Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Ernie Harwell

Just like everybody else who grew up a Tigers fan between 1960 and 2002 and who lived within the broadcasting range of the "Golden Tower of the Fisher Building", which reached the whole state of Michigan and large parts of Ohio and Ontario and on a real clear summer night could probably be fuzzily picked up in far-off cities like Pittsburgh and St. Louis, I spent the majority of my summer nights as a kid in my bedroom listening to Ernie Harwell broadcast Tigers games on the radio. I don't want to get overly nostalgic or dramatic about listening to these games as a youth. It's not like I was wearing baseball player pajamas and a comically adorable oversized baseball cap while flipping a baseball in the air and imagining myself hitting grand slam homeruns for the Tigers and then running out to celebrate afterwards over Chicken McNugget Happy Meals with my new best friends Rob Deer, Frank Tanana and Mickey Tettleton. Nor was I turning the volume up on my handheld transistor radio, holding it close to my ear and using Ernie's sweet, comforting Southern voice to take me away to different idyllic ballparks across the country as my parents fought loudly over my Dad losing the rent money down at the horse track. No, and as much as I believe that I accidently stumbled upon an idea for a screenplay for an ABC Family after-school melodrama with the working title "Caught by the kid from Ypsilanti", the truth is I spent most of my summer nights listening to Tigers games on the radio in my bedroom as background music while playing R.B.I. 3 on Nintendo (anything was better than listening to that shrill, grating R.B.I. 3 background music, I feel like if I went to a personal hell where I was tortured by having too much of the things I loved on Earth the R.B.I. 3 music would be playing full blast as Super Macho Man stood laughing over me while flexing his pectoral muscles…but I digress.) and being slightly peeved that my Dad was too cheap to spring the few extra bucks a month it cost to subscribe to PASS.

That year of playing R.B.I. 3 obsessively was 1991, which also happened to be the year that I went from being a kid who collected a few baseball cards and had a passing interest in the Tigers to fully fledged Tigers fanaticism and Ernie had as much to do with that as anyone outside of my Dad and the God amongst common men known as Mr. Tettleton. In 1990, as a six year old I kind of, sort of followed the Tigers. I picked up enough to know that what Cecil Fielder was doing was pretty special, given the fact that my Dad opted to stay in the car and listen to the radio during the final game of the season instead of accompany the family inside Frank's Nursery and Crafts (also if there is a personal hell for things I hated on earth and can't escape in the afterlife, mine would take place at Frank's Nursery and Crafts or Michaels…shudder) and that Brian Sather was hot shit on the playground for owning Fielder's '86 Topps Blue Jays rookie card. During the winter following the'90 season two important things happened that turned me into a Tiger lifer. First was the purchase and obsession with the aforementioned R.B.I. 3 Nintendo game and second was the purchase by my parents of my Uncle Tim's baseball card collection. All of a sudden I was bombarded with thousands of baseball cards from the late 70's and early 80's including the local stars I had heard so much about. I was finally able to put faces and numbers to the names and I was fascinated.

My dad recognized this opportunity to raise a second generation hardcore Tigers fan and exploited this to its fullest advantage. He took me to my first Tiger game early in the '91 season and I was initially skeptical. The big city frightened me, the sights, the sounds, the smell, the throng of people, more people than I had ever seen at any point in my life all moving towards a towering somewhat dingy stadium. I remember stopping on the middle of the overpass that led to Tiger Stadium from where we parked the car and not wanting to go in the stadium. This was not what I had imagined, it was intimidating, the bland aluminum siding, the towering light structures, the sad and rundown area surrounding the stadium. Where was the green field and blue awning, the seats in the upper level that appeared to hang well over the field so close to the action it looked like the fans could touch the players? I was coaxed inside and things were no better, the ceilings seemed short and were dripping, the concourse was wet with what smelled like piss and everything echoed terribly, a very claustrophobic setting for a seven year old kid. (Re-reading this paragraph it's no wonder now why my Dad was worried about me spending so much time inside reading, even at the age of seven I acted like a hermetic cat-lady who spent the past twenty years shut-indoors because she saw a Mexican teenager riding his bike down the street one afternoon and it frightened her.) However once we walked up to our seats and I was first able to glance at the magnificent green field for the first time I was hooked for life. I saw the new catcher Mickey Tettleton crush a homerun and I cheered so wildly and loud that I lost a baby tooth, it seemed like a sign and Mickey Tettleton became my favorite Tiger of all time. I left the stadium thinking the once scary and daunting structure was now the most incredible place on earth and I couldn't wait to come back.

