Tuesday, May 4, 2010

"Listen to that voice, man, That's baseball." - Joe Buck

As you may have heard, beloved long time Tigers radio announcer Ernie Harwell passed away today at the age of 92. Although I never met him in person, I feel he was just as much a part of my family and childhood as my immediate family. His passing today was like loosing my Grandfather all over again.

I wrote this piece last fall after attending the Ernie Harwell farewell game at Comerica Park. It was the first time I wept openly at a ball park... The tears are back today...

We will miss you Ernie... our lives and histories are a much better place because the memories you made are in them. Bill Freehan said it best, "Ernie Harwell stands, as much as anybody as I can think of, as a positive representative of what the game of baseball should and does stand for. His memory will be long lasting and the quality of man he is will never diminish."

“He’s out for excessive window shopping – looked at one too many”
Should I stay or should I go? I had a rough day at work on Wednesday. My entire morning and half the afternoon was spent debating in my head whether I should go down to Comerica Park that night to see my Tigers take on the Royals, and see Ernie Harwell’s Thank You speech in person or, should I go home and watch it on TV? On one hand, like most Americans, I have bills to pay and my need for frivolous spending on baseball tickets tends to get me in a bit of trouble at times. But on the other hand, Ernie was an old friend who I thought would have enjoyed seeing me there at the park. I had things to do at home, but I would probably end up regretting the fact that I didn’t go later on in life. How many times do you get the opportunity in life to say Thank You to an old friend? The decision was made, responsibilities aside – I had to go see Ernie. Besides, if you are gong to be out and celebrate, cry, smile and cheer for the voice of many generations – you might as well do it amongst your kind of people – not at home with your cat.

“It’s two for the price of one for the Tigers”
Wednesday night was a beautiful night, 66 degrees at game time 7:05 pm. There was a slight breeze and the sun was starting to set on the right field side of the park. The Tigers were paying tribute at the park that night to all the local WWII vets as well as Mr. Ernie Harwell. Pregame show would have made any red blooded American tear up a little bit – there was a small bugle corp. that played echo taps, the color guard for each branch of our armed forces and then there was the traditional National Anthem – complete with a WWII B-17 bomber fly over at the finale. Sitting in the stands, you knew that it was going to be a perfect night. You knew that all was right with the world at that point in time. You were sure that the future was bright, and Ernie hadn’t even spoken to the crowd yet. Ernie’s voice had the knack of making you feel comfortable regardless of what you were doing. As long as his southern Georgia drawl was coming thru the airwaves, every listener had a common calmness to them as they listened to Ernie replay the game magic that was unfolding in front of him. Ernie’s voice always had a way of making you feel safe regardless of where you were and what you were doing, but today was possibly the last time we would hear the comforting voice of our old friend Ernie publically.

“The Tigers are looking for instant runs”
Ernie and I have never met in person, but in a way, he was like family. My childhood was spent listening to Ernie on the radio in my mom’s kitchen in the summer while we made cinnamon rolls for Sunday morning breakfast. Or we were getting summer fruits ready to go into the freezer to have later in the winter (Traverse City cherries were a messy and tedious to prepare for freezing but oh so worth it in January). Ernie was right there in the kitchen along with me and my mom and numerous other siblings. His voice told us the story each night of Trammell, Sweet Sweet Lou, Gibson, Fryman, Fielder and Tettleton. My younger sister had a thing for Tettleton…

My mother and I always thought that my late grandfather looked a lot like Ernie. We told him this… but unlike Ernie, my grandfather was not a talker. He would just simply shrug and smile. My grandmother on the other hand, would deny there was any resemblance. She would adamantly deny the resemblance… but in a way, I think she was proud that her husband bore a resemblance to such a genuine, honest and comforting man. I liked to hear grandpa talk, it was rare that he did, but when he did it was profound. Ernie was the same way. He had his euphemisms that everyone knew. He had his catch phrases, his syllable exaggerations that were unmistakably his. No one could say “Ti-guhs” quite like Ernie…

