanged barbs and laughed for 3 hours during a Tigers - White Sox game. It just as easily could have been me and my grandfather. It was that comfortable. A kid he'd never met before that night, some punk who sold tickets in the Tigers front office and was running stats for him that night, he opened up to; he chatted with, like we were old buddies that had known each other 20 years. When the game ended, Harwell and I left the booth, still laughing uncontrollably. He patted me on my back, shook my hand and off I went. Off I went, with a memory forever etched into my head of that night. An 81-year old hall of fame broadcaster treated me like family for three hours. Turns out, Harwell is just as famous for his treatment of others as he is for his work on the mic.
Harwell has a very distinguishable voice. It's very soothing. He is one of the few broadcasters that you can listen to on the radio and fully enjoy the game. I know countless Detroiters who will watch a Tigers game on mute and turn up their radio to hear Harwell call the game. He's iconic in that regard. He is also one of a very few broadcasters who work for a team (and not a national channel), but is known throughout the country. The other of course, is Vin Scully (who actually did broadcast nationally for a time when I was a kid). The rest of the great baseball voices have passed on - Harry Caray, Phil Rizzuto, Jack Buck. Today's announcers don't get it. They try to make themselves a part of the game. That's not their job. Their job is to tell a story. They are there to describe the game to us and then stay out of the way and let us enjoy the game. But the arrogance of most of today's broadcasters gets in the way. The proverbial apple fell so far from Jack Buck's tree, that I often wonder if Joe Buck is adopted. I miss great announcing. I miss listening to a great voice tell a great story....without interjecting themselves into it. Harwell did that, masterfully.
Ernie Harwell is a great man, with a great passion for the game, a great voice to tell the story and always told the story in a great way. And his love of people is what made him a great man. I believe that God put him in the spotlight to give him the ability to touch thousands of people...myself included. Ask anyone living in the Detroit area and they will tell you - Ernie Harwell is Detroit Baseball. He spent 31 years covering Tigers baseball at the Corner of Michigan and Trumbull. He spent another three seasons with the team at Comerica Park, before retiring. All told, he spent 42 years broadcasting.
The tears I shed this morning were because ESPN's headline read: Hall of Famer Harwell has incurable cancer. He's 91 years old. He's led a great life. But it didn't make the news any less sad that a revered man like Harwell probably has a year or less to live and there's nothing he or the doctor's can do about it.
Harwell is a one of a kind gentleman. The Tigers once tried to put him out to pasture, but the fans revolted, and in time, the Tigers wisely brought him back. And now cancer is trying to take his life. I don't know if all the fans' voices will make a difference this time. But if this disease was curable simply by all the lives that he touched all banding together, then Harwell would beat this thing without missing a beat. Sadly, that's not the case. And sometime in the not too distant future, I will probably open ESPN.com and shed some more tears for a great man.