There was no turning back now as I embraced my Tigers madness completely, I started calling my games of R.B.I. 3 in a fake Ernie voice (wait I think we have a new contender for nerdiest sports moment) and did an oral report in third grade about Denny McLain, much to the horror of my teacher Mrs. Marshall. As a substitute for being at the games Ernie and the Tigers became regular fixtures on my radio for the rest of that season. In what may be my nerdiest sports moment in my life (the other contender is when I lied at a Pistons game that I had been assaulted in the bathroom and had my Darko Milicic bobblehead stolen from me in an attempt to procure one. I got a bobblehead but only at the cost of my dignity…fair trade though.) I kept score to the Tigers final game of the '91 season against the Baltimore Orioles while listening to Ernie Harwell and the Voice of God sign off for what many felt was the final time due to the Tigers famously shortsighted and unpopular decision to fire the most beloved man in the whole state of Michigan. Even though I had only had a chance to listen to them for a year I felt like I was losing two close friends and made a lifetime vow to hate Rick Rizzs for as long as he was on the radio. Luckily my hate only had to last for one season as in 1993, new owner Mike Ilitch, did the only thing he would do right for the first twelve years of his ownership and brought Ernie back to the broadcast booth (personal hell update…Randy Smith would have to be involved in some way, shape or fashion).

Now for the eulogizing part of the post and the saddest paragraph I've ever had to write on this website. I never had the pleasure to meet Ernie Harwell, but I have read numerous accounts and met people who were fortunate enough to cross paths with the man and the thing that stands out is their universal acclaim that Ernie was one of the most genuinely nice, gracious and cordial people they had ever had the pleasure to meet. The common thread in all of these stories has been how genuinely excited everyone was to meet Ernie, to just be able to spend a moment of time with the person who was THE VOICE of their summer nights as a kid, and how when they left their encounter with Ernie they felt like the opposite had occurred, that their idol was the one who was thrilled to have met them and to have listened to their stories even though he had probably been told similar stories thousands of times before. It is also admirable how he faced his death with such dignity, no bitterness, no songs of faded glory, just acceptance and pride in the kind of life he had led. There are very few people I can honestly say that I would be happy if I could one day believe I had lived a life half as fulfilling as theirs and Ernie Harwell is one of those people. Like so many people I grew up as a second generation Tigers fan who got to listen to the greatest announcer in the history of baseball. It was a special connection to know that the same guy who was broadcasting Tigers games while my dad was listening to the World Series as a college freshman in 1968 was the same guy who was calling games while I was commuting back and forth to college as a freshman at MSU and listening to the radio in my car. It makes me sad to think that if I have a son one day he won't have the pleasure of hearing Ernie call the games or hear his corny but lovable sayings like "called out for excessive window shopping" or "two for the price of one". As the games became more readily available on television I stopped listening to Ernie on the radio, something I regret very much now and I only tuned in to the last few innings of the final game he would call before his retirement in 2002. Even after it was announced last year that he had terminal cancer and there would be a day at Comerica honoring him, I couldn't bring myself to go. He was someone I always hoped and imagined would be around forever. He wasn't dying, that was unpossible. There was no need to go to this one because I would just come back next year after he had beaten the odds and the Tigers were celebrating his spectacular career again. This was all denial, of course, and when the devastating news came down today of his passing, the reality of it all set in almost immediately. The first person I called, as I'm sure many people across the state did, was my dad to share the news with him. He was incredibly sad to hear Ernie had passed and it led us to a long conversation of all the great baseball memories we shared together and that first Tigers game we attended as father and son. It was a good conversation about something we had not talked about in a long time and a connection all made possible by Ernie.

Thank you, Ernie and may you rest in peace.


Juskimo said...

Very well said.

Go in peace Ernie.

Anonymous said...

a great post, as usual-- just in a different way. thanks for updating.

Host Pay Per Head said...

oh Ernie Harwell was such a honorable man and very committed to his work, I will miss him, he is in a better place now