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Tigers legend instilled love of baseball
I idolized him. More recently, I could call him a friend. And to know Ernie Harwell is to understand what idols are supposed to be.
After I learned Tuesday that Ernie had died at 92, I didn’t cue up the recordings of his greatest calls. I didn’t reread his brilliant speech at the Baseball Hall of Fame. The words I thought most about hadn’t been broadcast at all. They were heard by an audience of three, at a restaurant in the Detroit suburbs.
A few years ago, Ernie and his wife, Lulu, invited me to dinner — and said my wife (then fiancée) could come, too. This was a huge deal. My wife is not a baseball fan. But she, like everyone else in Michigan, knew who Ernie Harwell was. Meanwhile, I could not get over the fact that Ernie Harwell wanted to have dinner with me.
My first instinct, of course, was to ask Ernie about Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams and Henry Aaron, the legends he knew and great games he had witnessed. Ernie sensed this — and saved me from myself.
Upon learning that my wife was a pianist, Ernie steered the conversation toward their shared interest in classical music. He asked about the composers she liked best. They talked about their favorite pieces.
Ernie mentioned his interest in writing song lyrics. He even recited a poem. By then, my wife was beaming. I had never been so happy for baseball to be displaced as a topic of conversation.
“Miss Alexis,” he called her, with that soothing Georgia accent of his. She loved that, too.
I can’t remember what I ordered that day. But it might have been my favorite meal of all time.
So when you hear that Ernie Harwell was a better friend, a better humanitarian, a better family man, than he was behind the microphone … well … this is what they are talking about.
He was the celebrity who never acted like one, a lifelong subscriber to the wild notion that we can and should enjoy each of our days. He was a man of unwavering faith, which enabled him to accept a grim diagnosis (incurable bile duct cancer) with such grace.
He prepared us for this last September, when he told the Detroit Free Press that he had less than a year to live. He attended a game at Comerica Park later that month and thanked fans for their loyalty and support. He was at peace.
But for his friends — and I’m sure there are thousands of us — there was a difference between understanding what was about to happen and truly being ready for it.
I suppose we kept vigil by going to ballgames, doing what Ernie no longer could. In one city after another, people would ask me the same thing: Hear anything about Ernie?
Now, we won’t be asked those questions anymore. And it hurts.
“I’m not smiling inside,” Alan Trammell said, using a grin to stifle the tears, “but I think we all know where he’s heading.”
Ernie Harwell in 2002.
By chance, I was at the same stadium as Trammell when the news broke Tuesday night: PNC Park in Pittsburgh, where his Cubs opened a series against the Pirates.
Trammell was the leader of those Tigers teams of the ‘80s and early ‘90s that Ernie described to me, as I listened on the radio in Bay City, Mich.
“He treated everybody the same, whether you’re the president or somebody on the street,” Trammell said. “That’s a quality that not too many people have.
“A lot of people will be mourning, but he didn’t want us to feel that way.”
No, he didn’t. But this would be much easier if Ernie hadn’t been so remarkable.
I stepped away from my press box seat to call my father and grandfather on Tuesday, because, well, I didn’t know what else to do. Without their love of baseball, I wouldn’t be writing this column. I wouldn’t have known Ernie Harwell. And I wouldn’t have seen my wife smile on a night I’ll never forget.
As Dad and I talked Tuesday, I heard a cheer in the background. Ryan Church had hit a two-run homer. The Pirates won, 3-2. Baseball goes on, but it won’t be the same.
Not without our voice.
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