“He took his cut, now he takes his seat”
I stood there listening to Ernie talk in the middle of the 3rd inning, wiping away tears with the Comerica park patterned napkin I swiped from the concession stand (I was prepared for this), I realized something that I had though of but it hadn’t quite hit me till then. Ernie’s goodbye speech was not only a goodbye and thank you to us his fans; it was a goodbye to my youth. I reflected a bit sitting in the lower front of the 3rd deck (great overhead view) and realized that pretty much everything that I had tangible memories of from my youth were gone. Building and places in my home town had changed, friends had changed, family had changed, living arrangements had changed, jobs had changed, traditions had changed and now Ernie Harwell was prompting change as well. Ernie Harwell had been a constant , reliable source of entertainment thru my youth and now he was officially leaving. Of course Ernie had been gone from broadcasting since 2002 but in my head I always thought that he would come back, and occasionally he did. But this was the curtain call, the last hurrah. And just like my childhood and youth – Wednesday was the final bow. Or perhaps this was Ernie’s delicate way of telling me to grow up and deal with it. We all get older; some of us do it more gracefully than others…

“They are having a confab on the mound”
You Tiger fans are the greatest fans of them all,” he finished. “Thank you for your support, your loyalty and your love.” Ernie said to us on Wednesday night. But we really should have been thanking him. Thanking him for the love he showed by coming to the park every day to give us our baseball fix. Thanking him for the loyalty of being with one team, our team, for 42 years. Thanking him for his love of the game and community that he passed on to everyone who he came in contact with. Thanking him for being our audible rock. Life may have been tough, things might not have been going according to plan, but Ernie Harwell would be there for you every day during the baseball season at 1:05 or 7:05 to let you in on his view to the game. He was constant, predictable and inviting.

“So come on down to the Corner of Michigan and Trumbull”
Earlier this year, Detroit Tigers fans across the world lost one of their most treasured landmarks with the demolition of Tiger Stadium at the Corner of Michigan and Trumbull. Being that Ernie coined the term “The Corner at Michigan and Trumbull” so it seemed dually depressing that now they would both be leaving me. At first, I reflected on Ernie’s desire to come down to Comerica Park as another form of goodbye. I have already said enough goodbyes this year with the final hopes for the preservation of Tiger Stadium being shot down by the corrupt talking heads in Detroit. I couldn’t stand to say goodbye to another part of my past, another part of my future not to be, another memory. But unlike Tiger Stadium, it was Ernie’s wish to say Thank You to his fans and community, Tiger Stadium didn’t get that opportunity. Ernie wasn’t saying goodbye, in a way; he was just proving to us that we all would do just fine without him. He gave us what we needed when we needed it. He taught and demonstrated to us his humanity, his class, dignity and style. He made us realize that good people do exist and they do good things… and good things do happen to good people. But Ernie has taught us all he could and now it was our turn to carry on the message.

“That ball is loooooooong gone…”
Ernie isn’t gone yet. I think that is why Wednesday night was so special. How often have you heard the story of the person who didn’t say something to a loved one, then they were gone and it was too late. Ernie wasn’t going to let that happen. Ernie wanted to come back and tell all his friends one more time that he appreciates us as much as we appreciate and love him. Ernie got to say his peace, but on a larger scale, he let us say ours. Ernie gave us a chance to say what we needed to say, to gather as a community of Tigers fans and cheer, weep and above all remember our happy times, remember our childhoods, the happy time, the sad times together as a community. This camaraderie was necessary and although we all hate to think what our lives would be like without Ernie. We knew that we could make it without him, as long as we Tigers fans stuck together. Ernie Harwell gave us our common bond and a source of conversation for years to come. As Ernie walked off the field, waving to all of us enthusiastically, the organ at Comerica Park played “put on a happy face”. Why? Because that is what Ernie would have wanted – a crowd full of happy, appreciative faces.

“There’s a souvenir for the little girl from…Charlevoix”
No Ernie, you are our souvenir, a souvenir of a city, a souvenir of a state. But Ernie was not just a man of Detroit and Michigan, he was a man for all people and he represented the good in humanity. With deepest gratitude – I thank you, for being a friend, companion and role model. And as you started off every home opener you broadcast to us masses, I leave you with this:
For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”

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