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Ernie Harwell, One Day At A Time

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There's a very sentimental reason this column features Ernie Harwell's name, and it's not just because the pun would fall flat without it. (That's, like, 10 percent of the reason.) Before the Internet, the storyteller of the Detroit Tigers was a diminutive man whose voice was anything but. Even after his retirement in 2003, Harwell's words turn the heads of Tigers fans.

The news of Harwell's inoperable pancreatic cancer earlier this month was sad, but it appeared the only one in Tigertown not shedding tears was the man who the diagnosis will affect the most. Maybe I can't blame him. After all, he's 91 and seems to have no regrets. He will visit the stadium before the Tigers try not to lose by 10 to play the Kansas City Royals tonight, where he will thank the fans and the team, an agenda he absolutely has backwards. It's likely that he's doing this because when the 25th anniversary of the 1984 World Series team is honored in a couple weeks, Harwell declined to appear with the team, perhaps because he didn't want his illness to detract from those players.

What Harwell embodies and symbolizes is perhaps the greatest life message for anybody, not just those in Michigan battling to retain hope and prosperity. He once said, "baseball is a lot like life. It's a day-to-day existence, full of ups and downs. You make the most of your opportunities in baseball as you do in life."

One day at a time. You really can't approach life faster than that, unless you're Dr. Sam Beckett. Harwell didn't become the voice of the Tigers based solely on a single call, or any particular game. He just showed up to work every day. This is why he's considered one of the greatest, much like Cal Ripken, Jr.

Okay, there was one particular moment that stood out for me. A few years ago, Harwell visited the ESPN press box with Jon Miller and Joe Morgan for a couple innings of a Tigers game they were broadcasting. Even while reminiscing and helping out with the call on the field, the legendary broadcaster was also keeping score. Miller noted something to the effect of how they have people who do that now, and Harwell said (quoting loosely), "Back then we didn't have that luxury."

Back then, baseball games weren't picked apart by two-, sometimes three-men crew. They didn't have a truckload of alert statisticians and producers assisting them with trivia and injury updates. There weren't field reporters and cameramen spotting every managerial emotion and wacky fan. They did, however, have pen and paper. The glory days!

(It may be too late in the season to plan for this, but I would love to see a game called in this fashion before the end of the year. Two men, two mikes. Why not? The team always struts out those impeccable Detroit Stars jerseys once a year, so let's not half-ass the retro days. Throw a sepia filter on the camera lens. Play the piano in the background. Give the production crew a day off, and turn off the text messaging poll questions for a day. See how much of the game is lost.)

By the time I came into existence and started listening to baseball, keeping track of the game was probably a tad easier for the veteran announcer, because it was the '90s. Scoreboards were digital, and they invented these phones that didn't even have a cord! Instead, the difficulty at the time lay with the Tigers starting pitchers making it to the sixth inning. Life may be easier for us today, or with impending nuclear winter and computerized refrigerators, it may be more complicated. But the challenge remains the same for every individual; show up, work, and do it all again tomorrow.

A routine is not necessarily a rut if the pride put into the job is evident by everyone. Mowing the lawn outside the office building may not be as glamorous as calling Tigers games, but if a man mows that lawn for 50 years and retires, people will remember him as "that guy who always made that lawn look good every day" and they will in all likelihood miss him and the impact he had on their lives.

In the ADHD generation, sometimes this lesson is a little hard to remember (What lesson? That was, like, four paragraphs ago!). We all want instant gratification. I want this article to be read by 100,000 people, get 500 comments telling me I'm awesome, and perhaps win some kind of award from it. But tomorrow it will be time to labor over a new topic, squeeze at least 18 play on words into the lede, and make four references to 8-bit video games nobody will understand.

Ernie Harwell was there every day. Sadly, someday soon, that won't be the case. As he phrased it, he's "ready for a new adventure." So I'd like to think he has the sense of humor to appreciate the phrase "Long Gone! But Never Forgotten" when his time comes. If you think that's cruel, it's nothing compared to death being the reward for showing up every day.

Of course, we're getting ahead of ourselves. Odds are there are many more days before Harwell's death, which means he — like the rest of us — will live out each day, because that's pretty much all anyone can do.

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About Suss

  • twentypawspub

    For those of you who were unable to attend Mitch Albom’s book release (Have a Little Faith) event at the Fox, here is a great video of Mitch’s interview with Ernie Harwell. I swear, that voice is one-of-a-kind. If we were playing “Name That Tune” I think most of us could name Ernie Harwell’s voice in one note!

    Harwell fans, you’ll love this!


  • Tony

    Oh, and I totally got a Brian’s Song, Ray Consella playing catch with his dad, lump in my throat during his speach. I’ll admit it.

  • Tony

    I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Harwell after his retirement. He lived in the same retirement community as my grandmother. One day, he was just passing through the lobby and I figured I would say hello, shake his hand, and be on with it. But Mr. Harwell was one of the nicest, most gracious men I ever met. He talked baseball with me, never seemed impatient, and was incredibly personalble. Even though he’s not technically gone yet, Detroit has been missing Ernie for a long time.

    And to all you U of M fans, don’t forget it was Bo who fired him when he was….ha ha ha….GM of the Tigers.

  • I guess you’re known as Suss in these parts, I can live with that, but really I just wanted to say thanks for this. This is a great look at the man and the game, ESPN should be jealous.

    – R.P.M

  • Well put, Suss. Great job.

  • Awww, Suss… it’s not that we don’t get the references. It’s that they’re not funny. Okay, some of them are. Fine, you win, most. Most is my final offer, though. You’re going to have to live with that.